How Jewish is the Jew of Malta?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

19 Pages, Grade: 2,7



1 Introduction

2 Jews in the Renaissance
2.1 Society, Jews and the Renaissance
2.2 Jews in England

3 Jews in Malta
3.1 Historical background
3.2 The Jewish community of Malta in the Renaissance

4 Barabas, the Jew of Malta
4.1 The Character of Barabas
4.2 How Jewish is Barabas

5 Conclusion

6 Literature

1 Introduction

Christopher Marlowe was born in February 1564 and wrote most of his plays in the 1580’s and 1590’s. One of his most famous plays written in this time is The Jew of Malta and the topic of this paper as well. This play was written around 1590 (the exact date is not known). At that time England was in a rather complicated situation in terms of religion and policy. Queen Elizabeth I. tried to change the major religion from Catholicism towards Protestantism. Furthermore the religious reformation in Germany enacted by Martin Luther had a widespread influence on every European state and also on England. The entire era between the 14th and the 16th century was a time full of changes, revolutions and reformations established in Italy, where the term Renaissance was initiated. In that confusing time a group of people was blamed for everything bad that happened and was hunted all over Europe – the Jews.

Most of the Jews came to Europe during the early Middle Ages around 1000 AD trying to find a calm place to live and to make a living by trade and craft. But after some time they developed a talent for money-trade and commerce and most of the Jewish families got rich. This was not for their advantage because most Europeans got jealous and the Jews were first avoided by the citizens of their hometowns, later even outlawed. The story of Marlowe’s Jew is strongly connected to the history of the Jews and the Renaissance period, which is the main topic of this assignment. I am going to find out how Jewish the Jew of Malta really was in connection to Renaissance history.

The first chapter is applied to the history of the Jews in Europe and especially in England. The facts and current stereotypes against Jews will be emphasized. The second chapter is about the special case of Malta and its history. Here I speculate why Marlowe might have chosen this setting for his novel. Furthermore I try to show the situation of the Jews of Malta. In the third and last chapter I try to link history with The Jew of Malta by searching for answers to the following questions: What stereotypes did Marlowe use in The Jew of Malta ? What defines a Jew in the Renaissance and how much of the historical Jew can be found in the character of Barabas? What other character traits does Barabas have apart from his Jewish attitudes and in which way did this affect his reliability and self-image? And the most important questions: Why did Marlowe create such a character of a Jew? What might have been his intention?

All these questions are directly linked to the history of the Renaissance, especially in England and to the English theatre at that time. The conclusion at the end of the paper then will sum up and show how Jewish the Jew of Malta really is.

2 Jews in the Renaissance

2.1 Society, Jews and the Renaissance

Until the period of the Crusades Jews played an important role in the Medieval society as far as commerce is concerned. Many Jews had special qualifications for trading and money affairs, so that they were often working for governments of all kinds. Because of that fact many merchants saw the Jews as their direct rivals and tried to get rid of them by any means. For instance in Venetia Jews were excluded from the city and with that became the first Jews living in a ghetto. Because of that action the Venetians accomplished not only the exclusion off Jews from commerce but also from the society. This was not solely the case in Venetia but also in Italy as well as all over Europe. Furthermore, the Jews lived not only in ghettos but were overall banished. The persecutions began in 1290 in Naples where the Jews started to lend money to the needy, which was a noble idea but the Jews wanted a high rate of interest, which was in fact a usual method. This marked the starting point for persecutions all over Europe. The Jews were not the only persons who did money-lending for high interest rates, nearly every merchant tried to get richer by money-lending at that time. Furthermore, some money-lending Jews worked for the Church to help the needy, because the Church was not able anymore to deal with all poor people. After the last lost Crusade Europe was in a deep economic depression and tried to get out of it bit by bit. Because of that more and more poor people were needing help to survive. This was especially the case in bigger cities like Naples, Rome or other cities in Europe, cities in which many Jews lived to make their living.[1]

The problem for the Church as well as for the Jews was, that money-lending was officially seen as a sin forbidden. Therefore Jews were even more persecuted. However, they saw no other possibility but to lend money, because they were more and more pushed out of their original jobs, like commerce and craft. There were no other fields left the Jews could work in. Therefore the brutal expulsion from nearly all Italian cities took place in 1569 and the other European countries imitated that action. The main cause for this was that most Jewish communities lived around marketplaces and ports, which was perceived as an insult by the citizens. The exclusions were accompanied by bloody riots, where both sides lost many of their people.[2]

What caused all these problems were mostly religious conflicts or economical resentments. In the Renaissance Jews became rather wealthy and shared the way of living in that time, i.e. learning arts, luxurious living and hedonistic outlooks[3]. So Jews lived in luxury, wore expensive clothes and jewellery. This caused a lot of enviers under the inhabitants, especially those who also worked as merchants. The next fact which made Jews out-of-favour was that they did card-playing and gambling. Although these games were very popular throughout Europe, they were forbidden. The Jews did not solely actuate some casinos but they also produced playing-cards on their own and smuggled them into the cities. This of course made them richer but also more unpopular. As far as education is concerned the Jews were another problem in the eyes of Christians, since they were often better educated and most of them went to universities. On the other hand most of the Christians could not afford to go to university and they also started with school education two years later than Jews. Nevertheless, Christians started to exclude Jews from universities. Furthermore, more Jews lived in the cities because they continued to possess less and less land caused by banishment. So they were more dependent on the cities and therefore more concerned with money and trade.[4]

However, the prejudices against Jews had another origin. Difference in religious believes and religious history caused that Jews were scorned by Christians. Jews believed in the Old Testament of the Bible, called Hebrew Bible, and the laws of Moses. They believed that they had a special alliance with God and are the Chosen People of Israel and therefore strictly followed the laws of Moses, which they think he received directly from God. They read the Old Testament on a spiritual and literary basis, whereas the Christians read the Old Testament only for the prophecies concerning Jesus Christ, i.e. the spiritual meaning.[5] The Christians basis is the New Testament, the tales of Jesus and his apostles and they believe in the trinity of God, his son and the Holy Ghost. In Christian’s eyes the Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus and overall are ignorant to the massages of Jesus. They have witnessed Jesus’s resurrection but ignored it and therefore are blind for anything concerning this topic.[6] Christians also claim that they are the True Israel and the loss of Jewish territory is nothing more then God’s displeasure with the role of the Jews in the crucification of Jesus.


[1] Roth, Cecil. The Jews in the Renaissance. The Jewish Publication Society of America: Philadelphia, 1959. p. 3-6.

[2] Ibid. p. 9-14.

[3] Roth, Cecil. The Jews in the Renaissance. The Jewish Publication Society of America: Philadelphia, 1959. p. 21.

[4] Ibid. p. 24-36.

[5] Abulafia, Anna Sapir. Christians and Jews in the 12th century Renaissance. Routledge Publ.: London, 1995. p. 64.

[6] Ibid. p. 113.

Excerpt out of 19 pages


How Jewish is the Jew of Malta?
College  (Anglistisch/Amerikanistisches Institut)
Hauptseminar: Christopher Marlowe
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
538 KB
Jewish, Malta
Quote paper
Doreen Bärwolf (Author), 2008, How Jewish is the Jew of Malta?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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