Thursday, 25 March 1999
Christopher Marlowe: The Jew of Malta (c. 1589)
Edition: Nick Hern, 1994
Christopher Marlowe's play is certainly not in tune with the spirit of the second half of the twentieth century, with its portrayal of the Jew, Barabas, as the epitome of deceit and treachery. In his introduction to this edition, Peter J. Smith quotes Barry Kyle, who directed a revival in 1987, as originally thinking that the anti-Semitism would make it unstageable. He lessened the impact of this aspect of the play by using a clever trick to make the Christian leader of Malta appear to be the really unpleasant character.
In some ways, the Jewishness of Barabas is not important. He is explicitly meant to be someone who follows the teachings of Machiavelli (who appears in the prologue as Machevill, "Make-Evil"), whose analysis of politics was thought to be subversive and diabolical. On the surface, there is no particular reason whey the practitioner of his theories needs to be a Jew. In fact, the major reason in the plot for Barabas' faith is to provide the way in which he is put into the position of desiring revenge - through a discriminatory tax confiscating large amounts of his property to pay tribute to the Turks. His faith is clearly important to him, at least at the beginning of the play, because he refuses to become a Christian to avoid the tax, unlike the other Jews on the island (and unlike Shylock who reluctantly accepts baptism at the end of The Merchant of Venice).
In the end, there is really no escaping the anti-Semitism in this play. English people should perhaps not forget which country it was that first forced Jews to wear a yellow star and then expelled them, which country it was that had major anti-Jewish riots following accusations of ritual murder of children - this was medieval England. We should face up to our past, and the most positive way we can respond to this play is to let it shame us.