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The Jew of Malta | Study Guide

Christopher Marlowe

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The Jew of Malta | Act 1, Scene 2 | Summary



The scene shifts to the senate-house of Malta, where an official meeting is presided over by the island's governor, a high-ranking man named Ferneze. Ambassadors from the Ottoman Empire of Turkey demand that Ferneze pay a tribute that dates back 10 years. The amount is so great that it exceeds the current ability of the Maltese to pay. Therefore, Ferneze pleads for, and is accorded, a one-month reprieve.

Ferneze's strategy then becomes apparent. The Maltese intend to cast the burden of payment upon the island's Jews. With brutal directness, the governor and his officers explain to Barabas that he and his fellow Jews have three choices: (a) each Jew shall pay half of his estate; (b) all Jews who deny to pay shall be forcibly converted to Christianity; (c) those who refuse conversion shall lose all they have.

To Barabas's consternation and disgust, three Jews capitulate to the governor's demands. Barabas himself is punished for his outspoken resistance and condemned to lose all his possessions. Despite his outspoken objections, the verdict holds firm, and Ferneze even orders Barabas's residence to be converted into a Christian nunnery.

Fulminating against Christian injustice, Barabas takes little consolation in the sympathy of his fellow Jews, who compare his sufferings to the tribulations of Job in the Old Testament.

The Jew of Malta's adored daughter, Abigail, enters, lamenting her father's lot. Barabas explains to her that he has fortified himself against disaster with a backup plan by burying a substantial portion of his riches underneath a plank in his house. Abigail, he says, must feign conversion to Christianity and pretend that she has a nun's vocation. In this way, she will be able to retrieve the buried riches. An abbess and two friars enter, and Abigail goes through with the plan, accompanied by Barabas's cynical but encouraging asides urging his daughter on. Abigail is accepted as a novice at the nunnery. At the conclusion of the scene, two young gentleman admirers of Abigail, Mathias and Lodowick, make their entrance and comment on the scene. They are both awestruck by Abigail's beauty.


This fast-moving scene contains a number of disparate threads. The initial conflict between Barabas and Ferneze highlights Christian prejudice against Jews and also the theme of religious hypocrisy. As Barabas remarks to Abigail later in the scene, "religion / Hides many mischiefs from suspicion."

In their treatment of the Jews, Ferneze and the Maltese officers are sharply insulting. Barabas and his compatriots are "infidels" who live "hateful lives" and "stand accursed in the sight of heaven" (lines 62–64). To their insults, the Maltese add sophistry, or distorted reasoning, when they tell Barabas that they single him out for especially confiscatory treatment in order to forestall the harsh treatment of many other Jews. After reproaching his fellow Jews for cowardice, Barabas reluctantly agrees to the Maltese terms. He utters the ironic invocation "Corpo di Dio" (literally, "body of God," a reference to the crucified Jesus Christ). But he is too late: the Maltese now insist on taking his entire estate, not just one-half. They even have the effrontery to quote scripture in order to justify their actions. Then they order the conversion of Barabas's residence into a nunnery.

Scripture, in fact, plays a complex, mercurial role in the scene. The Maltese misuse it to justify their extortion. The Jews, on the other hand, make a torturous comparison of Barabas's fate to Job's in the Old Testament. It was Job who suffered numerous excruciating afflictions when he is tested by God. Like Job, Barabas is brought to curse the day he was born. In fact, the dialogue between Barabas and the other Jews seems noticeably reminiscent of the conversation between Job and his "comforters" in the early chapters of the Book of Job. As the other Jews depart, Barabas dismisses them as "base slaves" and mutters that he is made "of finer mould."

Just at this point, the Barabas's daughter, Abigail, enters, full of lamentation for her father's fate. Barabas's cunning, though, has not forsaken him. In a striking irony of situation, or pointed reversal, he is about to turn the Maltese confiscation of his house on its head. Revealing that he has secreted a large portion of his fortune under a floorboard of his residence, he exhorts Abigail to feign conversion to Christianity and a vocation as a nun. Forced now to "sink or swim," Barabas justifies this strategic plan, or "policy," by arguing that "a counterfeit profession is better / Than unseen hypocrisy." Thus, in this message, Marlowe merges the themes of policy (or cunning pragmatism) and hypocrisy. Once she is admitted into the nunnery, Abigail will be able to extract the hidden riches, thus rescuing the family fortunes.

Fortuitously, an abbess and two friars now make their appearance. Their readiness to be duped by Abigail is semi-comic, as is Barabas's rapid sequence of asides and pseudo-execrations toward the end of the scene.

The closing action introduces yet another thread: the rivalry between two young men, Mathias and Lodowick, for Abigail's affections. Thus, the first act concludes on a note of suspense.

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