There is only so much wealth on Malta-and everyone wants it. Much of the play's action therefore revolves around Barabas's fortune. The love of gold permeates the play, infusing a blinding desire in almost every character, especially Barabas, Ferneze, Lodowick, Ithamore, and Bellamira-not to mention the two friars. The Turkish Bashaw Callapine puts the matter succinctly: "The wind that bloweth all the world besides: / Desire of Gold." Barabas's fortune is not limited to gold; in addition to his stores of precious metals and stones, Abigall herself is an important object of desire. Marrying her also would give special access to Barabas's fortune. Lodowick and Barabas accordingly tend to equate the love of Abigall with the love of gold.
Revenge plays were common in the Elizabethan and Jacobean theater (1588-1625), and The Jew of Malta is among them. No offense is greater to Barabas, the Jewish merchant, than the confiscation of his fortune. He therefore sets out to take his vengeance against the governor Ferneze. In the process he kills many innocent individuals-including his own daughter. At the play develops, Barabas seems to take more and more pleasure from the execution of his schemes. The desire for revenge thus spirals rapidly out of control.
Barabas is a self-proclaimed opportunist and schemer. He revels in his own crimes. Ferneze and the friars, on the other hand, pretend to represent the way of the law and the Lord. But it rapidly becomes clear that the so-called authorities in the play are no less Machiavellian or corrupt than Barabas. The friars almost certainly indulge their desires for gold and sex. As for Ferneze and the officers, they often wield their power to justify their selfish ends, even abusing the name of religion for the sake of profit.
In the first act, Ferneze and his officers repeatedly invoke the Bible to express anti-Judaic sentiments, thereby attempting to justify their seizure of Barabas's estate. Given that they are portrayed as hypocritical, it is unclear whether their justifications express deep-seated anti-Judaism. Later in the play, Barabas projects himself into the fantasy stereotype of the much-despised medieval Jew. This projection results once again in an ambiguous reading of the play, in that an anti-Judaic characterization is self-proclaimed by a Jew-all the while being implicitly denied, since his claims about himself are clearly exaggerated.
While the anti-Judaic language is explicit in the play, Marlowe's likely criticism of Christianity is largely implicit. The criticisms themselves sometimes are strong. By portraying the injustices committed by Christians and the hypocrisy of the friars, the play suggests a deep flaw in a religion that does not produce better people. Even so, it is unclear whether all of Christianity or just Catholicism is taken to task in each case. Nevertheless, this criticism comes across so harshly that Thomas Heywood felt the need to add an apologetic prologue and epilogue when the play was revived in 1633 and performed at a royal court that had become increasingly sensitive to Christian strife.
One of Tennessee Williams's characters in Camino Real famously says: "We have to distrust each other. It is our only defense against betrayal." Such a lesson could serve many characters well in The Jew of Malta. One encounters issues of trust and efforts of scheming at every turn of the play, and thus there are plenty of opportunities for betrayal, which becomes common. Barabas largely serves out the betrayals, and he himself is betrayed in various forms at least three times. In this world, trust leads to betrayal; is this a problem of personal ethics, religion, or human nature?
Insiders and Outsiders
A good deal of the play can be seen as a struggle between what is inside and outside, or what is familiar and unfamiliar. While the Jews of Malta are well-accustomed to the land, they consider themselves to be "strangers"-and they are treated as such by Ferneze. The larger framework of the play hinges on the arrival of an outside force that will disrupt Malta's internal peace. When the Turks do manage to invade the island temporarily, it is only with the help of Barabas, who has been thrown outside the city walls. As it turns out, even the Spanish forces never arrive to live in Malta, and the island comes to regain its independence.
The Jew of Malta Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Jew of Malta is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.