The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe.

The Jew of Malta is a play by Christopher Marlowe, written around 1589-90 (thought to perhaps be around the same time Marlowe wrote Doctor Faustus and when Shakespeare was writing his Henry VI plays) and was first performed in 1592 by the Elizabethan playing company Lord Strange's Men (who, among other plays, acted the Henry VI plays). 

It begins with a prologue by a ghost - Machevill, based of course on Niccolò Machiavelli, author of The Prince (1513):
Albeit the world think Machiavel is dead,
Yet was his soul but flown beyond the Alps;
And, now the Guise is dead, is come from France,
To view this land, and frolic with his friends.
To some perhaps my name is odious;
But such as love me, guard me from their tongues,
And let them know that I am Machiavel,
And weigh not men, and therefore not men's words.
Admir'd I am of those that hate me most:
Though some speak openly against my books,
Yet will they read me, and thereby attain
To Peter's chair; and, when they cast me off,
Are poison'd by my climbing followers.
I count religion but a childish toy,
And hold there is no sin but ignorance.
Birds of the air will tell of murders past!
I am asham'd to hear such fooleries.
Many will talk of title to a crown:
What right had Caesar to the empery?
Might first made kings, and laws were then most sure
When, like the Draco's, they were writ in blood.
Hence comes it that a strong-built citadel
Commands much more than letters can import:
Which maxim had Phalaris observ'd,
H'ad never bellow'd, in a brazen bull,
Of great ones' envy:  o' the poor petty wights
Let me be envied and not pitied.
But whither am I bound?  I come not, I,
To read a lecture here in Britain,
But to present the tragedy of a Jew,
Who smiles to see how full his bags are cramm'd;
Which money was not got without my means.
I crave but this, grace him as he deserves,
And let him not be entertain'd the worse
Because he favours me.
"The Jew", Barabas, as he explains became rich by adhering to Machiavel's teachings. We meet him in the first act awaiting a delivery at the docks where he is told he must leave to go to the senate. Once there the governor informs him that he, along with the other Jewish people of Malta, must give half of their estate to the government to pay a forfeit to the Turks. He refuses and has all of his estate seized, including his home which they turn into a convent. And so Barabas vows revenge but first he intends to recover his estate. To help, his daughter Abigail pretends to convert to Christianity to enter into the convent, where she smuggles the gold out. Then, he tricks Don Lodowick, the son of the governor of Malta (Ferneze) into believing Abigail will marry him, despite knowing that she is in love with his friend Mathias. Barabas then assures Mathias that Abigail loves him. When the two discover they are both in love with her, Barabas instructs his slave Ithamore to send Mathias a letter purporting to be from Lodowick challenging him to a duel. The duel takes place and both are killed. Their parents seek revenge, and Abigail is told by Ithamore (Barabas' slave) of how the duel came to take place. Furious, she really does convert and join the convent and, for retribution, Barabas poisons all of the nuns. On her deathbed, Abigail reveals to Jacomo, a friar, that Barabas is responsible for the deaths of Mathias and Lodowick.

Meanwhile, Bellamira (a prostitute) and her pimp Pilia-Borza are planning on stealing Barabas' gold. As she says,
Since this town was besieg'd, my gain grows cold:
The time has been, that but for one bare night
A hundred ducats have been freely given;
But now against my will I must be chaste:
And yet I know my beauty doth not fail.
Ithamore, Barabas' slave, falls in love with her. As this plays out, Ferneze informs Calymath (the Turkish leader) that Malta will not pay them money, which will result in war.

When Jacomo and Bernardine go to see Barabas with the plan of confronting him about his crimes, Barabas manages to trick them into thinking he is on the verge of converting to Christianity. Thus distracted, Ithamore kills Bernardine and the two frame Jacomo. However Ithamore confesses all of his crimes to Bellamira, who reports them both to Ferneze. Soon after, they die: Barabas has poisoned them all. In one final act of treachery, as he escapes, Barabas informs Calymath on how best to invade Malta. He is made governor for this, but, unable to resist making more money, he tells Ferneze he will kill Calymath and stop the Turkish rule if Ferneze pays him. However, finally, he gets his comeuppance when he is double crossed by Ferenze and murdered, his last words:
And, villains, know you cannot help me now. -
Then, Barabas, breathe forth thy latest fate,
And in the fury of thy torments strive
To end thy life with resolution. -
Know, governor, 'twas I that slew thy son,-
I fram'd the challenge that did make them meet:
Know, Calymath, I aim'd thy overthrow:
And, had I but escap'd this stratagem,
I would have brought confusion on you all,
Damn'd Christian dogs, and Turkish infidels!
But now begins the extremity of heat
To pinch me with intolerable pangs:
Die, life! fly, soul! tongue, curse thy fill, and die!
This is quite an exhausting play, it must be said. There are no real good characters in this; even those against Barabas, the governor, the friars, and other Christians are shown to be hypocrites. It is, essentially, a play about strategy, and religion is but a tool; those who successfully outmanoeuvre others are the successors; The Jew of Malta is not a play where good triumphs over evil. 


  1. You could have added this Kitaj print as an illustration.

    "Evil Machiavelli" is one of the funniest recurring motifs of the period.

    1. Ah, that's cool - thanks for showing me that!

      I need to read Machiavelli again. I read it years ago and it just didn't stick with me.

    2. Well, the early modern English version of Machiavelli, the "evil Italian," is pretty distant from the real thing.

      I wish the Kitaj image were better; nevertheless more artists ought to use Marlowe quotations as titles.


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