Christopher Marlowe’s enigmatic play ‘The Jew of Malta’

[Many thanks to Eli, who graciously offered to compose this write-up of the April meeting in my absence. Tony’s opening essay is available in the left margin of this page as usual. -Jeffrey]

marloweThe men of Athenaeum met once again at Radio Coffee & Beer to discuss the merits of Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta. The first and unavoidable observation made by most is that Marlowe is no Shakespeare. The point was made over and over, to the annoyance of some, and the defenders of Marlowe are right in their assertion that The Jew of Malta is not without it’s own merit. But no matter how talented a writer may be, to write plays in the Elizabethan era in London is to write in a shadow.

Much was said of Barabbas’ commitment to selfishness and evil. Many noted that Machiavelli opened the action of the play, and Barabbas picked up his baton and carried it with calculated and brutal effect until his own end in a boiling vat of pitch. The government of Malta committed the original perfidy when they confiscated all of Barabbas’ wealth to pay tribute to the Turks. Barabbas then turns all of his energies to reclaiming this wealth, and revenging their misdeed. Murders abound in the story, including a convent full of nuns and Barabbas’ own daughter. As the play carries forward it seems everyone who comes in contact with Barabbas ends up dead with a single line and turn of the page (the clumsiness of the “flow” of the narrative was oft pointed out.) Other characters like the slave Ithamore, the prostitute Bellamira and her pimp/thug Pilia-Borza, and Calymath the Turk seem to be clawing their way through the plot trying to one-up the other, only to succumb to Barabbas’ vengeance. Even the friars lack decency. It’s a free for all, where the most sinister man wins.

The table also fell into a discussion of whether Marlowe was anti-Semitic. And the general consensus is that The Jew of Malta is certainly anti-Semitic. But one outstanding point was made, that at the time Marlowe published in the 1580s Judaism had been outlawed in England for at least 200 years, and that Marlowe had probably never met a Jew. So it surprised none that the stereotype of the money-grubbing and sinister Jew would be laid so thick upon Barabbas, and that probably did not discount The Jew of Malta as a legitimate work of literature in its time. Marlowe was simply playing to his audience, all of whom were in the same fog of ignorance as the author. This doesn’t make it right, but if we trim off every work of literature throughout history that looks awkward when viewed through the lens of 21st century sensibilities, our reading list would be quite small.

As always the discussion was lively, the weather was perfect, the brews and ‘baccy delicious, but most important was the fellowship around the table. If there was a downside to the evening it was the intolerably loud music, and so when we next meet to discuss Midnight’s Children it will be at a different place.

At the evening’s close the winning vote was cast for Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield.


[UPDATE: Randy has volunteered his business facility to host the next meeting. Bring a six-pack or a bottle of hooch, and get some to-go cuisine, and we’ll have a great and PEACEFUL meeting. I wont post the address here for security reasons. Members should have it in an email.]

Leave a Reply