Study Guide

The Jew of Malta Analysis

  • Tone

    Morbid Humor

    Sure, The Jew of Malta is cynical and depressing. But, come on, it's also hilarious. Barabas is going around killing people, but he does it with a smile on his face and a song in his heart. He gets a lot of joy out of the planning and execution of his devious and creative plots. If he can get into the groove of things, the audience will, too.

    So, along with the unfairness and hypocrisy you see at every turn, there's also a lot of morbid humor. And when we say morbid, we mean it. Take, for instance, Ithamore's remark when Barabas is mixing up the porridge with which he's going to poison Abigail and the rest of her nunnery: "Why, master, will you poison her with a mess of rice porridge that will preserve life, make her round and plump, and batten more than you are aware?" (3.4.64-66).


    Well, Ithamore is playing on the idea that the nuns and friars were all getting busy making babies with each other. Ithamore's implication? Abigail is eating for two. What makes this even more macabre is that, even though Abigail is chaste, it's not because the friars have squeaky clean morals. When Abigail announces that she dies as a Christian, Friar Jacomo remarks, "Ay, and a virgin too; that grieves me most" (3.6.41).

    It's ugly, it's dark, but if you can get onboard the Marlowe Ship of Macabre Jokes, you might just find yourself laughing at what T.S. calls the "savage comic humor" of this play.

  • Genre

    Tragedy, Comedy

    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.

    1. 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.
    2. 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...


    Tragic Farce

    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.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The Jew of Malta. Pretty straightforward: Barabas is a Jew who lives in Malta.

    But you know what? We're pretty interested in that little "of Malta," there. In Barabas's Character Analysis, we talk about how he doesn't really belong anywhere. (Missed that? Check it out and then head back.) Jews aren't allowed to be full citizens, so Barabas is an "alien."

    But not in the title. In the title, he's the Jew "of Malta." He belongs to Malta, even if Malta doesn't want to admit it. And that makes us think that Marlowe is suggesting that Malta is partly to blame for how Barabas is. Maybe Barabas is such a psychotic killer because his status as an outsider has forced him into it. If Malta were a more open, accepting community, Barabas would never have been forced into his murder spree.

    And one more thing. In 1633 quarto (i.e. the first published version of the play) the title page reads "The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta."

    Check it out:

    1. The primary descriptor of Barabas, rather than Evil or Clever, is Rich. In a play where money is arguably the biggest motivator of human action, Barabas is being billed as both a stereotypical Jew, and also a guy who's got a lot of power.
    2. Key word: Tragedy. It can be tough to know how to feel about this play, and whether you approach it as a tragedy or as something else really changes your perception. For more, hop on over to the Genre section.
  • What's Up With the Ending?

    After an impressive run (and by run we mean "massive killing spree"), Barabas finally dies, and we're left with Ferneze planning to ransom Calymath for the restitution of Malta and its citizens. The last line in play chock-full of total mayhem is Ferneze's: "let due praise be given / Neither to fate or fortune, but to heaven" (5.5.121-2).

    Uh, wait, heaven? What's heaven got to do with anything? If this ending seemed kind of weird to you, that's because it is. Let's take a look back at some of Ferneze's other invocations of heavenly power and justice and see if it makes any more sense.

    When making the original Money-Or-Conversion deal in the first act: "[on you] Who stand accursèd in the sight of heaven, / These taxes and afflictions are befall'n" (1.2.64-65). It's pretty clear that God isn't the one taxing the Jews, though; Ferneze's just using the Christian contempt of Jews to wrangle some money out of them.

    When Barabas, apparently dead, is brought before Ferneze in Act 5, Ferneze explains his sudden death to Bosco by saying, "Wonder not at it, sir. The heavens are just." (5.1.55). Again, though, God hasn't killed Barabas—actually, nobody has; it's just a part of Barabas's own plot to save his own skin.

    By the time you get to Ferneze's proclamation that heaven is responsible for all the good stuff, you've probably noticed something important: God? Not a character in this play.

    Know who is? Machiavel. The things that happen in this play are moved by people acting out of their own self-interest, not by spiritual forces. The play's last line seals the deal.It's the mixing of Barabas's plots with Ferneze's cleverness that brings about the play's end, not heaven.

  • Setting

    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?

    The Underdog

    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.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (6) Tree Line

    As Renaissance plays go, this one is actually pretty straightforward. (Really.) But there are a lot of Biblical references and sixteenth-century slang, so make sure you're reading an edition that has decent footnotes. We'll help you out, too.

    So why is this Tree Line? Like we said, it's a weird play. Plus, we cannot figure out Barabas. (Although check out his Character Analysis for some of our ideas.) But we still think it's worth it. Marlowe was just as popular, if not more so, than his frenemy Shakespeare—and The Jew Of Malta offers a wacky and hair-raising view into the fears and beliefs of early modern England. How could you say no?

  • Writing Style

    Blank Verse, Prose

    Blank Verse

    Most of this play is written in blank verse, which is just a friendly way of saying unrhymed iambic pentameter.

    Okay, let's break that down for you:

    Iambic pentameter means you have five feet (that's the pent- part) per line. A foot is a rhythmic unit of poetry, and in this case we're working with iambs. An iamb is a foot that has one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, like da-DUM da-DUM.Some fun iambic words? "YourSELF,""deCLARE," and "unLESS."

    You hear it? It should sound something like the human heartbeat; pretty cool.

    So, put five iambs in a line, and you get something like this:

    will KNIGHTS of MALta BE in LEAGUE with TURKS
    and BUY it BASEly TOO for SUMS of GOLD?



    Okay, so, like we said, mostly blank verse, but not always. Sometimes characters speak in prose, which just means normal talking or writing. (Like we're doing right now.)

    It was conventional in Elizabethan drama to have the more noble characters speak in verse while the lowly commoners spoke in prose. For instance, Barabas's slave Ithamore speaks mostly in prose: "Faith, sir, my birth is but mean, my name's Ithamore, my profession what you please" (2.3.166-67).

    Not a lot of poetry for evil minions.

  • The Slave Market

    Flush with his recovered gold, Barabas shows up at the slave market to spend a little cash. There, he buys Ithamore and turns him into his evil sidekick. So, it's obviously an important setting for the play. But the slave market isn't just a place where some plot-related stuff happens. In fact, some critics think it serves as an allegory for the entire play. Let's take a look:

    The first thing we hear when we see the market is an officer explaining the market:

    Everyone's price is written on his back, / And so much must they yield or not be sold. (2.3.3-4)

    Hm, everyone has a price. We're sensing Major Theme, here. So, how does this idea work outside the market?

    • Ferneze doesn't bother the Jews until the amount of money he has to pay the Turks gets too high.
    • Jacomo and Bernadine are hell-bent on bringing Barabas to justice until he offers to convert and donate all his money to their church.
    • Near the end of the play, Barabas offers to work with his arch-enemy, Ferneze, but only for a price.

    Yeah, we're thinking this is important. Apart from introducing the idea that everyone has a price, the market is also where Barabas negotiates with Lodowick and Mathias to hook them up with Abigail, and where they talk about Abigail as if she's a commodity, a thing to be bought like a diamond, or a book.

    But if you take a step back and look at the big picture, you get yet another view: A Jewish man is buying a Turkish slave captured by the Spanish Christians who have convinced the Maltese to break league with said Turks just so they can legally sell Turkish slaves. Complicated, right?

    Just like Malta. The slave market shows us how money works as a social dynamic, but it also helps us see the multicultural nature of Maltese society. All these different groups of people with different political aims and religious identities meet at one spot for one goal:to buy and sell people—and not just slaves.

  • Barabas's Nose

    Stereotypes are ugly, Shmoopers. And persistent.

    The stereotype that Jewish people have big noses was even old 500 years ago, and Marlowe wasn't about to let it go without milking it. When The Jew of Malta wasoriginally staged, the man playing Barabas wore a large prosthetic nose. But does the nose do anything besides identify Barabas as a Jew?

    Take the moment that Barabas tells Ithamore to be a heartless criminal who hates Christians. Ithamore's response is "Oh, brave, master, I worship your nose for this!" (2.3.174). In other words, Ithamore's reply isn't, "Gee, you're so evil, I love it!"; it's "Dude, you are so Jewish. Let's go get those Christians."

    What's more, Barabas's demand that Ithamore be void of "compassion, love, vain hope, and heartless fear" (2.3.171) is attributed to Barabas's nose, and therefore his Judaism. And then Ithamore tells Abigail "I have the bravest, gravest, secret, subtle, bottle-nosed knave to my master that ever gentleman had" (3.3.9-10). Notice how the emblem of Barabas's Judaism—his 'bottle-nose'—gets mixed up with his secrecy and knavishness?

    Finally, when Ithamore tells Barabas that Friars Bernadine and Jacomo are approaching, Barabas replies that he "smelt 'em ere they came" (4.1.20), as if he's a kind of Jewish bloodhound that can scent out Christians. Sure, Ithamore's remarks are partially intended to be comic. "I worship your nose"? Yeah, we laughed.

    But it's not really a laughing matter. All of Barabas's worst qualities seem to come down to that big honker—and to his religion.

  • The Cauldron

    Okay, this is legitimately weird. Barabas has been killing people left and right, way caught up in the hustle and flow of his schemes, and within the space of a few breaths he goes from being the master puppeteer to…burning to death in a caldron? There are presumably a lot of ways to do away with your Machiavellian villain (we are, after all, talking about a guy who murders people with bouquets of flowers), so why did Marlowe choose this one?

    Try to visualize it: Barabas is up on stage, and at the critical moment Ferneze cuts the rope and Barabas basically falls into a fiery pit. When you look at it that way, the caldron looks like a pretty clear representation of the Christian hell. At first glance, that makes sense: the Christian leader is sending the villainous infidel down to hell. And, for the record, Judaism has no concept of hell, so if you read it as face value this scene can look like Ferneze getting to deliver the ultimate religious I Told You So.

    Two things that make this tidy reading a problem:

    (1) Hell doesn't correct Barabas. If he were really going to Hell, you'd expect some sort of moment where he sees the light, repents, and dies regretting his wrongs. He doesn't, though, because (a) that's just not his style—Barabas dies scrappy and mad, not meek and remorseful—and (b) that kind of ending could make you think that this play is an affirmation of Christianity which it…really isn't.

    (2) It might seem like Barabas going to Hell is a ringing endorsement of Christianity. Well, Barabas's relationship with the canon of Jewish beliefs is…complicated, to say the least.Soon after having everything taken away from him, Barabas curses his enemies, saying, "I ban their souls to everlasting pains, / And extreme tortures of the fiery deep, / That thus have dealt with me in my distress!" (1.2.165-67).

    Sounds just like hell, right? By talking about the"extreme tortures of the fiery deep," Barabas makes the cauldron sounds not much like the run-of-the-mill Christian hell as the same horrifying torment that Barabas wanted to send his own enemies to. In short, it's not the hell of the Christian god, but the punishment that Ferneze and Barabas have mutually devised for each other through their hatred.

    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      We know, we know—Jew of Malta, a Comedy?

      The honest truth is that Jew of Malta is tricky to define with regards to plot type and genre. That said, the essential element of a comedy plot is that you're transitioning from this confused state where nobody really knows what's happening and things are topsy-turvy to the ending state where everything is revealed, things are put to rights and problems are resolved. The Jew of Malta fits this plot type better than it does any other, although you should definitely check out our Genre section for more in-depth discussion of how The Jew of Malta really messes around with these categories.

      Shadow of Darkness

      Things are good on Malta until Ferneze, realizing he has no way to rustle up enough cash to keep the threatening Turkish army at bay, rounds up Malta's Jewish population and orders them to give up half their wealth. Barabas refuses, and Ferneze confiscates all of his property. Cue revenge and murder.

      Pressure of Darkness

      Barabas, through deceit and trickery, wreaks havoc across Malta, starting off by tricking Ferneze's son, Lodowick, and his daughter's crush, Mathias, to kill each other in a duel. It only gets worse from here, and by Act 5 Barabas has left a truly impressive trail of dead bodies, includinghis own daughter. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on the big Malta vs. Turkish Army Showdown, because Ferneze, backed by the Spanish navy, has decided he's going to duke it out with the Turks rather than continue to pay them off.

      Everything Comes to Light

      Barabas is revealed as the bad guy behind all of the recent murders. He's thrown out of Malta, only to meet up with the Turks on the other side of the city walls to help them invade Malta. The show's not over, though. In the course of his last plot, he's betrayed by Ferneze and finally dies. The Turkish threat is neutralized (via an Exploding Monastery, no less). Ferneze, once again head honcho in Malta, ransoms the Turkish leader for the restoration of a seriously battered and bruised Malta.

    • Plot Analysis


      Life is Good

      Barabas lives with his daughter Abigail and conducts business peacefully and profitably on Malta. Meanwhile, Malta pays a yearly tribute (of money) to the Turks and, in exchange, the Turkish army doesn't slaughter them. Everything is on an even keel, so naturally we know thatit's all about to go terribly wrong.

      Rising Action

      Mo' Money Mo' Problems

      The Turks demand their tribute, but Malta can't pay. Ferneze confiscates all of Barabas's wealth to pay them off, which sets off a series of events ending with Barabas having achieved the deaths of Lodowick, Mathias, Abigail, Bernadine, Jacomo and an entire nunnery.

      Quentin Tarentino would be proud.


      Turkish Delight

      The Turks arrive to besiege Malta and Barabas's crimes are discovered, although not before he manages to poison Ithamore, Pilia-Borza and Bellamira. We've totally lost track of the body count.And… Barabas is left for dead outside the city walls. Everything is in shambles; seems like a climax to us.

      Falling Action

      Fire Up the Cauldrons

      Surprise! Barabas is not dead. He helps the Turks get into Malta, which they then overrun and occupy. However, Barabas is caught in his own trap to kill Calymath when Ferneze betrays him. At this point, the story is almost over. Wait for it….


      Ferneze is Once Again The Boss

      With Barabas dead, Ferneze assumes control of Malta. He takes Calymath captive and demands that the Emperor of Turkey pay for Malta's restoration. Hooray! (We guess.)

    • Three-Act Plot Analysis

      Act I

      Barabas, formerly Head Merchant in Control of Malta, is stripped of all of his wealth and property by Ferneze to pay off the threatening Turkish Empire. Barabas, totally ticked off, starts planning the deaths of Mathias and Lodowick, Ferneze's son. Plus, he wants his money back.

      Act II

      Barabas kills lot of people. No, really, that's mostly what's going on for middle part of the play. He's eventually found out and left for dead outside the walls of Malta. Barabas then helps the Turks invade Malta, who in return make him Governor.

      Act III

      Barabas's plot number … something involves destroying the Turkish army. Instead, Ferneze betrays him and he ends up dying in the trap he had devised for Calymath, the Turkish leader. Ferneze regains control of Malta and ransoms Calymath for the restoration of Malta.

    • Allusions

      Biblical References

      • Barabas is a clear allusion to the Biblical Barrabas
      • The Jews' part in the crucifixion of Christ is referenced throughout
      • Abraham (1.1.102) (2.1.14)
      • Job (1.2.179)
      • Genesis 17:11 (2.3.8)
      • Matthew 10:16 (2.3.36-37)
      • Abraham and Isaac (2.3.52)
      • Samson and Delilah (2.3.228)
      • Cain and Abel (2.3.301) (3.4.26-33)
      • Judas (4.4.65)

      Classical References

      • Agamemnon and Iphigen (1.1.135)
      • Venus (1.2.372) (4.2.96)
      • Morpheus (2.1.36)
      • Apollo (2.1.61)
      • The Hydra (3.4.100)
      • The river Styx (3.4.102)
      • Jason and the golden fleee (4.2.92)
      • Bacchus (4.2.94)
      • Adonis (4.2.96)
      • Dis (4.2.99)

      Literary and Philosophical References

      • Niccolò Machiavelli is referenced throughout the play
      • Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice: more of a Shout-Forward, because the Merchant of Venice is written after The Jew of Malta and is heavily informed by it.
      • Terence, Andria (1.1.186)
      • Lady Vanity (2.3.118): stock character in early modern drama
      • Occasion (5.2.45): a stock character in early modern drama

      Historical References

      • The play is based on the real Siege of Malta, 1565
      • Vespasian and Titus's 70 BCE conquest of Jerusalem (2.3.10): The Roman Emperor and his son, Titus, sacked Jerusalem in 70 BCE to quell a major Jewish revolt.
      • King Philip II of Spain (2.2.7)
      • 1522 Turkish conquest of Rhodes (2.2.31): The Knights of Malta used to be stationed on Rhodes until ousted by the Suleiman I
      • Maccabee Revolt (2.3.155): The first successful Jewish revolt, 175-134 BCE
      • Charles V (2.3.189)
      • Alexander the Great (3.4.97)
      • Cesare Borgia (3.4.98): the son of Pope Alexander VI, who is rumored to have poisoned his father and was much admired by Machiavelli