The Jew of Malta was composed around 1590, shortly after the death of the Duke of Guise in 1588, to which the prologue alludes. Its first recorded performance took place on February 26, 1592, by the Lord Strange's Men. Another followed on March 10 of that year. The play was immensely popular, and it was staged by different companies some thirty-six times by June 1596. It was revived several times thereafter until May 1601, after which performance records cease.
The earliest surviving text of the play is the 1633 Quarto. The entrepreneur for the play's revival was Thomas Heywood. This 1633 Quarto forms the basis of the Penguin edition (2003), from which quotations are drawn here. The editors, Frank Romany and Robert Lindsey, argue that Heywood had little reason to interfere with the text, but that several minor anomalies in spelling and style suggest that the surviving version was manipulated by different hands. While the extent of Heywood's revision remains vague at best, it is clear that he added a dedication, prologue, and epilogue in addition to Marlowe's original prologue.
Most modern editions of the play also reprint the prologue and epilogue "spoken at Court" at the time of the revival. The Catholic-Protestant battle in England raged on; Charles I (who reigned 1635-1649) had married a Catholic princess over objections voiced by Parliament and in public opinion. Many felt that Charles I brought the English Church too close to Roman Catholicism, and the conflict was undoubtedly controversial. Given the barely masked anti-Catholic tendencies of The Jew of Malta, then, the apologetic nature of the prologue and epilogue spoken at court make sense. Given that the censor troubled the likes of Ben Jonson, at one point jailing him for co-authoring The Isle of Dogs (1597), no harm could come of asking the sovereign for his patience and indulgence in such words.
The action of Marlowe's play has some resonance with historical facts. Malta was indeed attacked several times by the Ottoman Turks, most notably in 1565, when it withstood a massive siege. The character Selim Caymath probably figures the historical figure Selim, son of SÃ¼leiman the Magnificent (who reigned 1520-1566). As for Barabas, beyond being a biblical figure, he seems to represent the stereotypical image of the medieval Jew. Barabas even projects himself into this stereotype:
As for myself, I walk abroad a-nights
And kill sick people groaning under walls;
Sometimes I go about and poison wells.
And now and then, to cherish Christian thieves,
I am content to lose some of my crowns. (II.iii.177-81)
He is undoubtedly exaggerating, telling tales in order to induce his servant Ithamore to help him commit crimes. Nonetheless, this self-identification fits with the anti-Semitic tendencies of the play.
More precisely, the play is anti-Judaic--and more broadly, it might be anti-religious. Modern racial "anti-Semitism" is somewhat anachronistic when applied to the play, and the Christians' feelings about the Muslim Turks seem somewhat different than their feelings towards the Jews. Moreover, while it might be rash to declare the play as coded against entire religious traditions, anti-Judaic and anti-Catholic tendencies are clearly manifest. Given the Catholic-Protestant strife raging in the background in Marlowe's generation, then, the three religious forces form a curious triangle. Barabas, the Jewish villain who punishes the deserving Catholics, becomes none other than a Protestant hero. Where does Christopher Marlowe, the alleged atheist, stand in all of this-if anywhere?