Where It All Goes Down
Welcome to Malta, a wee bitty island in the Mediterranean, right around 1565.
Don't worry if you don't remember anyone mentioning what year it is when reading the play, because they don't.We know the year because the big fight that happens at the end—Calymath invading the city with his army of Turks—is based on an actual historical event, the 1565 Siege of Malta.
In the 16th century, Malta mattered. Both the Ottoman Empire and the Western, Christian world wanted to control the Mediterranean, and Malta became a small but important point of contention in their turf war. This means two settings at once in The Jew of Malta: the little one, where Barabas is toodling around various places in Malta (senate house, slave market, etc) and the big, bigone, with a major geopolitical struggle between warring nations and religions.
Home Sweet Home
Something else to think about is how places actually change in meaning. Take Barabas's own house.
Sure, it starts out as a symbol of his wealth (we imagine he'd be one of those people on MTV Cribs who has, like, heated floors and lights that turn on and off when you clap your hands). But the second Ferneze confiscates his wealth, the house becomes nunnery. It then takes on a whole new set of meanings—the persecution of Barabas's Judaism, the exile he faces from Maltese society, and the loss of his wealth and (eventually) his daughter.
Even though that one was totally his fault.
Another thing to remember is that we aren't just on Malta—we're in Malta. That is, we're inside the city walls. One of the play's major events is when Barabas, playing dead, is chucked over the city walls. Once outside the city, the first thing he does is strike a deal with Calymath to help the invading Turks get into the city.
This question of inside/outside the city is tied up with Barabas's identity as an "alien" on Malta. And it raises the question: if Ferneze had allowed Jews to be proper citizens, would Barabas have tried to betray him?
Something else that's neat about the setting of The Jew of Malta is Malta is politically most vulnerable when it's apparently healthy and whole. The Maltese are totally at the mercy of the Turks, and are facing imminent destruction. At the end, though, once Malta has had the tar kicked out of it (with cannonballs, no less), Ferneze is large and in charge: "No, Sultan of Turkey you listen."
For more on Machiavellian power dynamics, drop by our Themes section.