The Jew of Malta

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For the historical Jewish community in Malta, see History of the Jews in Malta.
The Jew of Malta

The Jew of Malta (originally spelled The Ievv of Malta) is a play by Christopher Marlowe, probably written in 1589 or 1590. The plot is an original story of religious conflict, intrigue, and revenge, set against a backdrop of the struggle for supremacy between Spain and the Ottoman Empire in the Mediterranean that takes place on the island of Malta. The title character, Barabas, dominates the play's action.

There has been extensive debate about the play's portrayal of Jews and how Elizabethan audiences would have viewed it. The Jew of Malta is considered to have been a major influence on William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice.

Performance and publication[edit]

The first recorded performance was in 1592; the play was acted by Lord Strange's Men seventeen times between 26 February 1592 and 1 February 1593. It was performed by Sussex's Men on 4 February 1594, and by a combination of Sussex's and Queen Elizabeth's Men on 3 and 8 April 1594. More than a dozen performances by the Admiral's Men occurred between May 1594 and June 1596. (The play apparently belonged to impresario Philip Henslowe, since the cited performances occurred when the companies mentioned were acting for Henslowe.) In 1601 Henslowe's Diary notes payments to the Admiral's company for props for a revival of the play.[1]

The play was entered in the Stationers' Register on 17 May 1594, but the earliest surviving edition was printed in 1633 by the bookseller Nicholas Vavasour. This edition contains prologues and epilogues written by Thomas Heywood for a revival in that year. Heywood is also sometimes thought to have revised the play. Corruption and inconsistencies in the 1633 quarto, particularly in the second half, may be evidence of revision or alteration of the text.[2]

The Jew of Malta was a success in its first recorded performance at the Rose theatre in early 1592, when Edward Alleyn played the lead role. The play remained popular for the next fifty years, until England's theatres were closed in 1642 (see English Renaissance theatre). In the Caroline era, actor Richard Perkins was noted for his performances as Barabas when the play was revived in 1633 by Queen Henrietta's Men. The title page of the 1633 quarto refers to this revival, performed at the Cockpit Theatre.[3]

The play was revived by Edmund Kean at Drury Lane on 24 April 1818. The script of this performance included additions by S. Penley.[4]


The play contains a prologue in which the character Machiavel, a Senecan ghost based on Niccolò Machiavelli, introduces "the tragedy of a Jew." Machiavel expresses the cynical view that power is amoral, saying "I count religion but a childish toy,/And hold there is no sin but ignorance."

The Jewish merchant in question, Barabas, is introduced as a man owning more wealth than all of Malta. When Turkish ships arrive to demand tribute, however, Barabas's wealth is seized and he is left penniless. Incensed, he begins a campaign to engineer the downfall of the Maltese governor who robbed him. With the aid of his daughter, Abigail, he recovers some of his former assets and buys a Turkish slave, Ithamore, who appears to hate Christians as much as Barabas does. Barabas then, in revenge for the robbery, uses his daughter's beauty to embitter the governor's son (Lodowick) and his friend (Mathias) against each other, leading to a duel in which they both die. When Abigail learns of Barabas's role in the plot, she consigns herself to a nunnery, only to be poisoned (along with all of the nuns) by Barabas and Ithamore for becoming a Christian. The two go on to kill a couple of friars who threaten to divulge their previous crimes. Ithamore himself, however, is lured by a beautiful prostitute and her criminal friend into disclosing his secrets and blackmailing Barabas. Barabas poisons all of them in revenge, but not before the governor is apprised of his deeds. Barabas escapes execution by feigning death, and then helps an advancing Turkish army to sack Malta, for which he is awarded governorship of the city.

He then turns on the Turks, allowing the Knights of Malta to kill the Turkish army. The Maltese, however, turn on Barabas and kill him as they regain control of Malta.



Further information: History of the Jews in England

Jews had been banished from England in 1290 with the Edict of Expulsion, nearly 300 years before Marlowe’s writing of The Jew of Malta. They were not readmitted to the country until 1655. Thus, Elizabethan audiences would have had little to no encounters with Jews or Judaism in their daily life[5]. Nevertheless, Jews continued to play a role in the country’s literary works, as witnessed by both Marlowe’s play and Shakespeare’s subsequent Merchant of Venice, as well as earlier works like those by the Gawain Poet and Geoffrey Chaucer[6]. Lacking actual interaction with Jewish people, English authors often resorted to dressing, voicing, and animating these characters in fictive ways that may have exaggerated their differences in a pejorative, anti-Semitic manner[5][7]. These creations have been the subject of much debate. For instance, Jonathon Freedman argues that the English ban on Jews created portrayals different from those in other areas of the world, where Jews were not banished. These differences were, in turn, different from the differences of other marginalized groups: a kind of double difference marking Jews as exceptionally ostracized[8][7]. Anthony Julius goes so far as to say that the depictions of Jews in this period placed England firmly both as the primary creator and propagator of anti-Semitic tropes[9][7]. Others, such as Anthony Bale, temper this notion by saying that these images, while perhaps born in England, grew to maturity in Europe[10][7]. The Jew of Malta, given the time of its publication, its title character, and the significance of religion throughout the text, is often one of the works referenced in these discussions.


The question of whether or not Marlowe's work is anti-Semitic is multi-faceted. Some of the conversation around anti-Semitism in The Jew of Malta focuses on authorial intent, the question of whether or not Marlowe intended to promote anti-Semitism in his work, while other critics focus on how the work is perceived, either by its audience at the time or by modern audiences. Stephen Greenblatt, offering a Marxist critique of The Jew of Malta, believes that Marlowe intended to utilize readily available anti-Semitic feelings in his audience in a way that made the Jews "incidental" to the social critique he offered. That is, he wished to use anti-Semitism as a rhetorical tool rather than advocating for it. In this, Greenblatt says, Marlowe failed, instead producing a work that is, because of its failure to "discredit" the sentiments it toys with, a propagator of anti-Semitism. Such rhetorical attempts, he says, "underestimated the irrationality...fixation...and persistence of anti-Semitisim" [5].

Thomas Cartelli, on the other hand, suggests that those who claim to see anti-Semitism in Marlowe’s work often do so more because of what they think they know about the period in which they were written rather than what the texts themselves present. Cartelli does admit that certain of Barbaras’ features are troublesome vis-à-vis anti-Semitism, such as his large and often-referenced nose, but suggests that such surface details are not important. If one looks past the surface, Cartelli argues, the play can be seen as uniting all three religions it represents—Judaism, Islam, and Christianity—by way of their mutual hypocrisy[11]. These examples illustrate, though not fully, the breadth of opinions expressed on the subject.    

Other critics do not desire to engage the play on the basis of its anti-Semitism, instead exploring other aspects of the text. James Shapiro, for instance, discusses the play’s influence on Shakespeare’s works, specifically The Merchant of Venice, Titus Andronicus, and Richard III. He notes that both The Merchant of Venice and The Jew of Malta are works obsessed with the economics of their day. Shapiro suggests that at least part of this obsession comes from anxiety around new business practices in the theater, including the bonding of actors to companies. Such bonds would require actors to pay a hefty fee if they performed with other troupes or were otherwise unable to perform. In this way, greed becomes an allegory rather than a characteristic or stereotype. Furthermore, as a counterargument to claims of anti-Semitism, Shapiro evokes Rene Girard’s claim that characters so disparate as Shylock and Antonio, and by extension Barbaras and Ferneze, tend to invite the audience to look for similarities, as so much energy has been exerted in establishing difference[12].


Partial evidence for the play's date of composition comes from its reference to the death of the Duke of Guise, which occurred on 23 December 1588. The name Barabas comes from the Biblical figure of Barabbas, a notorious bandit and murderer. Barabbas, rather than Jesus Christ, was released by Pontius Pilate at the behest of a mob (Matt. 27: 16–26). It is possible that the plot of the play was in some part inspired by the role of Joseph Nasi in the transfer of Cyprus from Venetian to Ottoman control.

Cultural references[edit]

T. S. Eliot's poem "Mr. Eliot's Sunday Morning Service" contains an epigraph which is an excerpt from The Jew of Malta:

"Look, look, master, here comes two religious caterpillars."

The epigraph to another of Eliot's poems, "Portrait of a Lady," is an excerpt from The Jew of Malta:

"Thou hast committed/Fornication: but that was in another country,/And besides, the wench is dead."

It is an often quoted line, also appearing in Nicholas Monsarrat's 1951 novel The Cruel Sea, where it is used to underscore the blunt tragedies of war – the novel cuts off a side story of a romance, and the protagonist quotes the line, bitterly, as the main storyline resumes.

The same line is quoted by P. D. James in the first of her Adam Dalgleish mystery novels, Cover Her Face, and indirectly in more than one of her later novels, including The Lighthouse and Innocent Blood. Margaret Maron also quotes it in "Designated Daughters."

It is also quoted in Ernest Hemingway's 1950 novel Across the River and into the Trees, as well as referred to in his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises. In the earlier text it is by the character Bill Gorton, who has a tendency to make obscure literary references in everyday speech. The narrator, Jake Barnes, introduces Bill as "a taxidermist" and he replies:

"'That was in another country,' Bill said. 'And besides all the animals were dead.'"

"In Another Country" is one of Hemingway's Nick Adams stories.

Another Country is the title of both a play and a film loosely based on the life of the spy and double agent Guy Burgess, played by Guy Bennett in the film. It explores his homosexuality and exposure to Marxism, while examining the hypocrisy and snobbery of the English public school system.

Terry Pratchett paraphrases the quote in Lords and Ladies with reference to Granny Weatherwax's girlhood: "But that was a long time ago, in the past (which is another country). And besides, the bitch is...older."

An episode of 1970s BBC TV series Wings (series 2, episode 3) is entitled "Another Country" ends with the line "But that was in another country. And besides, the wench is dead."

"But that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead" is also spoken in Neil Gaiman's The Sandman, Book 2, The Doll's House, Part 6, "Into the Night," by the character Gilbert to Dream's servant Matthew. They are talking about their lives in earlier incarnations.

In "Dr. Benway Operates" by William S. Burroughs, Dr. Benway says, "Once I was caught short without instrument one and removed an intrauterine tumor with my teeth. Well, that was in the Upper Effendi, and besides, the wench is dead."

In The Bourne Supremacy by Robert Ludlum, Conklin refers to the death of David Webb's wife in the Far East:

"That was in another country, David. And besides—I don't think you want me to complete the line."
"'Besides the wench is dead.' No, I'd prefer you didn't repeat the line."


Barabas the Jew[edit]

Barabas is named[citation needed] 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.

Barabas begins the play in his counting-house. 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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Chambers, Vol. 3, pp. 424–5.
  2. ^ Bevington & Rasmussen, pp. xxviii–xxix.
  3. ^ Chambers, Vol. 3, p. 424.
  4. ^ Frederick Boas, Christopher Marlowe: A biographical and critical study (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953), p. 301
  5. ^ a b c Greenblatt, Stephen (1978). "Marlowe, Marx, and Anti-Semitism". Critical Inquiry. 5 (2). 
  6. ^ Cox, Catherine (2005). The Judaic Other in Dante, the Gawain Poet and Chaucer. U. Press of Florida. 
  7. ^ a b c d Lavezzo, Kathy. "Jews in Britain-Medieval to Modern". Philological quarterly. 92 (1). 
  8. ^ Freedman, Jonathan (1994). The Temple of Culture. U. of Nebraska Press. p. 6. 
  9. ^ Julius, Anthony (2010). Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England. Oxford U. Press. pp. xxxvi. 
  10. ^ Bale, Anthony (2006). The Jew in the Medieval Book: English Antisemitisms 1350-1500. Cambridge U. Press. p. 17. 
  11. ^ Cartelli, Thomas (1988). "Shakespeare's Merchant, Marlowe's Jew: The problem of cultural difference". Shakespeare Studies. 20. 
  12. ^ Shapiro, James (1988). ""Which is the merchant here and which the jew?": Shakespeare and the economics of influence". Shakespeare Studies. 20. 


  • Bevington, David, and Eric Rasmussen, eds. Doctor Faustus and Other Plays. Oxford University Press, 1995. ISBN 0-19-283445-2.
  • Chambers, E. K. The Elizabethan Stage. 4 Volumes, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1923.
  • Marlowe, Christopher. The Jew of Malta. David Bevington, ed. Revels Student Editions. New York, Manchester University Press, 1997.

External links[edit]