In this post, you will study The Jew of Malta a ‘Renaissance tragedy’ written by the famous 16-century playwright Christopher Marlowe. Marlowe was a member of the famous “University Wits” and a contemporary of William Shakespeare. This play was first produced at the Rose Theatre in London in 1592. You will find it interesting that this play is based on the tragic plight of a very wealthy Jew Barabas who lived in the Mediterranean Island of Malta with his beautiful daughter Abigail. He built his vast empire of business in Malta with the help of usury – the lending of money at excessively high interest. All his possessions were confiscated by the Catholic Governor of the Island, in order to defend Malta from the Turks, and subsequently, he forced to convert to Christianity. The tormented Jew Barabas was swept into a whirlwind of revenge and he turned into a serial killer. He even assisted the Turkish army to conquer Malta, got himself appointed the Turkish Governor only to meet with his tragic death by falling into his own trap, a boiling cauldron. You should also note that the importance of money and business in this play reflects the changes that had occurred in the 16th century from a feudal to a capitalist society.

Similarly, the location of Malta as the locale for the play is important in comprehending the international business endeavours of the 16 Century world. However, the reach of the play is not confined to Malta only as the Spaniards and the Turks seek to gain control over the small island known for its merchants and wealthy businessmen. By the time you finish reading the unit, you will see how money and wealth can corrupt an individual like Barabas who finally meets with his tragic death just because of his ambition to become the wealthiest man in Malta.


The Prologue:

More than sixty years after Niccolo Machiavelli (1498-1527) died, Christopher Marlowe resurrected him to deliver the Prologue to the Jew of Malta. You must take this seriously, as there is a clear-cut reference to Machiavelli as we read it:

“Albeit the world thinks Machiavell is dead,

Yet was his soul but flown beyond the Alps;

…To view this land, and frolic with his friends.” (Prologue, 1-4)


“Admir’d I am of those that hate me most.

Though some speak openly against my books,” (Prologue, 9-10)

With this Prologue, Marlowe makes it clear to the readers/audience that the play would discuss issues of governance, political strategy and power which were synonymous with the name of Machiavelli, the well known 16th-century Italian political theorist, philosopher, historian, humanist, statesman and playwright of Italy.


The ‘Prologue’ was a popular and contemporary dramatic device. The dramatist addressed the audience directly through the Prologue to introduce the events and issues that were to unfold as the play progressed. Traditionally the presenter’s role was associated with truthfulness and reliability. Marlowe upsets this tradition by having the figure of Machiavelle deliver the Prologue.

Act I

The Jew of Malta opens with Barabas counting his wealth and hopes that his ships will do good business in their recent business endeavours. Soon, several merchants enter to tell Barabas that his ships are in the port, each laden with immense wealth. Barabas is pleased and credits God for his riches. He preferred to remain to be a hated Jew to being a Christian. We come to know from the first scene that Malta, the Turkish Tributary, is being threatened for failing to pay its tribute. Calymath, who is the leader of the Turkish forces, gives Ferneze, the Governor of Malta, one month’s time to arrange for the tribute money. Being helpless, Ferneze summons all the Jews, including Barabas, who is the wealthiest, and forcefully demand a levy of half of their goods. Ferneze orders that the Jews will have to pay “one half of his estate”. If they refuse they will have to convert themselves to Christianity. If they refuse, further their entire wealth will be confiscated. While the other Jews agree, Barabas protests but in vain. When Barabas refuses, all his goods are confiscated and his house is turned into a nunnery. Clever Barabas already knew what would be happening to him, and so he concealed most of his riches under the floorboards of his house. He persuades his daughter Abigail to pretend to enter the nunnery so that she can get back his hidden treasure. On his insistence, Abigail professes conversion into Christianity and presents herself at the nunnery as a novice.


Note that the treatment meted out to Barabas by the Christians is unfair and this becomes the reason for his taking revenge on Ferneze and Malta. The play has been seen as belonging to the Revenge tragedy tradition and the treatment of Barabas in this act provides the impetus for the future course of action. Such treatment of Barabas by the Christians also reminds us of the hatred and injustice faced by Shylock in Shakespeare’s significant play The Merchant of Venice.

Act II

After getting proper instructions from Barabas, Abigail starts playing the role of a most obedient daughter and starts acquiring the money for him. In fact, this act opens with Abigail throwing jewellery and gold out of the window to Barabs who is waiting below. Martin Del Bosco, a vice-admiral from Spain, arrives in Malta to conduct a sale of slaves rescued from the sinking Turkish ships. Del Bosco convinces Ferneze that they need not pay the tribute to the Turks, claiming that Spain will help and protect Malta. Barabas is still claiming that he is as wealthy as he had been but he is determined to take revenge on Ferneze. Subsequently, for his future use, he buys a Turkish slave whose name is Ithamore and whom he acknowledges being no less villainous than himself. Barabas even makes Abigail a part of his mission to take revenge. She is in love with Mathias, who returns her love but whom Barabas pretends to regard very much. Barabas forces Abigail into a relationship with Ludowick who is Mathias’s friend and Ferneze’s son. Actually, Barabas noticed Ludowick’s attraction to his daughter and tried his best to turn that affair into his own profit. Having
set the two young men against each other, he sends Ithamore to Mathias with a forged challenge from Ludowick. In the meantime, the political situation in Malta undergoes a change. Ferneze, encouraged by the Spaniayard Martin Del Bosco, decides to use the money already levied from the Jews to make war on the Turks.


This act begins with Ithamore having feelings for Bellamira who later turns out to be a prostitute. This act also introduces the audience to the sub-plot of Billamira and Pilia Borza. Mathias and Ludowick kill each other in the dual originally planned by Barabas. Their friendship had been so close that Ferneze decides to discover and avenge himself on the villains who induced enmity between them. Ferneze and Katherine mourn the death of their beloved son. Abigail is shaken by her father’s treachery as Mathias’s death led Abigail to think sincerely on re-entering the nunnery. Enraged by this act of disobedience of the daughter, Barabas decides to kill all the nuns in the nunnery, manages to leave a poisoned pot of rice porridge outside the nunnery with the help of Ithamore, and succeeds in killing all its inhabitants. The Turks arrive in Malta to collect tribute but Ferneze refuses to pay them. Abigail has sent for Friar Jacomo and before her death, she confesses her part in the death of two intimate friends Mathias and Ludowick to Friar Bernadine.

Act IV

The Friars Barnardine and Jacomo, who originally sponsored Abigail’s genuine religious vocation, visits Barabas and informs him about Abigail’s confession. Barabas seems to have repented and tells them that he intends to enter a religious house because there is a change in his heart. The two Friars, who belong to two different religious orders, quarrel as to who will have the honour of receiving the repentant sinner. Barabas very cleverly plays them off one against the other. With the help of Ithamore, Barabas strangles Bernardine to death and frames Jacomo as the murderer. Now only Ithamore is aware of the actual act of murder. Bellamira invites Ithamore to her house because she loves him. He is thus taken up by Bellamira, an infamous prostitute, and by Pilia Borza, her pimp both of whom have an eye on Barabas’s riches. They encourage Ithamore to blackmail Barabas, using Pilia Borza as the go-between. Ithamore falls into the trap and he begins to blackmail Barabas as he threatens to “confess all’ if Barabas does not comply with his demands. Somehow Barabas manages to expose the plot against him and visits all the three disguised as a French musician and manages to get them poisoned.

Act V

The act opens with Bellamira and Pilia-Borza confronting Ferneze with what they know about Barabas’s crime. The poisoned flowers are slow in taking effect and Bellamira and Pilia Borza who are now aware of Barabas’s crimes, betray him and Ithamore to Ferneze. The Governor orders that Ithamore and Barabas be arrested, and the two are quickly brought in. As the victims of the poison finally die, Barabas too feigns death and his body is abandoned by the authority. Now Barabas determines to avenge himself on the whole city by betraying Malta to the Turks. He bent on exacting vengeance for unpaid tribute, becomes instrumental in leading the army of Calymath, secretly into the city. As the Turkish victory is secured, Barabas’s fortune again starts to swing dramatically in his favour. Calymath makes him the Governor of Malta. However, he was so hated in Malta that he began to feel his position to be insecure. Now, he talks to Ferneze who is in prison, and he outlines a scheme for destroying the Turks. He proposed a plan which is like this: Calymath’s men will be invited to a feast in a monastery which will then be blown up; Calymath himself will die in a burning cauldron into which, at a signal from Barabas to Ferneze, he will be pitched by means of a machine of Barabas’s contrivance. Predictably, Ferneze takes the opportunity of avenging himself on Barabas, who murdered his son, by casting Barabas into the cauldron instead. Ferneze receives great satisfaction in watching the Jew Barabas dying. Calymath, who has now lost his entire army in the blazing monastery, is held prisoner by Ferneze until a time when his father Grand Seignior, agrees to repair the damage caused by the latest happenings to Malta. The play ends with Ferneze retaining his position, Barabas dead and Calymath neutralised.


By now, you must have realised that this play is a representative Renaissance play. The reference to Machiavelli at the beginning is not without significance. Machiavelli’s famous political treatise The Prince fascinated and horrified generations of readers and became the intellectual property of every well-read European during the 16th century. Marlowe too was well acquainted with Machiavelli’s writings. Like other intellectuals of his time, he found Machiavelli useful in understanding the important changes that were taking place in the Elizabethan society. But, there are two obvious difficulties to understand Marlowe’s ‘Machevill’ who opens the play. First, Machiavelli treats religion as vital to statecraft, while ‘Machevill’ in the play dismisses it as a ‘childish toy’; Secondly, Machiavelli says nothing about economics, while ‘Machevill’ claims that Barabas has amassed a great fortune by Machevill’s ‘means’. Please note such contradictions, which, perhaps, refer to anti-Machiavellian polemics in Marlowe’s contemporary times.

You have already read that during the Renaissance, the Jews were considered responsible for the crucifixion of Christ. The Jew of Malta alludes directly to this idea by having its hero named Barabas. Marlowe’s Jew is certainly wicked and gives us quite a remarkable history of himself in Act II, Scene III. Unlike Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, the Jew Barabas is interested in power which is not to be achieved through any conquest. He is, in fact, a true representation of the tradition of the Jews, whose wealth is known to all and who always imagine ‘Infinite riches in a little room’. (Act 1, Scene I) Wealth for Barabas is a sign for divine favour and like a true Renaissance figure; Barabas sets out to master the universe with more and more wealth. The larger framework of the play hinges on the arrival of an outside force that will disrupt Malta’s internal peace. When the Turks do manage to invade the island temporarily, it is only with the help of Barabas, who has been thrown outside the city walls.

Barabas’s lust for money is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the commercial mercantile society of which he is a part. By making Barabas say: “who is honour’d now but for his wealth?”, Marlowe was representing how the commercial aspect of an urbane society was gradually becoming a feature of the Renaissance. Barabas tops this remarkable career by poisoning an entire convent of nuns just to be revenged on his daughter Abigail for her conversion to Christianity. Moreover, though Barabas offers this account as his own personal history, it is equally possible to read it as a kind of composite overview of the ways the Jews might have become involved in it, and indeed Barabas has been compared to a number of historical Jews. Harry Levin’s discussion of Marlowe in his book Christopher Marlowe: The Over Reacher bears tremendous significance. Like Marlowe’s other heroes Barabas too is an over-reacher. He too has his ‘tragic flaw’. He is characteristic of the Marlovian form of over-reaching himself—of being too clever and expecting other people to acknowledge his otherness.

Finally, he falls into a trap of his own making. However, this play serves the purpose of both a revenge tragedy and a satirical comedy. From Kyd’s famous The Spanish Tragedy Marlowe learnt the benefits of excitements and tension to be aroused in the minds of the spectators. Throughout the play, Barabas is dependent on other people— Abigail, Ithamore, and finally Ferneze, and it is this dependence that sets the plot of the play going and this is what finally brings Barabas’ downfall.

The asides and soliloquies spoken by Barabas allow him to turn to the audience to share some vital piece of information that those on the stage are unaware of. In order to let the audience see Barabas’s true attitude and his scorn for those he is tricking, Marlowe introduces the figure of Ithamore to act as Barabas’s confidant but more often than not, he allows Barabas to share his thoughts directly with the audience, thus implicating it in his plots. This aspect of the play is illustrated in the interactions between Barabas, Ludowick and Mathias. For example, Barabas reminds the audience of his homicidal intentions in his words with strategic asides:
“As these have spoke so be it to their souls./ I hope the poisoned flowers will
work anon.” (V.i.40-1)

You are likely to notice how in this play Marlowe exploits popular stereotypes to achieve a comic effect. The audience is not allowed to dwell on the crimes Barabas is committing – like engineering the deaths of Ludowik, Mathias and his daughter, killing the two Friars, Pilia Borza, Ithamore and Bellamira and so on. The fast-paced events underplay the serious nature of Barabas’s crimes. The audience does not even sympathise with the religious characters because they are equally tainted. This allows Marlowe to present his protagonist Barabas as a part of a world where the desire for gold and power is more sacred than belief in God or religion. Such a caricature produces comic laughter.


The following are some of the most important themes in the play The Jew of Malta.


The culmination of Barabas’ Machiavellian policy is seen in Act V when he leads Calymath and his men into Malta and is made its Governor. His soliloquy at the point of his greatest triumph underlines all that was popularly conceived to be truly Machiavellian.

No, Barabas, this must be looked into;

And since by wrong thou got’st authority,

Maintain it bravely by firm policy,

At least unprofitably lose it not. (5.2. 34-37)

Just when the audience feel with Barabas that the perfect Machiavellian is in control of the situation, Marlowe allows Ferneze to turn the tables on him. By connecting the Jew to Machiavelli, Marlowe has simultaneously discredited Machiavelli and satirised Elizabethan England’s stereotyped perception of Machiavelli. There is also the possibility that The Jew of Malta may be a satire on the methods used by those in, or aspiring for, positions of power. Rather than being the advocate of either the individualistic pursuit of power or a practical politics devoid of ethical considerations, by bringing back Machiavelli, Marlowe might have acted as their critic, who is exposing the corrupt practices of the ruling classes. The machinations of Ferneze would probably support such a reading. One of the central themes in The Jew of Malta is the difference between what is real and what only appears to be real. For instance, Ferneze suggests that in taking all of Barabas’ wealth, he is not at fault, but only fulfilling the curse of the Jews’ inherited sin. But actually, Ferneze uses religion when it is convenient. He ignores the Christian admonition of kindness toward all men and lacks any compassion for the Jews. When he needs money, the Jews are suddenly made outsiders, although there is every evidence that the governor has made use of them earlier. Note how Barabas, like the Christians, is not above using religion for his own ends. Both Barabas and Ferneze are followers of Machiavelli. See how they behave in a similar fashion as the play progresses.

The Jewish Christian Equation:
Some issues that you might be curious to know relates to whether Marlowe is here dealing with the issue of the Jews as the ‘other’ or ‘outsider’ in a Christian society. In the course of the action, Marlowe provides a negative depiction of two major religious groups namely the Roman Catholics and the Jews. In both cases, these depictions reflect the general attitude of his English audience toward these two religions. Much of the religious rhetoric in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta reflects the real-life tensions between the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England. He makes the two Friars vie with each other to convert Barabas because they are interested in the Jew’s wealth, which he promises to give to the order he decides to join. The behaviour of the Friars emphasises the corruption and hypocrisy of the church. A good deal of the play can be seen as a struggle between what is inside and outside, or what is familiar and unfamiliar. While the Jews of Malta are well accustomed to the land, they consider themselves to be “strangers” and they are treated as such by Ferneze and his ilk.

Power and Wealth:

Marlowe in this play observes how power and wealth are connected with the world of Renaissance business. This is a direct reference to the rise of the merchant classes and they often financed wars that were undertaken by the kings during this time. However, Barabas is only concerned with safeguarding his own wealth. As he claims, none to be ‘honoured now but for his wealth’ (I, i. 112). Marlowe also shows that the desire for wealth is not confined to the Jews only. Ferneze and the Friars are equally driven by the desire for gold. Through the tragic tale of Barabas, Marlowe also exposes the Christians and the various corrupt practices in monasteries and nunneries. Marlowe uses the struggle over Malta among the Turks, the Spaniards and the besieged knights of Malta as part of political interest. Martin Del Bosco offers to help Ferneze because Malta will provide him a lucrative market for his captured slaves. The conversations between Barabas and Ludowick, and Barabas and Mathias also play on this same theme. Abigail is constantly referred to as a diamond and Barabas has no compunctions about using his daughter as a commodity to be offered first to one bidder, then to another.


Marlowe uses every opportunity presented in the play to indulge in anti-Catholic satire. He hints at the possibility of sexual relationships between the friars and the nuns, and this helps to deflect the Protestant audience’s attention from the heinous crime that had been committed.


If compared to his other plays, in The Jew of Malta, Marlowe presents a wider range of characterisation along with the sense that one is dealing with ordinary rather than extraordinary human beings. Perhaps, this is what is so striking about Marlowe’s characterisation in this play. Let us briefly discuss some of the major characters of the play.


The speaker who delivers the Prologue. This character is based on an actual figure called Niccolo Mechiavelli the author of the famous book The Prince (1513). Marlowe presents Mechiavill as an ironic character as he sets the context of the play filled with intrigue, duplicity, hatred, murder and ambition the traits which were mistaken by Marlowe’s contemporaries as essentially Machiavellian.


The protagonist of the play, father of Abigail. In the New Testament, Barabas is the murderer who is released from prison instead of Jesus. He is a miserly Jewish merchant careful only about his daughter and infinite wealth. But, when his wealth is confiscated, the notion of revenge consumes him, and he starts killing everyone whoever becomes a threat to him. He as a strategist is both power-thirsty and cunning. It is to be noted that Barabas does not match the character of Machiavelli although in the Prologue the speaker (assumed to be Machiavelli himself) implies that Barabas is Machiavellian although his “money was not got without my means.” However, Barabas personifies all the characteristics, which the Elizabethan audience could readily identify with Machiavelli. Barabas completely lacks mercy for his targeted victims. However, Marlowe’s portrayal of Barabas is ambiguous as the latter does express his intense love for Abigail, his daughter and yet remains loyal to his insatiable desire for vengeance despite all difficulties.


Barabas’s daughter. She is in love with Mathias, Ferneze’s son. In Hebrew, Abigail means “father’s joy”. Known for her love, loyalty and dutifulness, she is perhaps the only character in the play who is least concerned about money and wealth. Marlowe however fully exploits her character to expose the corruption of the Catholic clergy. She takes pity on her father’s sufferings at the hands of the Christians, undertakes to redress his ‘wrongs’, becomes entangled with his ‘policy’, and finally suffers mortal consequences. As she utters: “I was chained to follies of the world:/ But now experience, purchased with grief,/Has made me see the difference of things.” (III, iii.60-3). Although initially, she is loyal to her father, she soon discovers that Barabas is the actual murdered of Mathias. She finally shows that true salvation lies in Christian redemption.


The Governor of Malta and Barabas’s greatest enemy. He is out and out a Christian. But the situation makes him morally bankrupt as he uses undue force against the Jews and is equally Machiavellian as Barabas. It is not an overstatement that he is a religious hypocrite hiding under the notion of Christian morality.


A Turkish slave captured by the Spanish navy, bought by Barabas to carry out his evil plots. The interesting point is that Ithamore takes a sadistic pleasure in killing and becomes a serial killer just to gain the favour of his master Barabas. Another example of how easily he gets persuaded is his coming under the influence of Bellamira, the prostitute, who dupes him into bribing Barabas.

Friar Jacomo and Friar Barnardine:

These two Friars represent two different monasteries. Through these two characters, Marlowe exposes the rampant corruption prevalent in the Church system during Marlowe’s time. Friar Jacomo is the Dominican Friar who converts Abigail. However, he also sleeps with nuns and lusts for money. He represents a hypocrite Catholic clergy. Friar Barnardine, on the other hand, quarrels with Jacomo on matters of whether Barabas’ money should go to his own monastery.

Salim Calymath:

The Turkish leader and the son of the Sultan. He seeks to capture Malta with the help of Barabas as the conflict between Ferneze and Barabas presents him with a golden opportunity to fulfil his political gain.

From this post, you have learnt that The Jew of Malta is a play that provides insights into the various aspects of the Renaissance world. This play of Marlowe also represents the development of the formal design of playwriting besides reflecting the state of international affairs and the development of commercial enterprise in the 16th century. On the one hand, the play reflects on the composite state of geo-political ‘balances of power’ during a particular time as well as on the increasing significance of extended global trade. On the other, it presents a complex mix of characters like Barabas and others who find themselves knowingly or unknowingly caught
under the corrupting forces of society. You will do well if you read the original text from any available standard edition and enjoy your reading.


Q 1: Why does Marlowe start the play The Jew of Malta with a Prologue to Machiavelli?

Ans to Q No 1: With this Prologue, Marlowe makes it clear to the readers/ audience that the play would discuss issues of governance, political
strategy and power which were synonymous with the name of Machiavelli, the well known 16th-century Italian political theorist, philosopher, historian, humanist statesman and playwright of Italy.

Q 2: What difficulties do you face while
understanding Marlowe’s use of Machiavelli?

Ans to Q No 2: There are two obvious difficulties in our understanding of Marlowe’s use of Machiavelli… …one, Machiavelli treats religion as vital to statecraft, while ‘Machevill’ in the play dismisses it as a ‘childish toy’… … second, Machiavelli says nothing about economics, while ‘Machevill’ claims that Barabas has amassed a great fortune by Machevill’s ‘means’.

Q 3: If you consider The Jew of Malta a tragedy, what is the ‘tragic flaw’ in Barabas’ character?

Ans to Q No 3: Barabas’s ‘tragic flaw’ is perhaps his ambition to ‘overreach’ as Harry Levin has pointed out. He is guilty of being too clever and expecting other people to acknowledge his cleverness. This finally leads to his tragic doom.

Q 4: How does the character of Barabas represent the commercial
mercantile society of the Renaissance period?

Ans to Q No 4: By exposing Barabas’s lust for money, Marlowe was perhaps showing how the commercial aspect of an urbane society was
gradually becoming a feature of the Renaissance mercantile culture.

Q 5: What is Machiavellism?

Ans to Q No 5: Machiavellism can loosely be defined as strong adherence to the ideas of Niccolo Machiavelli… …In the context of the play Barabas is presented as a perfect Machiavellian is in control of the situation… …But by connecting the Jew to Machiavelli, Marlowe has actually discredited Machiavelli and satirised Elizabethan England’s stereotyped perception of Machiavelli.

Q 6: How does Marlowe portray the Jew in a Christian society?

Ans to Q No 6: The Jew was an ‘other’ or ‘outsider’ in a Christian society… …but through the portrayal of the Jews, Marlowe also exposes the ill practices of the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England……In both cases, such portrayals reflect the general attitude
of his serious English audience toward these religious faiths.

Q 7: What connections do you make between power and wealth?

Ans to Q No 7: Power and wealth are connected with the world of the Renaissance business… …this idea is also derived from the assumptions that the merchant classes often financed wars… …this thirst for power and wealth, according to Marlowe, is a drawback in
both the Jews and the Christians.


Q 1: Barabas is both oppressed and oppressor, victim and villain. Discuss.

Q 2: Do you believe that Barabas’ evil actions are to be justified as the
reactions to crimes committed against him?

Q 3: How, according to you, Marlowe’s varied characters represent his

Q 4: Discuss the significance of Machiavelli in the play. In what ways, are the characters in The Jew of Malta Machiavellian?

Q 5: Who are the main characters of the play? What role do they play in
the development of the plot of the play?

Q 6: Discuss the major themes of the play The Jew of Malta? How is the theme of power and wealth related to the Renaissance world of

Q 7: Discuss how the main plot and the subplot revolve around the theme
of power and wealth.


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