The Jew of Malta
by Christopher Marlowe
When you're named after the guy who doesn't get crucified, you pretty much know that life isn't going to work out.
Meet Barabas. He's named after Barabbas, the Biblical thief who the crowd of Jews decides to let go when given the choice of either him or Jesus. As you can imagine, he's the play's Big Bad—and boy is he bad.
He starts out as a successful Jewish businessman, who lives peacefully with the Christians, even if he doesn't invite them over to dinner. But once Governor Ferneze confiscates all of his property, Barabas embarks upon a creative and diverse killing spree (young men, friars and nuns, his daughter—Barabas has an admirable anti-discrimination policy when it comes to murder). And here's our question: why?
We understand how it starts—he's willing to play a little dirty to get back some of his money, and murdering Lodowick makes plenty of sense when you take into account that Lodowick's dad Ferneze has basically ruined Barabas's life.
But then things get weird. Why kill Mathias? How does he go from professing that his daughter Abigail is the one person he cares about to remorselessly murdering her the moment she becomes a nun? Barabas's motives have been confusing critics for centuries, so put on your thinking caps and let's get analyzing.
Barabas the Bogeyman
Keep in mind that the Jews were officially expelled from England in 1290 by Edward I and weren't readmitted until 1656, so at the point that this play is being written and performed there haven't been Jews in England for several centuries.
There were, however, plenty of horror stories, and Barabas seems to get his kicks by conforming to anti-Semitic stereotypes. When he and Ithamore are getting to know each other in Act 2 Scene 3, Barabas gives a famous speech where he lists off all of his crimes, among them poisoning wells; killing sick homeless people; and, oh yeah, extorting the poor as an usurer (money-lender who charges interest. (Hello, Sallie Mae? Are you paying attention?)
These aren't just any crimes, though. To an Elizabethan (read: prejudiced) audience, they're specifically Jewish crimes.Lots of people think that Barabas is actually lying here, because it seems implausible that the business-focused merchant we see in Act 1 is also moonlighting as a really proactive, extremely stereotypical Jewish sociopath.
Basically, Barabas is the Tim Tebow of Jewish Villains: a little too good to be true.
Or maybe trying to make sense of Barabas's psychology is a waste of time. Maybe he's not supposed to be a real character at all, but just a convenient repository of stereotypes. Barabas end up becoming what everyone wants him to be: the Machiavellian villain, the bogeyman of Western Christianity.
Barabas the Stock Character
We know that Barabas is a Machiavellian villain before we meet him. How? Well, Machiavelli himself tells us: in the Prologue, Machiavelli's ghost introduces Barabas as a man who "favors" him, and who's used his tricks to achieve his wealth (Prologue 32). But is that all he is?
In the Prologue Spoken at Court, the reader says to the audience, "You shall find him still, / In all his projects, a sound Machevill; / And that's his character" (PSaC.7-9). These days, we tend to think of characters as being unique individuals with their own special motives and flaws, but in early modern times you frequently saw stock characters on the stage—that is, types of characters that always conformed to a certain literary convention, like The Malcontent or The Fool.
(Those don't resonate? Then, how about the Mean Cheerleader or the Ditsy Blonde or the Smart Brunette with Glasses?)
So is Barabas a stock character with no inner life or motivation? And are things that make him a stock Jew the same things that make him a stock Machiavellian? Or is it possible to see him as having real thoughts and feelings?
Man With a Plan. Or…Not?
The million-dollar question: what does Barabas want? What's his endgame?
At first, Barabas doesn't present as all that complicated a guy: the first thing we ever learn about Barabas is that he "smiles to see how full his bags are crammed" (Prologue.31). Money is what makes him happy and his life is about getting more of it.
The minute after Barabas finds himself houseless, gold-less, and business-less, he pledges to regain his wealth. Makes sense, right? So he goes and recovers some of his money.
And this is where it gets weird, because he doesn't end there. If all he cares about is money, then he should take what he's recovered and go out and make more. Instead, he decides he's going to get Lodowick killed, along with Mathias. Sure, Lodowick is Ferneze's son, and Barabas definitely has a beef with Ferneze. That said, Lodowick's murder is about the last point at which you really know what's going with Barabas. Why murder Mathias too? How can he kill Abigail without blinking an eye when he's previously confessed that she's the only person he loves?
If you read this play and found yourself scratching your head at Barabas's actions and motives, don't worry. No one gets in. In fact, it just might be that his real motive is the pleasure he gets out of destruction and chaos. Because some men just want to watch the world burn.
In 16th century Europe, there was a lot of anxiety about the "obduracy" of the Jews. That was the idea that, even if Jews converted to Christianity, they were still secretly holding out for Judaism and refusing to change (go take a look at our Perseverance Theme section for more).
Yeah, we know. It seems like people in the 16th century might have more important things to worry about. Like, oh, not dying of plague. But no: they worried about the Jews. (Probably also the plague.)
In any case, Barabas epitomizes Jewish obduracy, not just in his refusal to convert to Christianity, but in his general attitude towards his new situation. Even when his fellow Jews tell him he's got to roll with the punches after Ferneze confiscates his wealth, Barabas says:
What, will you thus oppose me, luckless stars,
To make me desperate in my poverty,
And, knowing me impatient in distress,
Think me so mad as I will hang myself,
That I may vanish o'er the earth in air
And leave no memory that e'er I was?
No, I will live, nor loath I this my life
And since you leave me in the ocean thus
To sink or swim, and put me to my shifts,
I'll rouse my senses and awake myself. (1.2.256-66)
So much for accepting his circumstances with grace. Barabas is arming himself for battle. To him, the situation isn't Christians vs. Jews; it's The World vs. Barabas, and he's not going down without a fight.
Sure, Barabas is always with other people—but does he have any genuine close relationships?
The only real contenders would be Abigail and Ithamore, and look at what happens to them—the minute Abigail tells Barabas she's converted to Christianity, he has her murdered. He adopts Ithamore as his heir, but secretly says Ithamore will "ne'er be richer than in hope" (3.4.53-4), because he's not actually planning on sharing his wealth with him.
Another thing to chew on: think about how many asides are in this play (those moments where a character says something to himself that nobody else can hear) and think about how the overwhelming majority of them are attributed to Barabas. Barabas is constantly hustling people and then saying "but this is what I really think," such that ultimately nobody knows what's going on with Barabas except for Barabas. Nobody knows him.
Including, for the record, the audience.Barabas's Timeline