The Jew of Malta

The Jew of Malta The Price of Flesh and Beauty

The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice

How much is a person worth? How much does a pound of flesh cost? In The Jew of Malta, Barabas squabbles over the price of slaves based on their physical build, not deigning to pay more than a relatively small amount of money for control over a human life. The practice of slavery, to be sure, dates back to ancient history and has been widespread across the globe. More horrifying, however, is the agreement between the Venetian merchant Antonio and the Jew Shylock in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, whereby a pound of flesh is valued at three thousand ducats. It does not take very much to arrive at this Shylock-Antonio economy from that of Barabas.

Perhaps less troubling but more intriguing is the suggestion that the beauty of an individual-or of one's flesh-can be bought with money. To Barabas, Abigall represents a type of capital, which is also a traditional if patriarchal perspective. In the opening of the second act he exclaims, "O my girl, / My gold, my fortune, my felicity"; and moments later, "O girl, O gold, O beauty, O my bliss" (II.I.46-47, 53). In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock makes a similar exclamation: "My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter! . . . My ducats and my daughter!" (II.viii.15-17). Pelican Shakespeare editor A. R. Braunmuller notes a subtle difference between the two men. Whereas Barabas completely equates his daughter and his gold, Shylock conceives of the two in a slightly more nuanced manner, thus setting them up as "daughter and money rather than daughter as money" (xxxvi).

Whichever the case, the wealthy woman inevitably receives the praise of beauty. Just as Shakespeare's Portia is always the "fair" princess, Lodowick continuously refers to Abigall as a diamond. To a large extent, her value for Lodowick seems to be determined by her fortune as Barabas's daughter. It is true that Mathias has told Lodowick about Abigall's exceeding beauty, but as far as the play unfolds, Lodowick asks the Jew about Abigall with barely masked intentions before he has met her or even seen her. From this point of view, the phrase "love is blind" (incidentally a Shakespearean phrase from The Merchant of Venice) may have a root in Mathias. Abigall is both beautiful and rich, perhaps in the sense of richness as beauty if not also beautiful in her own right.

By the same token, "goods" becomes almost interchangeable with the adjective "good." Braunmuller points to an exchange between Shylock and Bassanio in which it is unclear whether Antonio is a "good man" because he is honorable or because he owns a sufficient amount of money (I.iii.9-17). The same ambiguity applies to "good Barabas" throughout The Jew of Malta. After Barabas has dictated an extensive list of his goods, for example, the two Friars exclaim, "O good Barabas, come to our house!" and "O no, good Barabas, come to our house!" in competing voices (IV.i.81-82). Unlike Antonio, of course, Barabas is clearly not a "good man" in any sense of the term except with the pun "goodly man." But in a mercantile world, a man with goods is a good man-ever more so if the characters involved are corrupt and insofar as one's money is desired by others.

In both The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice, then, the high ground of morality and beauty is hard to reach. Such terms as "good" or "beautiful" are not in question because of vague definitions but because it is hard to disentangle true desire for the good or the beautiful from desire for gold. There is a constant threat of debasing what is noble by giving it a market price-like, sadly, a slave, or a pound of flesh. When we see questions about how much a person is worth, we should be suspicious about who is asking and why.