Part I: The Context of Marlowe’s and Shakespeare’s Antisemitism

The two playwrights put on display the general culture of the time; one or both may have been critical. Or they might have shared those cultural attitudes. Or, third, they could have been simply dramatists who found a hot topic and put it on the stage to entertain their respective audiences. What is unassailable is that both plays portray the antisemitism extant at the time.

But were the two playwrights themselves antisemitic? Did they share those cultural values? I no sooner ask the question than I, in a Montaigne fashion, question whether the subject matter and the intentions of the authors can so easily be separated. Further, whether they shared those values or not, did the antisemitism they portrayed accurately reflect extreme antisemitism or a moderated variety? The authors might have implicitly preached tolerance, but neither offered a positive portrayal of Jews. Neither was Montaigne.

If Martin Luther provided the most paradigmatic extreme of antisemitism at the time, entailing finding Jews guilty of deicide, poisoning wells, drinking the blood of gentile children and spreading the plague, do we find these accusations in either or both plays? After all, since the Edict of Expulsion in 1290, Jews had been officially banished from England, even though many lived “underground” in London. Are Jews pictured as dirty con men and fraudsters, avaricious men with large noses signalling that greed? What about the response? Did the antisemitic portrayal treat Jews unjustly? Did they go further and exclude them from gentile institutions or even from interaction with gentiles, or, further still, exclude them from living in their nation and even slaughtering them?

Further, that antisemitic portrayal must be placed within a context of their other very clear critiques. Both Marlowe and Shakespeare were critical of Church clerics and officials. While portraying magic, as Shakespeare especially did, neither playwright sympathized with mystical religions and might, at the very least, in the case of Marlowe, they suspected all religion as being thoroughly saturated with magic. Giordano Bruno was not the idol of either writer.

Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is a case in point. If one thinks that Jews are being stereotyped in The Jew of Malta (1589, full title, The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta) look at how magic and superstition and ignorance are equated in Doctor Faustus. There, satanic figures have enormous power. The devil diminishes the intelligence of Dr. Faustus. Given the greed, pride and ambition of Faustus, he is blindsided by his personal combination of enormous passion and weakened intellect. The consequence: he does not recognize his mistake. A similar combination warps the judgement of Barabas in The Jew of Malta. However, the devil has been incorporated into the very being of Barabas in Christian antisemitic theology.

Machiavelli, as a ghost of the Stoic, Seneca, is enlisted at the very beginning of The Jew of Malta to express precisely such an opinion. In doing so, Machiavelli is himself stereotyped. Marlowe calls him Machiavel, Mach-evil, he who makes evil. In previous writing, I tried to clarify what an injustice this was for it totally distorted the substance of Machiavelli’s thought in favour of  a caricature. Further, unlike antisemitism, which grew even more extreme but also, more recently, very much faded in intensity, anti-Machiavellianism remained constant and steeped in distortion. On the other hand, Jews over the last four centuries were portrayed as both inyenzi who needed to be exterminated, but also became “white” for most westerners, at least in the last six decades.

In England fifty years after his demise, Machiavelli as bogeyman became a common trope, even though none of his texts were available in English – a sure sign that interpretation was thoroughly mixed with ignorance. But it is Machiavel who utters the words, “I count religion but a childish toy/ And hold there is no sin but ignorance.” Thereby, Marlowe skewers Machiavelli, religion and ignorance in one short sentence. Machiavel in the prologue enters with an evil grin and sets the drama in motion with his bag of political tricks. And the core element in the plot is a trick. Barabas recruits his slave, Ithamore to fool the Governor’s son, who loves Abigail, into believing that his best friend was pursuing Abigail. They fight a duel. Both die.

Barabas paraphrased what was believed, wrongly, to be the essence of the Machiavellian doctrine.

For he that liveth in authority, 
And neither gets him friends nor fills his bags, 
Lives like the ass that Aesop speaketh of, 
That labours with a load of bread and wine, 
And leaves it off to snap on thistle tops.

If you are going to be a politician who exercises power, you cannot be governed by sentiment. On the other hand, the result is a friendless opportunist who in the end is an ass who cannot appreciate the taste of bread and wine for he is so busy and industrious that good taste is wasted on him.

Shakespeare too cites Machiavelli a number of times, most specifically in Richard II, and does so again in Richard III. If you recall, Machiavelli taught that the object of politics was not to surrender to fate but to push the envelope and take advantage of small openings to demonstrate a strength of will (virtu) that opposes Fortune in favour of the exercise of power. This is done, not simply to be successful politically and acquire more power, but to acquire that power to utilize it to bring about meaningful objectives.

Fortinbras in Hamlet obtains the Danish throne by countering Claudius’ political machinations with impeccable timing so that he turns misfortune into good fortune using the Poles as his scapegoats. Further, in doing so, he necessarily alienates his allies and supporters because he does not, and cannot, fulfill their expectations. And they will eventually turn on him. This happens in Richard II.

Northumberland, thou ladder wherewithal
The mounting Bolingbroke ascends my throne,
The time shall not be many hours of age,
More than it is, ere foul sin, gathering head,
Shall break into corruption. Thou shalt think,
Though he divide the realm and give thee half,
It is too little, helping him to all;
He shall think that thou which knowest the way
To plant unrightful kings, wilt know again,
Being ne’er so little urged another way,
To pluck him headlong from the usurped throne.
(Richard II, 5.1.55-65)

For Shakespeare, Machiavelli’s writings are about the quest for power and not the use of power for other, more positive, purposes. The stereotype rather that the writings of Machiavelli become the basis for characterization. This is also true of both Marlowe and Shakespeare’s treatment of the Jews. They are guilty of the very sin of ignorance which they assail so vigorously.

Look at Macbeth. The witches mix their brew of “powerful trouble.” They are charms to insert evil into the world. Their incantations are accompanied by stirring a pot, a brew, that includes the “liver of blaspheming Jew” and the “finger of birth-strangled baby,” echoing the widespread belief that Jews killed babies and, like vampires, fed on their blood. The Jew was identified with bilious bile responsible for the humour, “Choleric,” associated with cholera (and the Bubonic) plagues. The Jew was charged with blasphemy and profanity. Jews were portrayed as greedy and lacking totally in any empathy for the other.

In The Jew of Malta, Barabas, the Jewish merchant, has a name deliberately intended to evoke Barabbas, the mobster, murderer and criminal who was taken down from the cross at the behest of the Jewish mob when the crowd was asked to choose between saving Jesus or saving Barabbas. This is the source of the charge of deicide against the Jews.

Christian antisemitism was on full display in Martin Luther. The Jew in Marlowe is even guiltier perhaps of greed. Barabas is introduced to us as sitting in his counting house tallying his gold coins. Barabas drools over, “infinite riches in a little room” (Marlowe 334: 1.1.37), decorated as if part of a Gothic novel with candles and cobwebs, dusty curtains and even dirtier Jews. Fagin as portrayed in Dickens’ Oliver Twist is similarly portrayed. Barabas is the epitome of the new nascent age of capitalism, of possessive individualism, of the passion for infinite greed that is often accompanied by a quest for absolute power.

However, Jews are also victimized by Barabas. Look at how he treats his fellow Jews and merchants who pleaded with him to take advantage of his friendship with the Vizier, Ferneze, to relieve them from the burden of the extremely high wealth tax needed to fight the Muhammadans, but which will ruin them financially. “‘First, the tribute money of the Turks shal all be levied amongst the Jews, and each of them to pay one half of his estate’.” (Marlowe 340; 1.2.68-70) How did Barabas respond? “Let ’em [the Muslim fleet] combat, conquer, and kill all/So they spare me, my daughter, and my wealth.” (Marlowe 337; 1.1.150-151) With my cunning, I can and will survive. Go and take care of yourselves and cease your whimpering and shrying.

How, then, can the play be antisemitic if Jews, too, are victims of this egocentric accumulator of wealth who is indifferent to the well-being of others? Did Jews need to be or became vile to protect their wealth and power? Or was avariciousness the source of their venality? Perhaps more so in the case of Shylock.

Barabas, is repeatedly identified as the Jew. The play is titled after him whereas Shakespeare’s play is not called Shylock but The Merchant of Venice. Shylock is a money lender while the Venetians are the merchants and traders. Further, Marlowe does not entitle his play, Barabas of Malta but The Jew of Malta, emphasizing him as an archetype.

Barabas emerges as the worst of a bad lot, as both a vengeful instigator of murder (Don Lodowick, Ferenze’s son, and Don Mathias, Abigail’s alleged lover) and a mass murderer himself of all the nuns. But isn’t Marlowe just as critical of the Governor of Malta? Ferneze justifies his expropriation of the wealth of the Jews of Malta by claiming that excessive wealth causes covetousness:

“No, Jew, like infidels;

For through our sufferance of your hateful lives

Who stand accursed in the sight of heaven

These taxes and afflictions are befall’n”

(Marlowe 340; 1.2.63-66).

Jews were guilty, not of crimes against humanity, not of crimes against God, but of the murder of God. Thus, qua Jew, they are inherently cursed. On the other hand, if Barabbas converts, Ferneze will exempt him from the heavy tax burden. “Why, Barabas, wilt thou be christened?” Barabas replies, “‘No, Governor, I will be no convertite.” And Ferneze’s terse reply: “Then pay thy half.’ (Marlowe 340; 1.2.82-84)

But if Barabas was willing to sacrifice his wealth for his Jewishness, how could he be so bad? The reality for the antisemite: the Jew is inherently a sinner and, unless reborn in Christ, is destined to remain so. The vile characteristics are just offshoots of that central one. And the greatest proof of the inherent evil of Jews, as Martin Luther argued, is their unwillingness to convert. Their adherence to their Judaism is not regarded as a heroic act.

Let me place the characterization of Jews within an even larger political and economic context beyond the cultural prevalence of antisemitism. Remaining Jewish was not viewed by anti-Semites as loyalty to a worthwhile religion, but as a reason for allowing one a niche that permitted wealth accumulation ad infinitum without a negative stigma. Further, there was the issue of international power and the centuries old contention between the Muslim and Christian forces.

The namesake of Suleman the Magnificent (for Islam, Suleiman the Just or the Lawgiver – Kanuni), the greatest Sultan in the history of the Ottoman Empire, was the Biblical King Solomon. During his rule, Islamic law was modernized and the laws and systems he put in place superseded Shari’ah law. He ruled from 1520 to 1566 and his empire stretched from Yemen almost to Vienna as he fought both the Persians on the east and the Christians on the west, primarily Ferdinand I from the Hapsburg dynasty who eventually became the head of the Holy Roman Empire. Suleiman was the greatest threat to Christendom and Jews were often viewed as a fifth column.

What a contrast between Christendom and Suleiman’s treatment of Jews! He absorbed Jews rather than persecuted them, especially those fleeing the Inquisition. He was also a proto-Zionist, encouraging Jews to resettle in Palestine, particularly in Tsfat or Safed. It was he who rebuilt the wall around the Old City of Jerusalem. He banned trials of Jews for blood libel. Just as many Jews proportionately serve as advisers in Washington, Suleiman’s court was populated with Jews. Jews were diplomats, bankers, merchants, doctors, lawyers. He even intervened in the pogrom of the Pope against the Jews of Ancona in Italy. Together, Jews and Muslims celebrated a cultural rebirth.

Therefore, it should be no surprise that in the Christian clash with the Ottoman Empire, Jews were even more suspect. While Europe was engaged in fratricidal war between Catholics and Protestants, Suleiman oversaw the primacy of law, justice and harmony in the Islamic world. The Christians were the cultural barbarians up until the sixteenth century. While Rome was burning Bruno and the books of Machiavelli and the writings of Erasmus were being banned, Suleiman celebrated religious inquiry, philosophy, poetry, architecture and all the other arts.

The sixteenth century witnessed an international clash of civilizations in which Jews were caught in the middle. And that middle geographically was Malta. Viewed that way, The Jew of Malta can be regarded as the front line of modernism in terms of governance – rebellion against absolute monarchy, the dawning of the bourgeois age, the initiation of a new globalism as Jewish financiers like Shylock, funded the trade with the New World. Further, Barabas, rather than a villain, can be regarded as a reborn Samson willing to take down the pillars of the Christian civilization that persecuted Jews by sacrificing his own life and taking down as many of these enemies as possible.

Is there any justification for such a favourable portrait, for a portrait of the Jew as the avant-garde against the backwardness of the Christian realm? After all, Barabas was not guilty of mass murder against anyone, but of nuns. Further, how else can one understand the extremes he went to when his daughter, Abigail, “went over to the other side”? In reprisal for the Christian forced conversion of Jews and their expulsions, Barabas could be viewed as the front line in an effort to subordinate gentile Christians to Jews. Perhaps the crimes, or potential crimes, in the economic and political spheres were feared far more than the deicide with which they were charged since classical times. For the reactionaries against modernism and globalism, Jews were the logical weak target.

On the other hand, in spite of Marlowe’s strong critique of Christianity, there was also a fear that the excessive secularism and scientism of modernity represented the quest for ultimate knowledge and, therefore, displayed the devil’s work. Shakespeare, too, seems to guard rather than provide any devotion to uncovering the secrets of the universe which can end up in destruction and damnation. As in Erasmus, folly and pride, vanity and arrogance, are the real sins of mankind.  In Marlowe, Jews exhibit that pride overtly. Christians do so subversively by pridefully insisting that Jews are guilty of that sin..

To be continued.

With the help of Alex Zisman


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