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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Friday, 13 March 2020

"The Jew of Malta" by Christopher Marlowe

On the surface, this play is stuffed with anti-semitism. Marlowe's Barabas is an ill-used character at the start, who therefore has some sort of motivation for his wickedness, but the delight he takes in his evil and his relatively quick downfall make it much harder for us to sympathise with him than for Shakespeare's Shylock.

The relationship between arch-villain Barabas and his clownish sidekick Ithamore is a little like that between Faustus and Mephistopheles and the delight they take in their murders reminded me of the mischievous wickedness in Dr Faustus. The victims of Barabas and Ithamore are fools and idiots; it was difficult to care that they were being slaughtered. 

The plot is picaresque, one thing after another.

The plot (spoiler alert)

The Prologue is spoken by Macchiavel. He argues against morality and sees the only right as that conferred by might. The play the segues into Barabas, the protagonist, in his counting house; neatly it opens with him in mid-thought. His primary (indeed, almost sole) motivation is money.

The Turks turn up in Malta and demand ten years back-payment of the agreed tribute. Governor Ferzene decides that this can best be achieved by taxing all Jews in Malta at 50% of their wealth ... and when Barabas hangs back he, the wealthiest, is taxed at 100%.

But Barabas has hidden some treasure in his house ... which is being turned into a nunnery. So he has to recruit his daughter, Abigail, to become a nun to move into the nunnery to get his hidden treasure back. This done, she stops being a nun.

Martin de Bosco, a Spanish ship's Captain newly arrived from defeating the Turks at sea, persuades Ferzene and his council to refuse to pay the tribute to the Turks and use the money levied on the Jews to mount a defence against the Turkish invasion that will surely follow.

Two boys fancy Abigail: Lodowick, Ferzene's son, and Mathias, whom she fancies. To revenge himself on governor Ferzene, Barabas and his newly purchased Turkish slave and enthusiastic sidekick in evil, Ithamore, decide to trick Lodowick and Mathias into fighting a duel; both are killed. 

Abigail, realising she has been duped into getting her boyfriend killed, becomes a nun again. Barabas and Ithamore, realising they have to silence Abigail, make a poisoned porridge and kills all the nuns in the nunnery, including Abigail. On her deathbed she confesses to Father Barnardine.

Father Barnardine is bound by the seal of the confessional so he can't tell anyone. But, supported by Father Jacomo, he goes to Barabas and Ithamore and drops hints ... so they strangle him and dupe Jacomo into thinking he has done the deed. They then turn Jacomo in to the authorities and he is hanged.

Local prostitute Bellamira and her pimp Pilia-Borza conspire to get gold from Barabas. She pretends she has fallen in love with Ithamore; he, besotted, blackmails Barabas about the two boys tricked into duelling, the poisoned nuns and the strangled friar. Barabas initially pays up but then disguises himself as a musician and tricks Bellamira, Pilia-Borza and Ithamore into smelling poisoned flowers. 

He is not in time to prevent the three denouncing him to the authorities but before he is found guilty the witnesses are dead. He feigns death using a sleeping draught and governor Ferenze has his body thrown over the wall.

Where he encounters the besieging Turks and shows them a way into Valetta. The Turks defeat the Maltese and, in gratitude, make Barabas governor. But he realises that he cannot rule a people who hate him and decides to rebetray Malta, this time back to Ferzene, for money. He arranges to blow up the Turkish troops in an old monastery and to trick the Turkish leader into having dinner on a platform in the castle which will collapse. But Ferzene double crosses Barabas (keeping up?) and it is Barabas who is on the platform when it collapses and tips him into a cauldron where he is boiled to death.

It looks to me like the plot is merely a device for lots of exciting things to happen on stage: 
  • Abigail breaking into her own house to steal back the treasure from Barabas and throwing it down from the balcony to where he waits below
  • the swordfight between Mathias and Lodowick, cheered on from the same balcony by Barabas
  • the comedy when Barabas is poisoning the porridge and Ithamore is protesting that it is a shame to waste such good food
  • the deathbed confession of Abigail ... and the problem with the secrets of the confessional leading to the comedy in which Barnardine and Jacomo try to lure Barabas into confessing without ever being able to accuse him outright
  • the strangling of Barnardine and the framing of Jacomo
  • the ludicrous love scene between Bellamira and Ithamore
  • Barabas masquerading as a musician in order to foist poisoned flowers on Bellamira, Pilia-Borza and Ithamore
  • the apparent death of Barabas and the hurling of his body from the battlements
  • the collapse of the platform the the cooking of Barabas
Irony and betrayal and critique of religion
What distinguishes the play is the use of an outsider's perspective (principally Barabas but a little of Ithamore) to critique the established order. Almost everything that Barabas says is tinged with scorn and irony; he repeatedly criticises the supposedly superior morality of the Christians. Furthermore, Marlowe's characters are almost all motivated by money: Bellamira the prostitute when she seeks to seduce Ithamore to get him to blackmail Barabas, Fathers Jacomo and Barnardine when they fall out over which of their religious houses will benefit from the fortune of converted Barabas, even Ferenze when he realises that if he defies the Turks the Maltese can keep the tax they have levied on the Jews to pay the tribute.

For example:

“I count religion but a childish toy,
And hold there is no sin but ignorance.” (Machiavel in the Prologue; doesn't he sound like Faustus?)

“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;
For I can see no fruits in all their faith,
But malice, falsehood, and excessive pride,” (Barabas, Act 1)

“Some Jews are wicked, as all Christians are:
But say the tribe that I descended of
Were all in general cast away for sin,
Shall I be tried by their transgression?” (Barabas, Act 1)

Marlowe frequently repeats the contemporary myths about Jews (including that they crucify babies) and this seems to be done ironically, as when Barabas (Act 2) himself says:
“As for myself, I walk abroad o' nights,
And kill sick people groaning under walls:
Sometimes I go about and poison wells
Then, after that, was I 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.”

“It's no sin to deceive a Christian;
For they themselves hold it a principle,
Faith is not to be held with heretics:
But all are heretics that are not Jews;” (Barabas, Act 2)

Words, words, words
So is the play redeemed by its words? Marlowe has a special place in English letters as the creator of the 'royal line': the iambic pentameter of blank verse that Shakespeare later used to such effect (although Shakespeare developed it by mixing it with prose and by frequently breaking the strict form to include weak endings (such as the extra syllable in 'To be or not to be, that is the question'). 

There are some great lines:

“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.”

Act One
“What more may heaven do for earthly man
Than thus to pour out plenty in their laps,
Ripping the bowels of the earth for them,”
"Your extreme right does me exceeding wrong”

“she were fitter for a tale of love,
Than to be tired out with orisons;
And better would she far become a bed,
Embraced in a friendly lover's arms,
Than rise at midnight to a solemn mass.”

Act Two
“Thus, like the sad-presaging raven, that tolls
The sick man's passport in her hollow beak,
And in the shadow of the silent night
Doth shake contagion from her sable wings,
Vex'd and tormented runs poor Barabas
With fatal curses towards these Christians.”

“I learn'd in Florence how to kiss my hand,
Heave up my shoulders when they call me dog,
And duck as low as any bare-foot friar”

“First, be thou void of these affections,
Compassion, love, vain hope, and heartless fear;
Be mov'd at nothing, see thou pity none,
But to thyself smile when the Christians moan”

Ithamore, the Moslem, is also allowed to boast of his evils:
“In setting Christian villages on fire,
Chaining of eunuchs, binding galley-slaves.
One time I was an hostler in an inn,
And in the night-time secretly would I steal
To travellers' chambers, and there cut their throats:
Once at Jerusalem, where the pilgrims kneel'd,
I strewed powder on the marble stones,
And therewithal their knees would rankle so,
That I have laugh'd a-good to see the cripples
Go limping home to Christendom on stilts.”

Act Three
“O mistress, I have the bravest, gravest, secret, subtle, bottle-nosed knave to my master, that ever gentleman had!”

"My sinful soul, alas, hath pac'd too long
The fatal labyrinth of misbelief,”

“he that eats with the devil had need of a long spoon”

"Why, master, will you poison her with a mess of rice-porridge? that will preserve life, make her round and plump, and batten more than you are aware.”

“As fatal be it to her as the draught
Of which great Alexander drunk, and died;
And with her let it work like Borgia's wine,
Whereof his sire the Pope was poisoned!
In few, the blood of Hydra, Lerna's bane,
The juice of hebon, and Cocytus' breath,
And all the poisons of the Stygian pool,
Break from the fiery kingdom, and in this
Vomit your venom, and envenom her
That, like a fiend, hath left her father thus!”

Act Four
“How sweet the bells ring, now the nuns are dead,
That sound at other times like tinkers' pans!"

“Fornication: but that was in another country;
And besides, the wench is dead.”

“To fast, to pray, and wear a shirt of hair,
And on my knees creep to Jerusalem.”

“He sent a shaggy, tatter'd, staring slave,
That, when he speaks, draws out his grisly beard,
And winds it twice or thrice about his ear;
Whose face has been a grind-stone for men's swords;
His hands are hack'd, some fingers cut quite off;
Who, when he speaks, grunts like a hog, and looks
Like one that is employ'd in catzery
And cross-biting; such a rogue
As is the husband to a hundred whores;”

Act 5
“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”

This is very much a play to be performed rather than read; the spectacle is clear. It is driven by a bitter critique of hypocrisy in religion. But the plot is just one thing after another and the characterisation is weak.

March 2020;

Plays by Marlowe reviewed in this blog also include:
Edward II

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