Study Guide

The Jew of Malta Perseverance

By Christopher Marlowe

Perseverance

Good Barabas, be patient. (1.2.198)

Okay, so, maybe not the longest quote, but it still says something important. The other Jews are trying to get Barabas to be "patient," which doesn't mean "hold your horses and wait till it gets better," but rather that Barabas should ride it out suffer for as long as God intends, as did the Biblical Job. But suffering? Not exactly Barabas's style.

See the simplicity of these base slaves,
Who, for the villains have no wit themselves,
Think me to be a senseless lump of clay
That will with every water wash to dirt! (1.2.216-19)

Barabas is not on board with all this "be patient" stuff the other Jews are advising—they're basically telling him to lie down and take whatever abuse the Christians mete out. To them, that may symbolize strength and conviction, but to Barabas it's equivalent to being a wimp. Er, a "senseless lump of clay."

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 loathe 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 an awake myself. (1.2.260-69)

Activate, Super-Human-Drive-To-Thrive! Not only is Barabas not going to give up, he's also not going to sit around feeling depressed. One of the things that really characterizes Barabas is the gusto and vigor with which he plans and executes his plots. At the moment that he imagines that the cosmos themselves are lined up against him, Barabas, instead of sulking, is waking up.

In spite of these swine-eating Christians
(Unchosen nation, never circumcised;
Such as, poor villains, were ne'er thought upon
Till Titus and Vespasian conquered us)
Am I become as wealthy as I was.
They hoped my daughter would ha' been a nun,
But she's at home, and I have bought a house
As great and fair as is the Governor's.
And there in spite of Malta will I dwell… (2.3.7-15)

Translation: I beat you jerks once, and I can do it again. Think about the escalation of terms, here: first, Barabas pitted against Christians in general, then against Ferneze in particular, and finally against the entirety of Malta. Wow—talk about making enemies.

Oh, sir, your father had my diamonds,
Yet I have one left that will serve your turn.
[Aside] I mean my daughter—but ere he shall have her
I'll sacrifice her on a pile of wood. (2.3.50-53)

Barabas is pretending to offer to hook Lodowick up with his daughter Abigail, but in reality he'd rather kill her than see her marry a Christian. (He even makes a nice little allusion to the way that the Jewish Abraham sacrificed his son Isaac.)But what's the relationship between Abigail's religious identity and Barabas's own religious and cultural insistence on Judaism?

Abigail, I will. But see thou change no more,
For that will be most heavy to thy soul. (3.3.70-71)

Abigail changes her views based on the changing information and circumstances that present themselves to her. This is the opposite of perseverance, but, except for the fact that she ends up dead, it seems pretty reasonable. Discover that your father's evil? Leave him. Figure out that the world's a pretty nasty place? Become a nun. Here, Friar Bernadine just wants her to make up her mind, but his statement is up for debate.

ITHAMORE: Do you not sorrow for your daughter's death?

BARABAS: No, but I grieve that she lived so long an Hebrew born,
and would become a Christian. Catso diabola! (4.1.16-18)

Well, duh, it's a personal betrayal. But Barabas is particularly disgusted by Abigail's conversion because he can't conceive of ever doing it himself: think of how he reacted when Ferneze asked him to convert earlier on. Genuine conversion is pretty much the opposite of everything that Barabas stands for.

For, so I live, perish may all the world. (5.2.10)

Questions about Barabas's character? Look no further than this over-the-top, crystal-clear desire to survive without any regard for anybody else. But does this really sound right? If Barabas's real goal is simply to live, then why not just follow the advice of his fellow Jews in Act 1 and lie low? Isn't it weird that Barabas seems to go out of his way to imperil his life?

CALYMATH: Ferneze, speak, had it not been much better
To keep thy promise than be thus surprised?

FERNEZE: What should I say? We are captives and must yield. (5.2.4-6)

Now that Ferneze's plan to fight back has failed, has to yield, too. Unlike Barabas, he doesn't have that maniacal "Me, yield? Never!" attitude; rather, he sees giving in (for the moment, anyway) to be the only reasonable solution. And guess who's alive at the end of the play.

Then, Barabas, breathe forth thy latest fate
And, in the fury of thy torments, strive
To end thy life with resolution.
[…]
Die life, fly soul; tongue, curse thy fill and die. (5.578-89)

You have to hand it to him: Barabas doesn't go out with a whimper. Even when he's actually dying, he doesn't repent. In fact, it almost sounds like he's ordering his own destruction. His last words are to command the flight of his soul, the final curses of his tongue. This is almost as good as Voltaire's final words.