Ignoring the academic disputes over whether Christopher Marlowe’s original text of The Jew of Malta was altered by someone else, what is the genre of the play? I do not think that it is correct to classify the play as either a tragedy or a tragic comedy even though Marlowe labelled the play a tragedy. Barabas was not done in because of a major flaw, but because he was a total disaster.
The plot is complex. After Barabas engineers the death of both his daughter’s paramour and his best friend, he poisons everyone in a nunnery to which his daughter fled, killing a monk and framing a friar in the process, poisons blackmailers who learned what he had done, and then, by drinking mandrake juice, fakes his own death. The play appears more like a nineteenth century grotesque melodrama than a tragedy.
Is it a farce as T.S. Eliot once contended? One cannot fail to notice that the play has many of the comic elements of broad comedy. Virtually every character is a caricature. The play is often produced as a farce. However, would we or should we regard the presidency of Donald Trump as a farce since his presidency shares many of the same characteristics?
There is an answer. It depends. As a spectator, it is a farce. As a participant, it is a horror show. Barabas is the centre of the play as the generator of the action. However, he is unique as a caricature since he is portrayed in various guises further to our discussion of multiple selves in one individual by Montaigne. Barabas is the stock villain, the manipulator par excellence, the Iago of Othello, but with much greater ambition and effect. In morality plays of the Medieval period, he would have been named Vice rather Villain for he would have represented one of the deadly sins. But Barabas is a sinner ten times over and does not simply represent and express one abstract fault as a human being. He does not merely personify a vice.
He is also a clown. Jews had prominent noses signifying greed. Jews were dirty and lived off pickled grasshoppers. However, in the end, perhaps Marlowe had a greater regard for their steadfastness than he had for Christians.
Most important, unlike Othello in which there is a struggle for control of the lead role’s soul, there is no such struggle in Marlowe’s play. Instead of a single vice personified, Barabas symbolizes greed, narcissism, unfaithfulness to any creed, including his own, and a debauched worldliness. In the end, he mostly personifies his namesake, Barabbas. The latter was accused of killing a Roman soldier. Jesus was just a preacher. Barabbas was a thief, fraudster and rebel. Both he and Jesus are nailed to crosses. Yet it is Barabbas, according to the Gospels, whom the Jewish mob voted to take down from the cross rather than Jesus when Pontius Pilate offered to spare one of them. Hence, the charge of Jewish complicity in deicide which Barabas symbolizes in his very name.
But that is the greater danger. The world is given order through the word. My question and puzzle is: was Barabas both, a crook and a thief as well as a rabble-rouser and freedom fighter? In the Christian stereotypical view of Jews as guilty of deicide, Jesus not only goes to his death so that Christian believers can be saved, but materially dies so Barabbas could be spared. Jesus was sacrificed in the name of both virtue and vice. Barabbas, and by extension, all Jews, live on only because of Jesus, though, paradoxically, they are persecuted in Jesus’ name. Hence, persecution of and antisemitism against Jews are justified.
But Jews are an even more justifiable target in the particulars. After all, are we not prejudiced against Christianity? Do we not see Christianity as fatally flawed? Barabas openly and unequivocally voices such a critique to Ferneze. The fatal flaw of Christianity is the existential continuity of Jews and Judaism. Although the motives of Barabas are suspect, Christianity in its foundation holds all Jews throughout the Common Era as bearing responsibility for the death of God. Barabas accuses Ferneze of both hypocrisy and guilt, along with all other Christians; they are guilty of crimes against humanity. “Some Jews are wicked, as all Christians are.” (my italics) (Marlowe 341; 1.2.113-116) Religion for Christians is a guise for injustice, for using reason for wicked ends. Piety is used to quash rationality.
However, the greatest crime Barabas commits is the treatment of his own daughter, Abigail. He murders her along with all the nuns in the nunnery. As my daughter has written, many of the daughters in the Tanach do not do much better. Dinah, Jacob’s daughter is raped and disappears from history. (Genesis 34) Jephthah’s daughter, because of her father’s vow, is sacrificed. (Judges 11:34-40) Michal is used by her father, King Saul, to outfox his rival, David. (1 Samuel 18-19 and 25:44). The Levite reclaims the concubine, Gibeah, from her father’s house and she is gang raped. (Judges 19). Tamar, David’s daughter, is raped by Amnon, her half-brother. (2 Samuel 13)
When I was a young academic, I joined a group of nuns and priests in a group engaged in introspection, in “knowing oneself.” I was the only Jew. Simply put, the nuns told various stories of how they were chosen by their fathers to be nuns to serve God but, psychologically, to preserve their virginity. The virginity was an extension of the father’s identity and served as a pure form of defining an incestuous relationship. Barabas was a possessive individualist who, on the one side, wanted to preserve his daughter’s identification with Judaism, but in her sacrifice, sent a message that his possessive individualism extended to the life of his daughter.
In the Bible, against her father’s wishes, Abigail carries food to the future King David; she will later become his second wife. In The Jew of Malta, Abigail goes a step further and falls in love with Lodowick, the Christian son of the Governor of Malta. That betrayal of her father is the final straw. She fled to a nunnery where she hoped she would be safe. But Barabas poisons the nuns and sacrifices his own daughter. If the play had been written and produced earlier, and if Montaigne had seen it, would he have been so supportive of the Portuguese Jews sacrificing their own children rather than allowing their conversion?
In Galileo’s Daughter, which I am quite a way from finishing, Galileo cloistered his two young daughters in a Florentine convent for very different reasons, for their own safety lest the anti-science populist mobs turn their wrath intended against him and attack his daughters. Later, Suor Maria Celeste, the older daughter, would write her father about how overworked she was in the nunnery and, after commenting that there was an upside to hard work – she never had an idle moment to feel sorry for herself – rhetorically asked, “If you would teach me the secret you yourself employ, Sire, for getting by on so little sleep, I would be most grateful, because in the end the seven hours that I waste sleeping seem far too many for me.” (199) Oh, to be admired for having abnormal brain sleep patterns!
Clearly, Abigail had no equivalent respect for her own father and probably saw him much as his enemies did, as a self-centred, greedy, acquisitive, immoral and intemperate man with a passion for acquiring money. Just as his daughter betrayed him, so Barabas betrayed his former friend and ally, the governor, and hoped to profit from a prospective Turkish invasion. He gets himself nominated as governor and hatches a plot to trap and kill the Turks with whom he had allied. He, in turn, is tricked by the former governor. He dies in his own trap as Christians and Muslims reconcile.
It is shocking to me how much Donald Trump is a parody of Barabas. The two bask in self-congratulation. Both are extremely selfish and quite willing to throw former friends and loyalists to the dogs if they give off any signal of disloyalty while they themselves are the epitome of unfaithfulness. Look at how Barabas treated his three Jewish fellow businessmen when they sought advice concerning the “fleet of warring galleys.” (Marlowe 337: 1.1.144) All he can say is, I don’t give a damn.
Both Trump and Barabas are confident of their own superiority in all areas. They both treat everyone terribly. They are both frauds, though Trump is a user of money and a money launderer rather than a usurer. Avarice is the second name of each of them. When I watch the young refugees at the borders, some even infants, and see how they are treated in border facilities totally unsuited to the care of children, I think of how Barabas was so heartless in his treatment of orphans.
But there are differences. Barabas fits the stereotype of a Jew as a penny-pincher; Trump is a King Midas obsessed with displaying his gold. Second, Barabas, to write the obvious, is a Jew, the Jew of Malta.
“Who hateth me but for my happiness?
Or who is honour’d now but for his wealth?
Rather had I, a Jew, be hated thus,
Than pitied in a Christian poverty’” (Marlowe 336;1.1.110-113).
Christians who are wealthy are given respect and honours. Jews are stereotyped as greedy and avaricious. Wealthy Christians are not persecuted for their wealth. Wealthy Jews are. This is a key sign of deep-seated resentment, prejudice and hatred. But there is a third twist. Surprisingly, perhaps, Barabas would rather be hated as a Jew than honoured and respected as a wealthy Christian. He refuses an offer of conversion that would free him from an exorbitant wealth tax.
Like Shylock, but on a much more global political and economic stage living on the border between the expanding Ottoman Empire and the Christians then on the defensive in an age-old clash of civilizations, Barabas insists he means no harm to anyone. He is the victim of prejudice, of discrimination, of pogroms, of expropriation of his wealth. Why? Because he will not convert. Yet he lives on the frontier, on the borderland between Christian barbarians and an enlightened expanding Ottoman Empire. “Make account of me as of thy fellow. We are villains both; Both circumcised, we hate Christians both.” (Marlowe 2.3.213-15) One should not be surprised at his willingness to go over to the other side.
Is he laughing and mocking the description others project upon him?
“As for myself, I walk abroad a-nights,
And kill sick people groaning under walls.
Sometimes I go about and poison wells;…
And in the wars ‘twixt France and Germany,
Under the pretence of helping Charles the Fifth,
Slew friend and enemy with my stratagems:
Then after that I was an usurer,
And with extorting, cozening, forfeiting,
And tricks belonging unto brokery,
I fill’d the gaols with bankrupts in a year,
And with young orphans planted hospitals;
And every moon made some or other mad,
And now and then one hang himself for grief,
Pinning upon his breast a long great scroll.
How I with interest tormented him.
But mark how I am blest for plaguing them:
I have as much coin as will buy the town.
But tell me now, how hast thou spent thy time?” (2.3.179-206)
If Barabas is a self-confessed trickster, and one more subtly trickier than even the stereotype portrayed, Marlowe is perhaps the greater trickster. For in the play, the dramatist tricks the audience into identifying with the accusers and joining with them in their despised attitude towards the Jew and, in their laughter at him, reveal their antisemitism. In provoking laughter at Barabas, the audience becomes complicit in the raging antisemitism. Christian goodwill be damned! Barabas is opposed to goodwill, to mushy sentiment, to empathy and even to fairness. They are disguises, masks behind which Christians hide their barbaric character. Barabas even makes the stereotype of Machiavelli look like a wimp. The Christians do not try to understand him. They judge him and fail to recognize how deeply loyal he is beneath his opportunist exterior.
Why? Because he is not out to save his or other’s souls. They, Christians, on the other hand, go about destroying bodies and the body politic of nations in the mysterious cause of saving souls. Barabas may be primarily preoccupied with amassing “infinite riches in a little room” (Marlowe 334; 1.1.37), but in his seemingly preoccupation with pecuniary concerns, he comes across in the end as a man of principle unwilling to join Christians in their enterprise of cultural genocide, particularly when directed at Jews. Just look at the record of the residential schools run by Christians for First Nations peoples in Canada. Barabas’ external compass may have been explicitly about self-interest and wealth accumulation, but he also had an internal moral compass firmly pointing in the direction of Jewish self-preservation and not selling out to what he regarded as the totally wicked Christians.
No wonder he is doubly despised.
Just look at the barbarism when the play first went on the stage. To propagate mass anti-Jewish feelings among the populace, in 1594, the Earl of Essex, the year after Marlowe’s death, charged Doctor Rodrigo López, a Portuguese Jew, for joining a conspiracy to try to poison Queen Elizabeth. Rodrigo López was charged. He was executed based on those trumped-up accusations, an appropriate modifier to “charges” given Trump’s advocacy of the death penalty for the falsely accused Central Park Five and his election campaign run on a chant of, “Lock her up.”
To be continued.
With the help of Alex Zisman