Marlowe and the Stage Machiavel - The Dramatic Function of Barabas in Christopher Marlowe's "The Jew of Malta"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2002
22 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Dramatic functions
2.1 Barabas - the descendant of the Vice
2.2 Barabas - the stereotyped Jew
2.3 Barabas - the stage Machiavel
2.3.1 The stage Machiavel and its origins

3. Marlowe and Machiavelli
3.1 Background - the historical Machiavelli and Tudor political thought
3.1.1 The historical Machiavelli 11 3.1.2 Tudor political thought and the Augustinian world view
3.2 鏑et them know that I am Machevill・-the prologue to the Jew of Malta

4. Barabas - a Machiavellian figure? 16

5. Conclusion

6. Works Cited 21

1. Introduction

„Marlowe’s Jew of Malta is a most puzzling play“1 in different respects. Firstly, there is the question of its genre: It is the one play of Marlowefs that strains most obviously against its apparent classification as a tragedy.2 Secondly, there are many different readings of the play. Is The Jew of Malta analogically a “serious farce”, a “comedy of evil”, a “tragic farce”or plainly an “ambiguous sort of drama”?3 Furthermore, a question which has often been raised, is, whether the text we have today is corrupt, and if it was written by someone else from the second act onwards.4

The reason behind all those questions and the play痴 ambiguity seems to be the protagonist Barabas. His character, one could argue, is not easy to analyze, nor is his motivation or disposition, as this is what was the focus of analysis in the past. The difficulty in explaining this character might result from different common suggestions what 徒ind of protagonist・ he is or what his dramatic function might be respectively.

Thus Barabas is a conglomerate of stereotypes - as Jew, devil, Machiavel, and a dramatic persona fulfilling different narrative and conventional functions - as villain, Vice and protagonist, etc.

These different suggestions will have to be investigated in the first place, and this is what I intend to do in chapter 2 of this paper. The three most frequent characterizations are to be considered: the Vice figure, the stereotyped Jew and the stage Machiavel. While the Vice and the stereotyped Jewishness are often mentioned merely as aspects of Barabas’s character, the Machiavellian is the most common and distinctive interpretation. For the sake of completeness the aspect of Machiavellianism is discussed very briefly in chapter 2, but a more detailed discussion of the topic follows in part 3 and 4 of this paper. It will be analyzed in the following respects: the stage Machiavel, Marlowe’s use of Machiavelli as a dramatis persona in the prologue, and the influence of Machiavelli’s writings on The Jew of Malta respectively.

A closer examination of the cultural background of Elizabethan thought and the life and works of the person Niccol・ Machiavelli has to precede these considerations. A literary work is always part of its cultural background, and it is at least debatable whether it is valid to apply today痴 standards to a drama written in Elizabethan times.

A textual analysis of the prologue which I regard as being essential for my argument will follow this necessary consideration of the background.

Eventually, there remains one crucial question: Is Barabas a Machiavellian figure at all or was he intended to function as one in The Jew of Malta, or is Marlowe an experimenter of the dramatic who has long been misunderstood and underestimated?

2. Dramatic functions

A dramatic work may be looked at from different angles: It can be seen merely as a piece of literature, which means that only the textual corpus is the basis of the examination, or it can be treated as a theatrical performance. The difficulty lies in considering the work as a unity of both the text and the performance, as recent criticism has claimed. This means that the focus is now on the audience.5

Many critics have tried to find out Barabas’ motivation, whether this is rewarding or not will be discussed later in chapter 4. At any rate, rather than his motivation, Barabas’ dramatic functions are goingto be examined in the following paragraphs, as Marlowe uses exactly these dramatic functions not only to generate the action but also to maintain control of the audience’s perspective on that action.

Barabas’ most distinctive function is obviously that of the protagonist, and therein lies the first peculiarity of The Jew of Malta, as Barabas is a villain at the same time. This is noteworthy because according to Aristotle’s Poetics it is impossible for a villain to stimulate tragic pleasure (“pity and fear”), hence a “Villain as Hero” is especially striking in a tragedy. As Boyer notes, “the greatest villains, heroic criminals were Machiavellians”.6

However, Barabas has not only been seen as a Machiavellian figure, but also as a descendant of the morality Vice and as the stereotyped Jew, both being popular forms of the villain on the Elizabethan stage. In the following paragraphs these гtock interpretations・ will be looked at in detail.

2.1 Barabas - the descendant of the Vice

One of the interpretations of Barabas’s character is that he should be understood as a descendant of the Vice figure, a type of character familiar from morality plays.7 The morality play was a kind of poetic drama which developed in the late Middle Ages (probably late fourteenth century), in which the abstract virtues and vices appear in personified form, the good and the bad usually being engaged in a struggle for the soul of a human being. The later morality is said to be superior dramatically because of its independence and greater concreteness and realism. The Vice was a stock character in the morality play, a tempter who was both sinister and comic.8

The characteristics of the Vice are the following:

- His name reveals his villainy: A deeper significance seems to lie in the choice of Barabas’ name, for Barabas was the criminal whom the Jews preferred to Jesus, when Pilate offered to release a prisoner. This is not only a hint at his villainy, but of course also at his Jewishness. Hence his name has a certain negative connotation, yet it is not as eloquent as names like “Avarice”, “Folly” or “Riot”9, which was common in the moralities.
- The Vice of the morality play reveals himself as the villain to the audience.
- The Vice talks of his deeds and exhibits satisfaction at the result of his actions.The expression of Barabas’ villainy seems to be drawn from the tradition of the morality play and the self-demonstrative nature of the morality Vice; in the manner of the Vice he takes extraordinary satisfaction in his deeds of villainy, delighting enormously in the virtuosity of his evil. His meeting with Ithamore brings out the demonstrative manner of the Vice in full force:

As for myself, I walk abroad a-nights,/ And kill sick people groaning under walls./ Sometimes I go about and poison wells;/ [...] And in the wars ‘twixt France and Germany,/ Under the pretence of helping Charles the Fifth,/ Slew friend and enemy with my stratagems:/ Then after that I was an usurer,/ And with extorting, cozening, forfeiting,/ And tricks belonging unto brokery,/ I fill’d the gaols with bankrupts in a year,/ And with young orphans planted hospitals;/ And every moon made some or other mad,/ And now and then one hang himself for grief,/ Pinning upon his breast a long great scroll/ How I with interest tormented him./ But mark how I am blest for plaguing them:/ I have as much coin as will buy the town./ But tell me now, how hast thou spent thy time?” (2.3.179-206)10

Formally the Vice figure functions as the opponent of the good, the tempter of man, and as the buffoon, a comical figure.11 Referring to the opponent of the good and the tempter of man respectively, it could be argued that there are no ggoodh characters in The Jew of Malta. One exception is Abigail, but she is not a real “opponent” to her father, she is more like a ’tool‘ for Barabas, (and for Marlowe, for without her his plot would not work) besides, this is not the main plot. As to the role of the buffoon, the character of Barabas has often been portrayed by actors wearing a big nose, occasionally a red wig and a hat12 ; there are also hints in the text for this (2.3.178; 3.3.10). There are also comic elements in the plot itself, like the episode of Barabas disguised as a Frenchman to deceive Bellamira, Pilia-Borza and Ithamore (4.4). Whether this is proof of Barabas being a Vice, or rather a stage convention like “comic relief” which was very common in Elizabethan drama, may be subject to debate.

Eventually, what differentiates Barabas’ career from that of a Vice is that his goal is the material destruction of his enemies, not their spiritual ruin; he is not a morality Vice, he only acts like one. Even if Barabas makes a great point of hating Christians and plotting their destruction, the course of the play makes it quite clear that he is equally malevolent and treacherous with everyone, Christian, Turk or Jew, including his own daughter.

To sum up, there are manifold examples for Barabas痴 proximity to the morality Vice. However, this conclusion does not bear up to closer examination, as can be seen from the aspects mentioned.

2.2 Barabas - the stereotyped Jew

The representation of Barabas in the play both draws upon and helps to feed the anti-Semitic prejudice that was very much a part of Elizabethan (and European) culture at the time. Blamed by Christian doctrine for the death of Christ (see previous chapter for Barabas’s name), associated with the devil, feared and hated, the Jewish population which was scattered across the continent had suffered persecution down through the centuries. All kinds of malicious rumours circulated, including those about Jews poisoning wells (similar to Barabas’s poisoning of the nunnery), and about Jews crucifying Christian children and drinking their blood. The play makes reference to both prejudices: in 2.3.181, where Barabas tells Ithamore: “Sometimes I go about and poison wells” and in 3.6.49, where Friar Jacomo exclaims: “What, has he crucified a child?”. The Crusades of the eleventh and twelfth centuries were launched against Islamic nations, but also incorporated widespread slaughter of Jews across Europe as the crusaders made their way towards the Holy Land. When Marlowe wrote The Jew of Malta Jews had been officially banned from England for over 300 years, expelled by Edward I in 1290, although a few communities remained, practising their religion in secret. Elsewhere in Europe, Jewish communities were confined to ghettos and suffered high taxation while being denied full citizenship - a context Shakespeare would exploit when writing his Merchant of Venice, which shows evidence of Marlowe’s influence.13

Thus the Jew would seem to be a dramatic symbol of such Christian moral evils as greed, egoism, infidelity and worldliness. It is precisely these moral evils which are the preeminent vices not only of Barabas the Jew, but of most of the characters in the play.

In scene 2.3.178-222, where Barabas has just purchased Ithamore, it becomes clear that Barabas self-consciously acts out the role of the stereotypical stage villain, with a particular emphasis on his Jewishness. (e.g. Ithamore exclaiming 徹 master, I worship your nose for this.・ enforces the ethnic stereotype.) It is in this scene that it becomes obvious that Marlowe did not intend to present a realistic protagonist or even a realistic drama when writing The Jew of Malta: the crimes Barabas describes are appalling but the tone in which they are reeled off is flippant if seen in a moral context. The casual phrases that litter the speeches, such as “As for myself” (l. 175), “Sometimes I go about” (l.177), “And now and then” (l. 197), and the final “But tell me now, how hast thou spent thy time?” (l. 202), set against the enormity of the havoc he has wreaked, cannot help but provoke laughter. Barabas’s motivating principle seems to be religious hatred; he calls on Ithamore to smile to himself “when Christians moan” (l. 173), and repeatedly identifies victims of his crimes as Christians. Elsewhere there are the most familiar associations of Jewishness with avarice, and with usury (l. 195; ll. 200-4). Usury (in contrast to the twenty-first century) in early modern Europe was regarded as a sin; Christian church, as far back as the twelfth century, had decreed that usury contravened God’s law. Since the ban did not apply to practising Jews, they were a convenient source of credit.


1 Luc Borot: "Machiavellian Diplomacy and Dramatic Developments in Marlowe’s Jew of Malta." Cahiers ノlisab騁hains ノtudes sur la pr・-Renaissance et la Renaissance Anglaises 33 (1988),p. 1

2 Don Beecher for instance remarked on this problem: “The Jew of Maltahas been a troublesome or at least a challenging play for critics. There is no general agreement upon even such basic matters as its genre...” (Don Beecher: “The Jew of Maltaand the Ritual of the Inverted Moral Order.”Cahiers Élisabethains: Etudes sur la Pre-Rénaissance et la Renaissance Anglaises 12 (1977), pp. 45-8 )

3 For a brief overview of the different readings see Kenneth Friedenreich: “The Jew of Maltaand the Critics: A Paradigm fo Marlowe Studies.”Papers on Language and Literature. A Journal for Scholars and Critics of Language and Literature.(1977), pp. 318-35

4 See Friedenreich (1977) concerning the corrupt-text thesis. See also: Beecher (1977): “Certain critics met the problem by challenging the text its elf and especially the authenticity of the last three acts.” p. 45

5 See Edward L. Rocklin: “Marlowe as Experimental dramatist: The Role of the Audience in The Jew of Malta.・ In: Kenneth Friedenreich, Roma Gill; Constance B.Kurijama (Eds.). 鄭 Poet and a Filthy Play-maker・: New Essays on Christopher Marlowe. New York 1988, pp. 129-130

6 Clarence Valentine Boyer is one of the first to remark on this problem in his book: The Villain as Hero in Elizabethan Drama. New York 1964 (first published 1914), p. v.i.; Boyer defines the villain as follows: “We may say, then, that a villain is a man who, for a selfish end, wilfully and deliberately violates standards of morality sanctioned by the audience or ordinary reader.” (p. 8)

7 This tradition is mainly indebted to David M. Bevington: From Mankind to Marlowe: Growth of Structure in the Drama of the Tudor Period. Cambridge, Massachusetts 1962, p. 222 and to Bernard Spivack:Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil: The History of a Metaphor in Relation to his Major Villains. York 1958

8 For a definition of the Vice of the morality plays see: Hugh C. Holman:A Handbook to Literature.(4th Ed.) Indianapolis 1980, pp. 278 and 460 Ina Schabert:Shakespeare-Handbuch. Die Zeit - Der Mensch - Das Werk - Die Nachwelt.(3rd Ed.), Stuttgart 1992, pp. 46-51 L. W. Cushman:The Devil and the Vice in the English Dramatic Literature Before Shakespeare.Halle 1900

9 Examples are taken from Cushman (1900), p. 134

10 All references to Marlowe’s plays are to the following edition: J. B.Steane (Ed.): Christopher Marlowe. The Complete Plays. Dido, Queen of Carthage. Tamburlaine the Great. Doctor Faustus. The Jew of Malta. Edward the Second. The Massacre at Paris. London 1969, reprinted 1986.

11 Cushman (1900), pp. 72-7

12 For costumes and staging history see: Coburn Freer: “Lies and Lying in the Jew of Malta”. In: Kenneth Friedenreich, Roma Gill, Constance B. Kuriyama (Eds.): “A Poet and a Filthy Play-Maker “: New Essays on Christopher Marlowe. York 1988, p. 149

13 The information about Jews in Europe is drawn from James Shapiro: Shakespeare and the Jews. New York 1996

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Marlowe and the Stage Machiavel - The Dramatic Function of Barabas in Christopher Marlowe's "The Jew of Malta"
University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine"  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Elizabethan Stage Villains - Shakespeare and Marlowe
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marlowe, stage, machiavel, dramatic, function, barabas, christopher, malta
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M.A. Pia Witzel (Author), 2002, Marlowe and the Stage Machiavel - The Dramatic Function of Barabas in Christopher Marlowe's "The Jew of Malta", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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