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The Jew of Malta | Study Guide

Christopher Marlowe

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The Jew of Malta | Act 2, Scene 3 | Summary



This scene further develops various plot strands that have been introduced earlier in Act 2. The action takes place in the marketplace. After a brief preface by an officer, Barabas takes the stage and delivers a lengthy aside. He informs readers that he has purchased a new mansion, which is quite as handsome as the governor's residence. But his recovery from humiliation and privation is by no means complete, since he will pursue vengeance on Ferneze, the governor. Barabas boasts of the Jewish talent for hypocrisy and dissembling.

Lodowick, Ferneze's son, now enters the scene. He too is a target for Barabas's revenge, a payback which the Jew means to affect by playing on Lodowick's fancy for Abigail. Lodowick metaphorically refers to the girl as a diamond, a figure of speech that Barabas encourages in a series of puns and asides. Hypocritically, Barabas refers to the seizure of his house and its conversion to a nunnery as a deed that will help purge his sins—at the same time, muttering in an aside that he hopes to set the house on fire.

The two turn their attention to the marketplace and the slaves for sale there. After some banter, Barabas purchases Ithamore. Parting from Lodowick, he assures the young man that the diamond (Abigail) will be his; Lodowick has only to visit the Jew's house.

Mathias, who is Abigail's other young suitor (and the one that she prefers), enters with his mother Katherine. He immediately voices his suspicion about the closeness between Barabas and Lodowick. While Katherine busies herself with purchasing a slave, Barabas initiates a dialogue with Mathias, cautioning him not to let his anti-Semitic mother notice their conversation. Barabas tells Mathias to think of him as a father, and he conceals facts when Mathias asks him about his parley with Lodowick. Mathias also misleads his mother, saying that his colloquy with Barabas concerned borrowing a book. Haughtily, Katherine orders her son not to talk with Barabas, since he is "cast off from heaven."

The other characters depart, leaving Barabas and Ithamore alone on stage. Barabas declares he will take his new slave into training, teaching him to foreswear such emotions as compassion, love, hope, fear, and pity. The two then begin a bragging contest, with each character boasting of the murders and other outrages he has accomplished.

Lodowick re-enters, inquiring about the "diamond" Barabas has promised him. Abigail then enters, bearing letters that she gives to Barabas. The Jew orders his daughter to entertain Lodowick courteously—provided that she retain her chastity. Privately, he tells her he would like the two to become betrothed. This disconcerts Abigail, whose true choice is Mathias, but Barabas insists on the stratagem as necessary to his plan of revenge.

After the young people exit, Barabas gloats at the progress of his plan. He intends, he says, to have both Lodowick and Mathias die. Fortuitously, Mathias soon enters, becoming enraged when Barabas, in a series of lies, tells him of Lodowick's importunate courtship of the girl. Drawing his sword, Mathias threatens to attack Lodowick, but Barabas restrains him. Abigail and Lodowick appear briefly, thus heightening Mathias's bitter hostility. Barabas then eggs on Lodowick still further by telling him (falsely) that Mathias has sworn to kill his rival.

Barabas assures Lodowick that the young man will have his "diamond" (meaning Abigail). He then speaks aside with Abigail, admonishing her that she must cooperate in duping Lodowick. Abigail seems uncomfortable with dissembling, but she accepts her father's commands, at least for the moment. Misleadingly, Barabas interprets his daughter's tears as simply the custom of Jewish maidens when they are betrothed. Lodowick now exits and is rapidly followed on stage by Mathias. Once again, Barabas plants the seeds of jealousy and hostility, claiming that it was only by his own intervention that Mathias escaped being stabbed by Lodowick.

Toward the end of the scene, Abigail questions Barabas about pitting the two young men against each other. She herself loves Mathias. Barabas is annoyed that she has not chosen a Jewish suitor and orders Ithamore to escort Abigail into the house. He then gives Ithamore a letter to deliver to Mathias, purporting to contain a challenge from Lodowick. As the scene ends, Barabas declares himself pleased with Ithamore's zealous compliance in duplicity.


As the scene opens, Barabas boasts of his powers of dissimulation, and the chief action in this part of the play—the duping of Lodowick and Mathias—leaves no doubt of his talents. He has already made a substantial comeback since his humiliation in Act 1, and he intends to go much further, seeking the ruin of both Ferneze and Lodowick, the governor's son. Almost incidentally, the death of Mathias will also be part of Barabas's wholesale revenge. By the time Marlowe wrote The Jew of Malta, the "revenge tragedy" was a readily recognizable and hugely popular sub-genre of Elizabethan drama—perhaps most clearly typified in Thomas Kyd's play The Spanish Tragedy (1576).

Among the leading techniques in this scene are asides, allusions, irony, puns, and catalogs. The quasi-comic tone continues. Barabas and Ithamore, for example, vie for bragging rights in their gruesome recitals of murders, insults, and grievous injuries. Barabas also highlights the semi-comic tone in his cunning manipulation of the two young rivals in love, Lodowick and Mathias, who alternate with each other on stage in almost ballet-like movements.

Barabas employs verbal irony—a device in which what is said strikingly contrasts with what is really meant—when he refers to Lodowick as "one that I love for his good father's sake." A few lines later, he puns twice: once on the word "foil" and once on the word "pointed." Barabas also alludes to Jewish history in ancient Roman times when he refers to the emperors Vespasian and Titus, who conquered Jerusalem in the year 70 CE. Finally, asides are ubiquitous throughout the scene, as Barabas cloaks his real intentions.

The dialogue and action of the scene suggest two new aspects of the father-daughter relationship between Barabas and Abigail. First, Barabas's indiscriminate resolution to do away with both his daughter's suitors—despite the fact that Abigail declares her love for Mathias—indicates that revenge and mayhem are higher priorities for him than his daughter's happiness. (Of course, he may also be motivated by the fact that Mathias is not Jewish and that his mother is actively anti-Jewish). Second, Abigail's newly expressed discomfort with dissimulation suggests that there may be limits to Barabas's ability to manipulate her.

At the end of the scene, Barabas's threefold use of the word "cunningly" and "cunning" as he sets Mathias and Lodowick against each other is notable. Deceit has become his singular objective.

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