The Jew of Malta


Barabas the Jew

Barabas is named after Barabbas, the thief and murderer who was released from prison and pardoned from crucifixion in place of Jesus in the Bible (Matthew 27 v. 16–21, 26, Mark 16 v. 7–15). He is described in the play's prologue as "a sound Machiavil" (meaning he is extremely Machiavellian). Like Shakespeare's Shylock—the idea of whom may have been inspired by Barabas—he is open to interpretation as a symbol of anti-Semitism. However, also like Shylock, he occasionally shows evidence of humanity (albeit very rarely).

Barabas begins the play in his counting-house—perhaps already playing on the stereotypical view of Jews being misers. Stripped of all he has for protesting at the Governor of Malta's seizure of the wealth of the country's whole Jewish population to pay off the warring Turks, he develops a murderous streak by, with the help of his slave Ithamore, tricking the Governor's son and his friend into fighting over the affections of his daughter, Abigail. When they both die in a duel, he becomes further incensed when Abigail, horrified at what her father has done, runs away to become a Christian nun. In retribution, Barabas then goes on to poison her along with the whole of the nunnery, strangles an old friar (Barnadine) who tries to make him repent for his sins and then frames another friar (Jacomo) for the first friar's murder. After Ithamore falls in love with a prostitute who conspires with her criminal friend to blackmail and expose him (after Ithamore drunkenly tells them everything his master has done), Barabas poisons all three of them. When he is caught, he drinks "of poppy and cold mandrake juice" so that he will be left for dead, and then plots with the enemy Turks to besiege the city.

When at last Barabas is pronounced governor, he switches sides with the Christians once again. After devising a trap for the Turks' galley slaves and soldiers in which they will all be demolished by gunpowder, he then secures a trap for the Turkish prince himself and his men, hoping to boil them alive in a hidden cauldron. Just at the right moment, however, the former governor emerges and causes Barabas to fall into his own trap. He dies, but not before the Turkish army has indeed been demolished according to his plans, thus delivering the Turkish prince into the hands of the Christians and revealing them to be every bit as scheming and hypocritical as the Jew they had condemned.

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