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The Jew of Malta | Study Guide

Christopher Marlowe

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The Jew of Malta | Context


Elizabethan Drama

Beginning in the first years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (ruled 1558–1603), drama became a highly popular entertainment in England. Like most things British, it was centered in London, which was then expanding to become a thriving metropolis. Starting in the 1570s, a series of playhouses were erected to the south of the Thames River. The price of admission was cheap, with standing room costing only one penny or so. At the time, disease, dissension, and social impropriety were closely associated with the stage and with public performances. As a result, theatrical companies and their activities were strictly regulated by the authorities.

Elizabethan dramatists had a number of sources to draw upon for their scripts. There was, for example, the native tradition in the vernacular (English language) of the mystery and morality plays, which dated from the 14th and 15th centuries. In this type of drama, the characters were often symbolic, representing such generalized figures as "everyman," "vice," or "courage." There were also school comedies, based on the ancient Roman plays of Plautus (c. 254–184 BCE) and Terence (c. 195–159 BCE). Loosely adapted, these skits occasionally coalesced around a more definite structure, producing such works as English playwright Nicholas Udall's Ralph Roister Doister (c. 1553). Also from a classical source were the bloody revenge tragedies of the ancient Roman playwright Seneca (4 BCE–65 CE). His dramas offered suspense, melodrama, and violently exaggerated action on mythological subjects. Finally, a steady flow of dramatic subjects from continental sources had begun to arrive in England, especially from Italy.

The Dramatic Achievement of Christopher Marlowe

Much remains mysterious about Marlowe's life and early, violent death: Was he a secret agent for the government? In what ways exactly did he brag about his atheism and homosexuality? What were the precise circumstances of his death in a tavern brawl? But enough evidence exists from his half dozen plays to provide a fascinating portrait of his towering achievement in drama while he was still in his 20s.

In the first place, Marlowe conceived of heroes whose titanic ambitions and accomplishments went far beyond those of any other dramatic protagonists of his day. Tamburlaine, for example, succeeds in conquering much of the known world. Doctor Faustus parleys with supernatural powers to gain almost unlimited knowledge and the world's most beautiful woman. Barabas, the hero of The Jew of Malta, behaves thoroughly in this vein. There seem to be no limits to his avarice and to his scheming intrigues, either to cheat others financially, to injure them physically, or to kill them. Barabas's outlandish success in these endeavors, and his free-spirited boasting about that success, bring him incongruously close to comedy, where a hero's actions appeal irresistibly to the wish fulfillment and fantasy of all humanity.

Marlowe's second radical innovation in the drama of his day was to use standardized blank verse—unrhymed iambic pentameter (pattern of ten syllables where one short or unstressed syllable is followed by a long or stressed syllable)—as the norm for stage dialogue. Before Marlowe, playwrights had used a variety of rhythms, especially the long and awkward "fourteeners" (lines with seven stresses). It was Marlowe's genius to have realized that blank verse more nearly reproduced the rhythms of everyday speech. Going forward, other dramatists (including Shakespeare) occasionally varied their meter (usually to four-beat tetrameter lines) and more than occasionally employed prose for comic scenes involving "low" characters. But blank verse became the fallback format for all Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. The latter term refers to plays produced during the reign of Elizabeth's successor, King James I, who reigned from 1603 to 1625.

Anti-Semitism in Elizabethan Times

Marlowe's portrait of Barabas—as well as Shakespeare's depiction of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice (written 1596–97), produced barely five years later—are dramatic characterizations that reflect what we know of the social status of Jews in Elizabethan England.

By the time Marlowe wrote The Jew of Malta, Jews had been officially expelled from England for three centuries. A small population, however, remained behind after King Edward I expelled them in 1290. Not all of them were engaged in the occupation of money lending, as many people of the time claimed. Rodrigo Lopez, for example, was a Jew who served as physician to Queen Elizabeth before his execution in 1594. Some Jews were poor. All Jews, as nonbelievers in Christ as a messiah, were commonly despised. They were subject at all times to burdensome special taxation, and they were sometimes forced to choose between expulsion and conversion to Christianity. These realities are reflected in some of the conflicts and challenges facing Barabas in The Jew of Malta.

Marlowe seems to have been especially interested in the links between Jewishness and intrigue: witness the prominence in his play of the theme of policy. The word had two meanings in 16th-century England, one admirable and one not. On the one hand, it refers to a government's responsible plans to govern for the good of the people. On the other hand, it refers to an individual's plan to arrange events however necessary to achieve his own advantage. Barabas applies this selfish "policy" to his actions throughout the play. And it links closely to the 16th-century understanding of Machiavellianism. Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527), the Florentine political philosopher, was notorious for his ruthless pragmatism and amoral cynicism. In the prologue to The Jew of Malta, the soul of Machiavelli appears as Machiavel to explain his "policy."

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