The Jew of Malta

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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]

On 2 October 1993, Ian McDiarmid starred as Barabas in a BBC Radio 3 adaptation of the play directed by Michael Fox, with Ken Bones as Machevil/Ferneze, Kathryn Hunt as Abigail, Michael Grandage as Don Lodowick, Neal Swettenham as Don Mathias and Kieran Cunningham as Ithamore/2nd Merchant.


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."

Barabas begins the play in his counting-house. Stripped of all he has for protesting 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 nominated governor by his new allies, he switches sides to the Christians once again. Having devised a trap for the Turks' galley slaves and soldiers in which they will all be demolished by gunpowder, he then sets 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. The Christians and Turks agree to resolve their conflict without violence while the Jew curses them as he burns.




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 The 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.[7][8] 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.[7][9] Others, such as Anthony Bale, temper this notion by saying that these images, while perhaps born in England, grew to maturity on the European mainland.[7][10] 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 Barabas’ 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 Barabas and Ferneze, tend to invite the audience to look for similarities, as so much energy has been exerted in establishing difference.[12]

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 University 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]