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The Jew of Malta | Study Guide

Christopher Marlowe

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The Jew of Malta | Act 3, Scene 4 | Summary



Barabas enters, reading a letter from Abigail in which she informs him of her conversion to Christianity and her readmission at the nunnery. He is shocked and outraged, believing that his daughter has betrayed him. When Ithamore joins him, Barabas showers his new slave with endearments. Disinheriting his daughter, he makes Ithamore his sole heir. He then sends the slave to fetch a pot of rice which he intends to poison in order to kill all the nuns, including Abigail. As Ithamore watches in fascination, Barabas mixes in a deadly poison in order to create a lethal porridge. Dispatching Ithamore to the nunnery, Barabas intones an elaborate curse. Ithamore exclaims, "What a blessing!" Just after he departs, Barabas darkly hints that his execrations will befall his slave as well.


Just as Abigail reproached her father as "unkind" in the previous Scene 3, Barabas here upbraids his daughter as "false and unkind." It is hard to tell whether Barabas is more afraid of being found out as responsible for the deaths of Mathias and Lodowick or whether he is angrier over his daughter's desertion of her Jewish religion.

Either way, Barabas promptly discovers a replacement for the daughter who had been the apple of his eye. This is Ithamore, whom he promotes to be his "second self." In a shower of extravagant compliments, he names Ithamore as his sole heir. Dissimulation, however, is never far away from Barabas's temperament. When Ithamore briefly disappears to fetch the pot of rice, Barabas says, "Thus every villain ambles after wealth, / Although he ne'er be richer than in hope." This comment, together with Barabas's closing suggestion of vengeance after Ithamore departs—"I'll pay thee with a vengeance, Ithamore"—are sufficient to alert readers that Barabas's adoption of Ithamore is more a matter of policy than authentic affection.

A dramatic highlight of the scene is Barabas's elaborate curse, in which he employs a variety of allusions. For example, he wishes that the potion "be it to her as the draught of which great Alexander drunk and died." These curses allude to Pope Alexander VI, a member of the notorious Borgia family, to a mythological monster, the Lernaean Hydra, and to the Cocytus and the Styx, rivers in the underworld in classical Greek mythology.

In this scene, does Barabas cross the line from quasi-comic villain to paranoid serial murderer? Many readers and audiences would say yes. His decision to kill his own daughter, as well as many other innocents, suddenly creates a new tone in the drama: a tone of terror and horror.

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