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The Jew of Malta | Study Guide

Christopher Marlowe

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The Jew of Malta | Symbols



Gold symbolizes riches, superiority, status, and power in the play. In his opening soliloquy in Act 1, Scene 1, for example, Barabas contrasts gold with "paltry silverlings," or inferior silver coins, as he compliments the Arabians, who pay for all their trade goods with "wedge of gold." The stage direction for this scene refers specifically to Barabas in his counting house, "with heaps of gold before him." In Act 3, Scene 1, the courtesan Bellamira haughtily tells the thief Pilia-Borza that she "disdains" silver.

It is not an exaggeration to say that gold is what Barabas lives for. When his wealth is confiscated in Act 1, Scene 2, he exclaims to Abigail in anguish, "My gold, my gold, and all my wealth is gone!" Ironically, the secret stash of gold and jewels that Barabas has hidden away under a floorboard against a sudden reversal of fortune is marked by the sign of the cross—an ambiguous detail that perhaps suggests Barabas, always devoted to his own self-interest, hedges his bets. In Act 2, Scene 1, when Abigail throws down bags of riches to him, Barabas's mood suddenly turns euphoric: "O my girl, / My gold, my fortune, my felicity." His language has the effect, at least for a moment, of conflating his riches with his daughter.


The character of Abigail conveys some complicated symbolism. She begins the play as the loyal and very beautiful daughter of Barabas. She is the apple of her father's eye. She symbolizes beauty, innocence, and purity. Barabas is able to manipulate her into a pretended conversion to Christianity so that she can recover a substantial portion of his fortune.

After the death of Mathias, however, the situation changes as Abigail begins to resist her father's stratagems. In the end, she opts for an authentic conversion and the life of a nun, and she pays for this decision with her life. Barabas regards her as a traitor, though it is doubtful that this opinion was shared by Marlowe's audience. In this phase, Abigail symbolizes conscience and integrity. She comes closest of any of the characters, perhaps, to representing a good and admirable person.

In Act 3, Scene 3, Abigail swears never to betray her father. In Act 3, Scene 6, however, she confides a written account of Barabas's misdeeds to Friar Barbardine, just before her death. Abigail believes in the "seal of the confessional," which would prohibit Barnardine from disclosing her account. But in this play, trust is seldom justified, and immediately after Abigail's death, Barnardine determines to blackmail Barabas.


The three religions represented in the play—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—are all portrayed as gravely flawed. Religion symbolizes pretense, deceit, and greed, rather than piety, devotion, or redemption. Cynicism is ubiquitous in the play. Barabas, for example, has marked the floorboard that conceals the nest egg of his fortune with the sign of the cross. The supposedly pious Friars Barnardine and Jacomo are so eager to gain Barabas's financial blessing that they break out into a fistfight. Ithamore cynically remarks that, "To undo a Jew is charity, not sin."

The prevailing tone toward religion in the play is set by Machiavel in the prologue when he exclaims that he "[counts] religion but a childish toy." Machiavel cynically refers to contenders for "Peter's chair" (meaning the papacy) who are then killed off in turn by other disciples of Machiavel. In Act 1, Scene 2, Barabas refers to his fellow Jews as "silly brethren," chastising them for their readiness to comply with Ferneze. Ithamore, the chief Muslim character in the play, is portrayed as a murderer and a blackmailer, so devoid of moral scruples that he participates in a bragging contest with Barabas in Act 2, Scene 3. Barabas greets Ithamore's boasts with praise, remarking "we are villains both."

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