The Jew of Malta Introduction
In A Nutshell
The Jew of Malta makes a lot more sense when you take into account that it was written by a guy who died by getting stabbed in the eye. No, really, it does. It's a weird play written by a weird dude.
Christopher Marlowe wasn't born with a trust fund. In fact, his father was just a shoemaker. True, people always need shoes—but it's not going to make you rich like trading derivatives.
But our boy Kit was bright, and he won a scholarship to Cambridge. There, rumor has it, he was recruited by one of the secret intelligence services working for Queen Elizabeth.That's right—playwright and superspy. Maybe superspy. Probably. Whatever.
In any case, Marlowe had a legitimate career as a writer. But by the time of his cringe-inducing death in 1593, he had the reputation for being not only a spy, but also an atheist, a bar-brawler and a homosexual.
If it was lurid and edgy, people thought Marlowe either did it or was it.
With that kind of background, it's no surprise that his most famous works are a little kooky.You've got gay kings, pacts with Satan, and, oh yeah, a sociopathic Jew who likes the finer things in life. (Big houses. Nice clothes. Poison.) The plays are controversial, featuring transgressive characters, ruthless cynicism, and a decided absence of happy marriages, pastoral bliss or affirmations of conventional social dynamics.
Actually, that sounds kind of cool. Renaissance audiences thought so: The Jew of Malta alone was produced at least 36 times between February 1592 (when it was first published) and June 1596.Why so popular?
Well, first of all, people just thought it was a good show—Barabas was played by Edward Alleyn, who was Elizabethan England's version of Robert Downey, Jr. But even without a star-powered cast the story is just plain entertaining.
The Jew of Malta also touched a live wire within the English imagination. Although there hadn't officially been any Jews in England since Edward I kicked them out in 1290, people were still not too fond of them. (Think a cross between the bogeyman and terrorists, and you'll get a sense of how people felt about Jews.) And anti-Semitism flared up when Queen Elizabeth's personal physician, a converted Jew named Roderigo Lopez, was executed for trying to poison her.
As if that weren't enough, Elizabeth had only recently laid the smackdown to the Spanish Armada; the Ottomans were covetously eyeing the Mediterranean; and, lest we forget, her own country had switched national religions four times in the last century.While the events of The Jew of Malta are far-fetched, they were inspired by the rapidly changing, very real world 16th century Britons saw around them.
Why Should I Care?
The Jew of Malta couldn't possible relate to you, right?.It takes place on a tiny island you've never heard of; it revolves around a character who has been unanimously interpreted by critics to be legit cray-cray; and it features events that will mostly likely never hear about in the news. (How many nunneries get brought down by Poisoned Porridge?)
But let's look past the bizzaro-world events. What's going on this play?
- Our little Malta is a key chess piece in the struggle between the Christian West and the Muslim East.
- Geopolitics, national identity and religion are hopelessly intertwined.
- The triggering event of the plot is Ferneze's act of gross anti-Semitism, and the play's focus on racism and religious division only ramps up from there.
- Religion is used to justify force, deceit, and blatant racism.
Hm, this is starting to sound a little more familiar.
This play isn't staged much today. Directors aren't sure how to handle all the anti-Semitism, so they flip-flop over whether to treat the entire thing as a joke or to stage it seriously and let the audience squirm in their seats. Our thoughts?
While there are a plenty of reasons a director could choose to stage this play as a hilarious farce (look at our "Genre" section) and it is relentlessly weird, that top layer of delicious wackycovers up a dense cake of hard-hitting issues that haven't changed much in 500 years.The problems of The Jew of Malta are, ultimately, the problems of any multicultural society, and—even though it's been 500 years—we still think it might be a little too soon for the jokes.