The Jew of Malta | Study Guide

Christopher Marlowe

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The Jew of Malta | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary



The scene opens with Barabas alone on stage. He is seated in his counting house, with "heaps of gold before him." The tableau is an iconic image symbolizing the protagonist's obsessive greed.

Barabas proclaims himself well satisfied with the 200 percent profit he has just made from a shipping venture. He extols the almost magical virtues of gold and jewels gathered from every part of the known world and all converging on his "little room." The only inconvenience is the labor he is forced to expend in "telling," or counting, his fortune.

After Barabas's prefatory speech, two merchants enter to inform him of the status of his fleets of vessels. Here again, Barabas is pleased with the progress of events, although he quizzes the merchants meticulously on the geographical location and lines of travel of the ships.

Then, in a second soliloquy, Barabas turns more reflective, musing on the destiny of the Jews. He says he would rather be a despised but wealthy Jew than a poor Christian who is the target of pity. Although the Jews may be a "scattered nation," they have accumulated more wealth than any Christian. Jews may not be kings, but it is as well to leave kingship and its perils to Christian rulers. Barabas says he will be content with his wealth and his only daughter, who is very dear to him.

Three Jews enter, saying that they must consult Barabas and seek his counsel on an urgent matter. Turkish warships have arrived in Malta. The Jews fear that the Turks have hostile intentions. They tell Barabas that a meeting has been called in the senate-house and that every Jew on the island must attend. Barabas shrugs off the matter. After the Jews depart, he muses that the Turks have arrived to collect their long-deferred tribute from the Maltese. Barabas will be wary and prudent, watching out to guard his own interests.


The play's first scene focuses squarely on Barabas. Even at the beginning, Barabas is revealed as a multidimensional figure: avaricious, proud, self-willed, and fiercely intelligent. He is an admired councilor, an immensely wealthy magnate, and a doting father. He has made his fortune through trading, rather than money lending. He is copiously informed about many topics, including shipping routes, geography, and Maltese power politics.

The opening soliloquy, with its symbolic setting of a counting house, immediately establishes a picture of Barabas as a loner. He is self-sufficient and fiercely proud of his knowledge, initiative, and independence. Amassing riches is his chief goal in life, and he is outstandingly efficient at it. The glee with which he gloats over his "infinite riches" is unmistakable. The only drawback to his existence is the inconvenience of counting his wealth. With comic exaggeration, Barabas envisions a world in which counting one's fortune in bulk is feasible, in order to save time and wear and tear on the patience of magnates.

Barabas's brief dialogue with the merchants accomplishes several goals. It reveals the Jew of Malta as vigilant and meticulous. The dialogue also immerses readers further into Barabas's temperament and psychic momentum. He is a veritable dynamo of enterprise. The merchants are revealed as small operators compared to this colossus of trade.

In the soliloquy that follows the merchants' brief appearance, Barabas fleshes out his self-portrait by contrasting his status as a hated but wealthy Jew with the Christians whom he despises. Far better, he says, to belong to a hated race than to be a Christian in poverty—or even a Christian ruler. Barabas's pride in his Jewishness is plain, as is his sense of close kinship with other Jews scattered across the globe who have distinguished themselves in finance.

This air of complacency, however, is abruptly upset by the entrance of the three Jews in the latter part of the scene. The conflict posed by the arrival of Turkish warships does not unduly worry Barabas, although it is clear that troubled waters may lie ahead. True to his nature, he vows to be wary and take care of himself. The closing maxim, an allusion to the ancient Roman comic playwright Terence, is ego mihimet semper proximus: "I am first and last always my own keeper." The allusion is fittingly symmetrical with the appearance, at the opening of the scene, of Barabas alone in his counting house.

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