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The Jew of Malta | Study Guide

Christopher Marlowe

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The Jew of Malta | Prologue | Summary



The prologue to the play consists of a speech by a ghost based on the Italian political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527). Machiavelli's treatise The Prince was a byword for cynicism and pragmatism. In the speech, which is in the nature of a caricature, Machiavel claims to have inhabited the soul of the French Duke of Guise, who is also now dead. Machiavel delivers a brief, boastful sketch of his beliefs. He then announces that he has come on stage to present the tragic story of the Jew of Malta.


This speech, 35 lines long, sets the tone for Marlowe's play as a whole. Machiavel would have been easily recognized by the audience: a figure of deceit, irreligion, and scheming. His boast that he recently inhabited the soul of the Duke of Guise adds an outrageous embellishment for an English audience, since Guise, recently assassinated in 1588, was notorious as the French nobleman chiefly responsible for the massacre of French Protestants on St. Bartholomew's Day, 1572.

In his prologue, Machiavel introduces many of the play's most important themes, including hypocrisy, religion, and avarice. For example, he asserts about himself, "Admired I am of those that hate me most." He brazenly dismisses religious belief: "I count religion but a childish toy." Ignorance is the only sin Machiavel can conceive of. And of Barabas, he remarks: "Who smiles to see how full his bags are crammed, / Which money was not got without my means."

And perhaps most important, in his fanatical zeal and devilish delight in evil, Machiavel sets the tone for the melodrama, an emotional roller coaster, that follows.

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