Part II: Antisemitism in Marlowe

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

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