The Jew of Malta | Study Guide

Christopher Marlowe

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The Jew of Malta | Themes

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Avarice

Avarice, which might be defined as unrestrained greed, appears as a theme as early as Act 1, Scene 1. In his opening soliloquy, Barabas virtually deifies his riches. He is sharply attentive to every detail of his trading ventures: shipping routes, geography, investment, and return. Making money is the core of his existence.

Avarice, however, is not limited to Barabas, but extends to other characters as well. Lodowick, for instance, wishes to marry Abigail for her money and inheritance. The friars Jacomo and Barnardine vie with each other for Barabas's philanthropy when Barabas pretends that he wants to be converted to Christianity. And of course there's Ithamore, Barabas's Turkish slave, and the minor characters Bellamira and Pilia-Borza, who turn to blackmail in their efforts to become wealthy.

In short, avarice is one of the play's hallmark themes. It overlaps with the themes of hypocrisy and revenge.

Revenge

Barabas plots to get even with Ferneze for confiscating his entire property. Barabas achieves the first phase of his revenge when he manipulates the governor's son Lodowick into a duel with Mathias, in which both Lodowick and Mathias are killed.

There is little question that the young men's parents, Ferneze and Katherine, will lose no opportunity to take their revenge on anyone who has staged the duel (see Act 3, Scene 2). In the meantime, revenge plays a prominent role in Barabas's decision to poison all the nuns at the nunnery, including his daughter, Abigail, whom he thinks has betrayed both him and her ancestral Jewish faith. She is "inconstant," he says, and she has grieved him with her "disgrace": he solemnly curses her in Act 3, Scene 4.

In the second half of the play, revenge and betrayal run amok. The Maltese want to get even with the Turks; Barabas and Ferneze share a mutual desire to destroy one another; and Barabas is shown as ever more harshly anti-Christian. The deaths of Friar Barnardine, who is strangled, and Father Jacomo, who is condemned to the gallows, are good examples of the latter. Marlowe's play is a strong example of the Elizabethan revenge tragedy.

Hypocrisy

In The Jew of Malta, hypocrisy takes the form of a pious declaration of virtue that masks corrupt, vicious behavior, and it is virtually universal among the characters. Barabas, for instance, is a hypocrite in numerous ways. Perhaps his most shocking act of hypocrisy is his invocation of Maltese law in Act 4, Scene 1, when he says that Friar Jacomo will have to be tried for the murder of Friar Barbardine—a murder that was carried out not by Jacomo but by Barabas with the aid of Ithamore. Marlowe adds considerable irony to the dimension of hypocrisy when he endows Barabas with an acute sense of spotting the hypocrisy of others, but this aspect of his character does not diminish his own hypocrisy.

Young Lodowick is also portrayed as hypocritical when he pursues Abigail, ostensibly for the girl's beauty and virtue but really, as is hinted at several times, for her riches (he keeps referring to her, for example, as a diamond). Ferneze's hypocrisy stands out when he uses scripture and Christian "morality" to justify his financial exactions from the Jews in Act 1, Scene 2. Ithamore is presented as hypocritical as well when he pretends to admire his master and then betrays him in the second half of the play. Friar Jacomo and Friar Barbardine are hypocritical in that they pretend to be devout but are shown to be envious and money-hungry.

Hypocrisy overlaps in the play with the themes of avarice and revenge and also with the use of religion as a symbol.

Anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism is a prominent theme in the play. Its target is not only Barabas but all the Jews of Malta, and its practitioners are not only the Christian rulers of the island but also the Muslim Turks. Barabas is acutely conscious of being not only despised but socially and financially oppressed. On the other hand, though, he is intensely proud of his cunning ability to overcome this obstacle by amassing wealth and tricking his enemies. The first half of the play shows him as stunningly successful; it is only with the emergence of Bellamira's and Ithamore's blackmail, as well as the extremely complex plots and counter-plots in the second half of the play that we have the sense of Barabas's powers dwindling. In the end, of course, his enemies win out and deal him a gruesome death.

Policy

As used in this play and understood by the Elizabethans, policy 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. To the first Jew, for example, he declares that it is the Maltese government's policy that lies at the core of the Maltese officials' demands to take his property, wealth, ships, and home. Soon afterward he exhorts his daughter, Abigail, "Be ruled by me, for in extremity / We ought to make bar of no policy." In short, "policy" is a euphemism for "self-interest."

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