Study Guide

The Jew of Malta Wealth

By Christopher Marlowe

Wealth

And of a carat of this quantity,
May serve in peril of calamity
To ransom great kings from captivity.
And thus methinks should men of judgment frame
Their means of traffic from the vulgar trade
And, as their wealth increaseth, so enclose
Infinite riches in a little room. (1.1.30-37)

Diamonds are a man's best friend. They're not just shiny; they can get you out of serious trouble. In fact, the exact situation Barabas describes here happens at the end of the play: Ferneze refuses to return Calymath (a 'captive king', of sorts) to his father, the Turkish Sultan, unless the Sultan forks over the money for the restoration of Malta.

Who hateth me but for my happiness?
Or who is honoured now but for his wealth?
Rather had I, a Jew, be hated thus
Than pitied in a Christian poverty (1.1.109-12)

On Malta, people give you kudos for being rich, not righteous. If Jews are the ones with the money, then Judaism is the way to go, right? Well…not quite. By the end of the first act it's clear that Christians don't dig poverty any more than the Jews. The allocation of wealth may depend more upon whether you're part of the majority part than on your religion.

Honour is bought with blood and not with gold. (2.2.56)

Bosco says this, but—spoiler alert—it's a lie. A big, fat, lie. First of all, as Barabas has helpfully pointed out, in Malta people are honored precisely for their wealth. In addition, Bosco isn't offering to help Ferneze fight the Turks because it's honorable, he's doing it so he can sell his slave on Malta and get some gold for himself.

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

Important? Oh yeah. (Check out Symbols: The Slave Market for more about this.) While the officer is describing how the slaves all have a certain price, we're pretty sure it applies to everyone in the play. Think, for instance, of Barabas himself, who offers to cooperate with his arch-enemy Ferneze near the end, but only for a price.

Faith, master, I think by this
You purchase both their lives… (2.3.369-70)

There isn't any actual money changing hands in the Lodowick-Mathias plot (well, except for Abigail), but Ithamore is marveling at how Barabas's trickery "purchases" their lives. It looks like cold, hard cash may not be the only form of currency in this play. (Go check out Barabas's remark that he"purchase[s] towns/By treachery and sell[s] 'em by deceit [5.5.46-48].)

But now experience, purchased with grief,
Has made me see the difference of things. (3.3.61-62)

We just like this quote for word choice: Abigail is talking about the one thing you can't buy (experience), but the theme of wealth and buying/selling is so pervasive in this play that her experience is described as having been "bought." Nice, Marlowe.

Ferneze: What wind drives you thus into Malta road?
Bashaw: The wind that bloweth all the world besides,
Desire of gold. (3.5.2-4)

To the Maltese, Turks are about as different (non-Western) and otherized (non-Christian) as it gets. But money is universal. Although Barabas describes himself as 'purchasing towns by treachery' (5.5.46-47), the Turks were doing it before it was cool. With actual money.

You shall convert me; you shall have all my wealth. (4.1.79)

Cornered by the friars, Barabas plays his trump card: conversion. Of course, this being a Marlowe play, point isn't that Barabas will become a Christian, but whichever order he joins will get his wealth.

Why, is not this
A kingly kind of trade, to purchase towns
By treachery and sell 'em by deceit? (5.5.46-48)

Barabas's "argosy" (fleet of merchant ships) from the first act is looking like small potatoes now. By the end of the play, the stakes are so high that Barabas isn't gunning for money; he's out to control all of Malta.

Will Knights of Malta be in league with Turks,
And buy it basely, too, for sums of gold? (2.2.28-9)

Sounds good, but Bosco is actually mocking a fundamental truth of this play: you can absolutely buy peace (or war, for that matter) with money. Bosco himself isn't offering to help out Malta because it would be honorable to defend a fellow Christian community; he wants a strategic place to sell his slaves.