T. S. Eliot, The Jew of Malta: Farcical and symbolical elements, anti-christian elements, anti-muslim elements, dramatic technique

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007

12 Pages, Grade: 2


Table of contents

1. Farcical elements

2. Symbolical elements
2.1. Gold
2.2. Barabas´s nose

3.The relationship between Christians and Jews in the Renaissance and Anti-Christian elements in The Jew of Malta

4. Anti-Muslim elements in The Jew of Malta
4.1. Literary representation of Turks” in Renaissance England
4.2. Characterization of Muslim characters in The Jew of Malta

5. Dramatic technique

1. Farcical elements in The Jew of Malta

The Jew of Malta is often amusing and it would be possible to regard it simply as a brilliant theatrical entertainment intended to make one laugh rather than think. The problem here is to maintain the right balance of the “ludicrous” and the “terrible”. T.S.Eliot was aware of this problem. Even though he preferred to classify the play as a farce rather than as a tragedy, he was careful to emphasise that its humour was “terribly serious”. According to Bawcutt, the Jew of Malta is a harsh and disturbing comedy, near to ridicule, not the cheerful laughter which relaxes and heals. It should not distract one from the play´s seriousness, but intensify it, by making us aware of the ludicrous instability of our attitudes and the absurdity of our pretensions to moral superiority. The play may seem at times a parody of normal human behaviour; even so, it is the kind of parody that is uncomfortably close to reality. (Bawcutt 1978:36).

Several asides in the main plot of The Jew of Malta assume comic function and devices of double entendre (double meaning) are applied. Several asides are unspoken thoughts of a character or confidentially and silently uttered messages addressed to another character, but most of the asides are examples of dramatic irony, in the way that they reveal the innermost thoughts of the characters in contrast to what they actually say. They may reveal double-dealing and the hypocrisy in this way but sometimes also the true honesty and virtue of a speaker. (cf. Abigail, III.iii). They also may function as a dramatic device to raise suspense, anticipating a forthcoming event, such as for example murder or intrigue.

An example of this can be found in II.iii when Barabas is talking to Lodowik: “The diamond that I talk of, ne´er was foiled”. The diamond will be foiled though when he touches it. Another example can be found in Act I.ii, when Barabas and Abigail are preparing for the retrieval of gold and money from their former home, now confiscated by the governor and turned into a nunnery.

Farcical scenes, such as in Act IV.i when Barabas provokes an open conflict between the Dominican friar Jacomo and the Benedictine monk Bernadine, which are both exposed as mercenary and corrupt. The promise of inheriting Barnabas´ riches is enough to trigger hostility and violence and an open satire on the corruption of the clergy as well as the greed and envy and worldly mindedness takes place. A macabre farce takes place after the strangling of Bernardine, when the dead body is propped up by Barnabas and Ithamore as if it was leaning on a stick asleep. They then take up their position as a concealed stage audience wating for Jacomo to come and to be accused of murder. Bernadine is discovered by Jacomo who attacks him with a stick and Bernadine seemingly drops dead. Barabas and Ithamore witness the apparent act of murder and after they report the incident to the authorities Jacomo is accused of murder and hanged.

There several references in the text to sexual abuses and the apparent promiscuity and corruption of the clergy, as for instance in Act III.iii, when Ithamore addresses Abigail with the following words: “…have not the nuns fine sport with the friars now and then?”

Another example can be found when Bernadine, in a self-exposing soliloquy, utters a response to Abigail´s last words: (“…and witness that I die a Christian”): “Ay, and a virgin too, that grieves me most…” (III.vi, 41) (cf.: Wöhrer 2006:91).

2. Symbolical elements in The Jew of Malta

2.1. Gold

A primary symbol in The Jew of Malta is “Gold”. It is a symbol of power and success as well as wealth and it symbolizes faith in the terrestrial world - its schemes, profits and rewards - as opposed to the spiritual realm's less immediate rewards. Barabas is ecstatic when he recovers his hidden gold in Act II, i. In sixteenth century Malta, as in our modern era, money was absolutely important and made the world go round, just as nowadays in our modern era.

2.2. Barabas´s nose

A further symbolic element is “Barabas’s nose”. It acts as a symbol of the satire that permeates The Jew of Malta, and most of the comments about it are made by Ithamore, who makes puns on the idea of smelling and having a nose for things. He repeatedly makes comments about Barabas’s nose and claims to actually worship the fact that he has a nose for things. Ithamore expresses his admiration for this feature along with Barabas’s qualities, who himself ascribes his nose with excellent qualities. Yet, Ithamore's gentle jibing is not always comic and can actually turn nasty, as in Act IV, when he mutters the aside, “God-a-mercy nose,” (IV.i, 23) in response to Barabas's comment that he smelt the priests “ere they came”. With the unconventional symbol of Barabas´s nose, Marlowe is undoubtedly playing on Jewish stereotypes.

The fact that Ithamore focuses on Barabas' nose symbolizes the urge to define the Jew as different, through a selection of this feature as a mark of distinction. Ithamore is connecting what he perceives to be a Jewish identity with a criminal identity, by stating that Barabas has a nose for crimes. It is rather unlikely that Marlowe agrees with Ithamore. The slave's comments are rather ridiculous, just as Barabas`s comment that he could smell the priests before they appeared (IV.i, 22), that one simply cannot ignore the sharp ironic tone. While the character of Ithamore might be saying these things in all seriousness, the playwright uses them to deepen the play's darkly comic flavour. Just as tragic events in the play are undercut by humour, so its jokes have serious implications about the state of human relationships (cf.: Sparknotes)

3. The relationship between Christians and Jews in the Renaissance and Anti-Christian elements in The Jew of Malta

Jews were systematically persecuted in the Renaissance. Even at times when Jews were able to maintain their Jewish identity and openly practice their religion, this only made their persecution easier. This victimization of Jews, though, was hardly reflected as such in Renaissance literature. Instead, roles were exchanged; Jews were almost always portrayed as greedy villains while Christians were portrayed as merciful, self-sacrificing, holy people. This argument can be extended to assume that the inaccurate portrayal of the Jews actually perpetuated their mistreatment in later centuries because Christians were given justification for their brutality(cf.: Edwards: 1988). The Jew of Malta is a perfect example of this reversal of roles. Catholicism is represented as a false religion. This can be seen as a reflection on the political background of the 1580s and 1590s when Marlowe wrote the Jew of Malta. Throughout this period England was at war with Catholic nations, most notably Spain.

The anti-Catholic satire can be seen in the following scene:

Abigail: “…And witness that I dye a Christian”

Friar Bernadine: “Ay, and a virgin too, that grieves me most”

(III.vi, 40)

The satire is “directed at the lechery, greed, and duplicity of the Friars and the wholly corrupted institutions to which they and the nuns belong.” Abigail’s sincerity and the “inward-centred nature of her faith contrast sharply her father’s dissembling and atheism and the Friars’ avaricious, lecherous, and vow-breaking actions, which parody the Catholic formulae for spiritual regeneration: poverty, chastity, and obedience.” (White: 1998)

It is the compilation of all of the characteristics that made Barabas the benchmark for all future stereotypes against Jews, often serving as justification for their persecution and. Jews faced horrific circumstances at the hands of Christians, and this injustice was perpetuated by the inaccurate portrayal of this Jew-Christian relationship in Renaissance literature, also in The Jew of Malta. The brutality of Barabas against Christians in theater was the everyday reality that Jews faced by the so-called selfless, loving Christians who hated them. Furthermore, the gravest misrepresentation of the Jewish people lies in the fact that the character of Barabas, who is supposed to represent them, sacrilegiously views the Promised Land as a source of monetary gains, when the Jewish people humbly see it as a source of freedom.

Barabas has a kind of honesty in his villainy which cannot be found in the behaviour of his opponents. He deceives and betrays, but makes sharp conscious choices which involve no self-deception, and his sudden shifts of attitude have an underlying consistency. To his mind it is no worse to begin with deception than to begin with ideals and then to lapse away completely from them:

As good dissemble that thou never mean´st”

“As first mean truth, and then dissemble it”

(I.ii, 290)

Challenged that his play was unorthodox, Marlowe could have claimed that his Christians were after all Catholics, and a good Protestant would naturally regard a country populated with Catholics, Jews, and Turks as a hotbed of evil. The Christians never show this kind of insight into themselves, and their lack of self-consciousness has the effect of making Barabas seem both more perceptive and more complex than they are.

Ferneze acts as an object of anti-Christian satire. He acts like a disciple of Machievel in the way that he uses religion as a political instrument. When Barabas is forced to give all his goods to the governor a knight tells him:

First Knight: “If your first curse fall heavy on thy head,

And make thee poor and scorned of all the world,

‘Tis not our fault, but thy inherent sin”

(I.ii, 110)

What is meant hereby is the crucifixion of Christ. When Ferneze allies with Don Bosco of Spain against the Turks, again religion plays an important role in the discussion. Don Bosco refers to the war, in which “the Christian Isle of Rhodes” was lost to the Turks. Rhodes is mentioned as the former home of the Knights of Malta[1]. Thus this war is suggested to have been a war of religions and as a result Don Bosco claims that Malta has “to be at deadly enmity with Turks” (II.iii, 33). But again one can observe that religion actually only plays a subordinate role. Don Bosco’s primary interest is not to free Malta from the Turks, but to sell Turkish slaves. Also Ferneze, when he has considered an alliance with Spain more profitable, again tries to justify his decision with the religious opposition of Turks and Christians:


[1] The Knights of Malta are a Catholic order who are also known as the Sovereign Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, Knights of Malta, Knights of Rhodes, and Chevaliers of Malta.

Excerpt out of 12 pages


T. S. Eliot, The Jew of Malta: Farcical and symbolical elements, anti-christian elements, anti-muslim elements, dramatic technique
University of Vienna
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eliot, malta, farcical
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Bachelor Katharina Eder (Author), 2007, T. S. Eliot, The Jew of Malta: Farcical and symbolical elements, anti-christian elements, anti-muslim elements, dramatic technique, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/171967


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