The Jew of Malta

The Jew of Malta Summary and Analysis of Act 3

Act 3, Scene 1

The courtesan Bellamira enters, complaining about the lack of suitors ever since Malta closed itself to prepare for the arrival of the Turkish fleet. She remarks that only Pilia-Borza still comes to visit her, whereupon he enters bringing a bag of silver. He has stolen it from Barabas's counting house--and hopes to steal more. Ithamore enters and in one breath remarks on Bellamira's extreme beauty and on the success of his mission to set Mathias and Lodowick against each other.

Act 3, Scene 2

Mathias and Lodowick enter, each having been provoked accordingly by Barabas. The two draw swords and fight. Barabas enters above to goad them on, then leaves the scene when the two fall dead. Ferneze and Katherine arrive to find their respective sons dead. Mourning over the corpses, the two first express their desire to commit suicide, but they then decide to find out who made their sons enemies. After vowing to carry out due revenge, they exit with the bodies.

Act 3, Scene 3

Ithamore revels in the villainy that he has just helped Barabas commit. Abigall enters, and Ithamore gleefully recounts to her how Barabas orchestrated the death of the two young men. Abigall then asks Ithamore to summon one of the friars from the nunnery. Before leaving, Ithamore facetiously asks her whether the nuns engage in "fine sport" with the friars from time to time.

All alone now, Abigall bemoans her father's "hard-hearted" revenge. In his single-minded pursuit of vengeance against Ferneze, Barabas has killed not only Lodowick, but also the entirely innocent Mathias. For Abigall, the death of Mathias strikes her almost as her own death: perceiving that there is "no love on earth," she desires to leave behind the vicissitudes of the world and become a nun. Friar Jacomo arrives and shows surprise at her change of heart, but he admits her once again as a sister. As the two head to the nunnery, Abigall swears to Barabas in an apostrophe: "never shall these lips bewray thy life!"

Act 3, Scene 4

Barabas enters, reading a letter from Abigall that urges him to repent of his sins. Much disturbed by the turn of events, Barabas fears that his daughter knows about his hand in the deaths of Mathias and Lodowick. Ithamore enters to confirm that Abigall sent for the friar herself and voluntarily entered the nunnery. Feeling outraged and betrayed, Barabas adopts Ithamore as his only heir and hatches a plot to poison the sisters-including his daughter.

Ithamore brings a pot of rice into which the Jew mixes a rare, poisonous powder. He then orders Ithamore to take the porridge to the nunnery, promising him great wealth in return for his service. Barabas utters spiteful words towards his daughter. After Ithamore leaves, he declares that he will "pay [Ithamore] with a vengeance" as well.

Act 3, Scene 5

Accompanied by Martin del Bosco, Ferneze once again welcomes the Turkish Bashaws to Malta. Since the time has come for Malta to pay its tribute, Callapine has arrived as the messenger for Calymath. But Ferneze strongly refuses to pay the tribute-and for that matter shall never let any Maltese property be taken by the Turks. Callapine thus leaves with the ominous promise that Calymath will return and destroy Malta for its wrongs. After the Turks leave, Ferneze encourages his men to prepare for war.

Act 3, Scene 6

Friars Jacomo and Barnardine enter in great distress--all the nuns are dying! Abigall enters to make a confession to Friar Barnardine. She admits that she is greatly tormented by her offence against Mathias and Lodowick, as planned by her father. She has written down the details. The friar is greatly vexed, but he assures Abigall that confessions may never be revealed. She passes away. Friar Barnardine expresses regret that she has died a virgin. Friar Jacomo returns to announce the death of all the nuns, and the two set off to bury them. Afterward, Barnardine says, he will confront the Jew about what Abigall has said.


The plot of The Jew of Malta cannot be described sufficiently by using the simple terms of introduction, climax, denouement. The plot consists of several sub-plots woven together, one rising as another falls. Most of them converge here in the third act: Bellamira enters to hint at a story of bribery to come; the tension between Mathias and Lowodick is definitely resolved; Ferneze and Katherine embark on their own quest for revenge; the Turks promise to return with a full army; the nunnery is bereft of nuns; Abigall is no longer the heir of Barabas.

One focal point of the third act is the nunnery. It is where Abigall learns some good things about Christianity, despite the negative insinuations that the nuns and friars engage in illicit sexual relations. Barabas suggests it, and when asking Abigall about the nunnery, Ithamore speaks along the same lines. Note that the allegations can be given credence as acted onstage. When the nuns are dying, for example, Friar Jacomo rushes out to visit "fair Maria" in her lodgings-the actor could speak the line to suggest a lascivious relationship between the two. One also should remember the curious words of Friar Barnardine's upon Abigall's death: "Ay, and [she dies] a virgin, too, that grieves me most." If nuns are supposed to be chaste, why would Barnardine feel grief over Abigall's virginity, unless he thought she would have had opportunities for sex in the nunnery? A more charitable interpretation, however, is that after Abigall has revealed her thwarted love for Mathias, Barnardine feels grief that Abigall never was able to marry him.

Why does Abigall decide to convert to Christianity once again, this time gladly and voluntarily? She explains to Friar Jacomo:

But now experience, purchased with grief,
Has made me see the difference of things.
My sinful soul, alas, hath paced too long
The fatal labyrinth of misbelief,
Far from the Son that gives eternal life! (III.iii.64-68; an alternative edition reads "sun")

The traditional pun on "Son" and "sun" suggests that Abigall believes that she now sees the true light of the Lord's way. This turn of events may seem entirely unexpected, but Abigall claims that experiencing Christianity from within the nunnery has given her a new appreciation for the religion. Still, her first answer was that she converted out of sad experience and personal grief, rather than faith and rational reflection. The sincere confession by the Jew's daughter seems somewhat contrived, though it is not uncommon for conversions to be attributed to reflections on experience.

In fact, in a play full of malicious and hypocritical characters, Abigall may be the morally strongest. She earnestly follows what she perceives as the correct path of life, all the while staying faithful to her father. Until the end, she keeps her promise: "never shall these lips bewray [Barabas's] life." She keeps this promise: it is through writing that she informs Barnardine of her father's crimes--and she does so only under the strict secrecy of confession.

In contrast to Abigall, Barabas has remained entirely unsympathetic. He expresses some regret over her second conversion, as a Jewish father might, but he soon resolves to poison her along with the rest of the nuns, fearing that she has betrayed him--which, after all, to some degree, she has. The gift of poisoned porridge is a gift of death (compare Genesis, where Jacob bribes Esau with porridge in exchange for the latter's birthright). Barabas goes on a killing spree far in excess of what even the usual criminal might do in response to a bad situation. He even turns against Ithamore, who has offered to kill himself if that is what his master desires, without any clear reason for vengeance. It is as though, once he is betrayed by the political leaders of Malta, he sees betrayal everywhere.