Ah, the tortured question of genre and The Jew of Malta—hold onto your hats, Shmoopers, this one's a doozy.
Okay, so, the short story is that people have been struggling with the nature of this play's genre for a loooong time. Generally, they think it's either a Comedy or a Tragedy. Or many you agree with T. S. Eliot and think it's a"tragic farce"? Let's look at each of these options and see how they hold up.
Well, duh. Lots of dead people; our main character is offed in a burning caldron at the end; and hello, the title says "The Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta." Straightforward, no?
Of course not. This is The Jew of Malta, the wackiest of wacky Renaissance plays. Yeah, there's a lot of murder and mayhem, but check out some of the other general criteria for Tragedies:
Heavy, somber tone: Not so much. As we discuss in the Tone section, even though crazy terrible things are happening, this play's weirdly upbeat and humorous.
Revolves around a noble person who's fated to destruction because of a character flaw or a conflict with an overpowering source. Whoa, lots of problems here. Like, excuse us while we recover ourselves from laughing at the idea that Barabas is "noble." We're betting that youdidn't read this play thinking, "Gee, that stand-up guy Barabas really fell from grace."
Just as important: does the tragic action happen because of Barabas's inherent character flaws? This is tricky, because you have to consider two really difficult ideas.
- Does the tragedy happen because of Barabas? There's plenty of room to argue that Barabas, while not a good guy, is really just reacting to the threats around him—Ferneze takes everything from him, so he has to destroy Ferneze; Bernadine and Jacomo threaten to reveal his crimes, so he kills them.
- Does Barabas even have a character to be flawed? It's hard to say with a dude whose motives and principles are so difficult to parse.
It sounds as though our play fits some, but not all, of the criteria for a tragedy. Moving on.
The Jew of Malta: a laugh a minute, right?
Well, comedy actually is a contender. For one, our play has an oddly lighthearted take on things like murder and hypocrisy. But the plot also follows the general trajectory of a comedy. (For the whole enchilada on the Comedy plot type we see here, head on over to the Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis.
The basic reason you could consider The Jew of Malta to have a comedy plot is that we transition from the weird and crazy stage where Barabas is fooling everyone and everything's in confusion to, by the end, the stage where everything is revealed, the obvious threat (Barabas and the Turks) are removed, and things are more or less restored to their proper places (Ferneze is Governor and Malta is safe).
That said, by the end, our main character's dead and Malta is in the hands of the not-way-too-trusty Ferneze. Instead of a marriage or two, we have a pile of dead bodies. That's a little dark. Maybe a lot too dark.
Note: Just because this play is both tragic and comic doesn't make it a Tragicomedy; that's a whole other rodeo (and a much disputed rodeo, at that). For more on Tragicomedies, check out our handy dandy Literature Glossary. To see the tragicomedy in action, check out The Tempest.
So, not quite a tragedy, not quite a comedy. Enter T.S. Eliot, and you get...
The idea of a tragic farce clears some ground between Tragedy and Comedy. There's so much delightful, joyful energy in Barabas's pursuit of murder and destruction that it's hard to get into that weighty, somber Tragic groove. Is Abigail's murder tragic if Barabas doesn't seem bummed at all over it? What if the only remark made upon her death is a sleazy friar saying he's sad she died a virgin?Tragedy is constantly undercut by the way that the play's characters refuse to recognize something as tragic, or, gee, even as serious.
So, farce, right?
Yeah, but…this play is still dealing with some heavy, heavy stuff—like religious and political hypocrisy, the persecution of minorities, and the conflicts of a multicultural society. Barabas isn't a realistic character in the way that Shylock is, but the play's problems are so real that if you don't feel a little disturbed by the time you finish it, you might want to reread.
Macabre + hilarious? That's sounding a lot like a tragic farce to us.