Study Guide

The Jew of Malta Politics

By Christopher Marlowe

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What right had Caesar to the Empire?
Might first made kings, and laws were then most sure
When like the Draco's they were writ in blood. (Prologue 19-21)

Calling Draco Malfoy. No, but really: Machiavel is pointing out, accurately, that Caesar had no legal or moral right to rule Rome—he did it by force. Force and terror. And laws and order in general are "most sure" not necessarily when they're the most just, but when their correlating punishments are as harsh as Draco's. (The ruthless Athenian law-giver, not the Harry Potter guy.)

I must confess we come not to be kings.
That's not our fault: alas, our number's few,
And crowns come either by succession
Or urged by force; and nothing violent,
Oft have I heard tell, can be permanent.
Give us a peaceful rule, make Christians kings,
That thirst so much for principality. (1.1.126-32)

Jews may not get the big political titles, Barabas says, but who cares? The Christians can be kings all they want. It's better to just lie low, do your thing, make a good living, and let the Christians war amongst themselves for kingship.

And 'tis more kingly to obtain by peace
Than to enforce conditions by constraint (1.2.25-6)

Here, Calymath telling himself why he should give Ferneze an extra month to come up with the money for the tribute. When Calymath says that it's more "kingly" to show leniency, what do you think he means? Do you think he's proven right?

Ay, policy? That's their profession,
And not simplicity, as they suggest. (1.2.159-60)

Barabas is super offended that Ferneze even thinks he's buying the whole "we're fulfilling our duty to God by taking your stuff" spiel. He knows Ferneze's got a political angle, and that his business is in politics, not the "simplicity" of religious principle.

Everyone's price is written on his back,
And so much must they yield or not be sold. (2.3. 3-4)

And here we are in the slave market again, where everybody is assigned a particular value, which determines how much have to "yield." So, is politics just like a big old slave market?

Thus hast thou gotten, by thy policy,
No simple grace, no small authority;
I now am Governor of Malta. True,
But Malta hates me, and in hating me
My life's in danger, and what boots it thee,
Poor Barabas, to be the governor
Whenas thy life shall be at their command?
No, Barabas, this must be looked into.
And since by wrong thou got'st authority,
Maintain it bravely by firm policy;
At least unprofitably lose it not.
For he that liveth in authority,
And neither gets him friends nor fills his bags,
Lives like the ass that Aesop speaketh of… (5.2.38-40)

What good is a badge that says "Governor" if everyone hates Barabas? Until now, his power has come from his ingenuity and cunning. But political power is different: it depends totally on other people. Too bad for Barabas.

BARABAS: Now tell me, Governor, and plainly too,
What think'st thou shall become of it and thee?

FERNEZE: This: Barabas, since things are in thy power,
I see no reason but of Malta's wrack,
Nor hope of thee but extreme cruelty,
Nor fear I death, nor will I flatter thee. (5.2.56-61)

Ferneze just doesn't get Barabas. In Ferneze's mind, his enemies (Barabas and the Turks) are gunning for his power. But that's not true.Barabas isn't just after power—his bargain to destroy the Turks could actually the only group of people who grant him political power.If he were just playing politics, it probably would've been a safer bet to just cooperate with the Turks.

Ferneze: Do but bring this to pass which thou pretendest,
[…] And by my letters privately procure
great sums of money for thy recompense.
Nay, more: do this, and live thou governor still.
Barabas: Nay, do thou this, Ferneze, and be free.
Governor, I enlarge thee. (5.2.85-92)

Bottom line: do you believe either of these guys? Do you think that Ferneze, if the Turks were taken out of the equation and it was once again A Whole Lotta Christians v. Barabas, would allow Barabas to remain Governor? It just doesn't seem likely.

And he from whom my most advantage comes
Shall be my friend.
This is the life we Jews are used to lead,
And reason too, for Christians do the like. (5.2. 114-17)

You'd think that with all of the obvious haterade between the Christians and the Jews, Ferneze and Barabas would refuse to work together. But apparently, political advantage trumps religious principle and personal sentiment. Barabas is willing to play nice with Ferneze to secure his future, and Ferneze, who has both consistently injured and hated Barabas (who had his son murdered), is on board.

Yet would I gladly visit Barabas,
For well has Barabas deserved of us. (5.3. 24-5)

Big mistake, Calymath: our Turkish commander looks positively naïve when he accepts Barabas's dinner invitation. Calymath, for all the might of the Turkish Empire, is unfit for the world of Maltese politics because he's the sort of guy who sticks by his word and cares about what people "deserve." Needless to say, he doesn't last too long.

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