Study Guide

The Jew of Malta Act 1, Scene 2

By Christopher Marlowe

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Act 1, Scene 2

  • At the senate house, we have two main groups of people: Callapine, Calymath and their posse of Turks; and Ferneze (the Governor of Malta), along with other Maltese statesmen and the Knights of Malta.
  • Knights of what? These dudes were a Christian military order that, after being ousted from Rhodes, operated out of Malta.
  • See, the Ottoman Empire and Christian West (Spain, in particular) were embroiled in a huge turf war over Malta, and the Ottomans laid a famously bloody siege on Malta in 1565. The Knights eventually won, after reportedly having used the heads of Turkish captives as cannonballs. Talk about terminating with extreme prejudice.
  • So, Ferneze is in hot water here—not only has Malta not paid this year's tribute, it hasn't paid for ten years. No way no how can Ferneze rustle up that kind of cash by normal means.
  • This next bit reads a bit like a mobster flick: Ferneze promises he can get the money if the Turks give him a month, and after some back and forth, the Turks agree to leave for now, but there better be some serious dough on offer when they return.
  • Ferneze, relieved for moment, immediately calls the Jews to him, where he starts explaining the problem, and then asking for their "aide."
  • Barabas objects, obviously, pointing out that the Jews aren't even normal citizens of Malta, they're "strangers" (political aliens), and shouldn't be taxed to help Malta.
  • In turn, Knights of Malta point out that the Jews were citizen enough to be making huge amounts of money in Malta, and it's therefore their duty to contribute.
  • Things then get nasty, when Ferneze says that the Jews should contribute not because they live and work on Malta, but because they're Jews "Who stand accursèd in the sight of heaven."
  • And here's the big solution: every Jew must either give up half his estate ("estate" being all of his money and property) or convert to Christianity.If he refuses both, hey! He has to give up his entire estate.
  • The three other Jews present, duly freaked, immediately agree to give up half.
  • But Barabas is used to running the rodeo, so he basically snickers in response.
  • Unfortunately, Ferneze has one thing Barabas doesn't: an army. So he snickers back and says that all of Barabas's money and property has just become Maltese property.
  • Oh, but he's generously going to allow Barabas to continue living in Malta. As opposed to shipping him off to That Country For Really Upset Poor People, one assumes.
  • Ferneze again justifies his unfair bargaining tactics by referring to the Jews'"inherent sin."Low, low blow."
  • Barabas is all, "and the crucifixion of Christ is my fault how, exactly?" Ferneze sidesteps the question and tells him that, if he's truly a righteous man, things will work out.
  • Halftime note: during this entire (very long, very busy) scene, check out how many times the words "policy" and "profession" are used. We're thinking this will turn out to be important.
  • Not content with simply taking his stuff, Ferneze orders Barabas's house to be turned into a nunnery.
  • Barabas indulges in some (in our opinion) totally justified wailing here about how Ferneze has taken everything from him, how can he survive, why don't you just kill me while you're at it, etc.
  • Ferneze and his knights faff off to collect Barabas's wealth, and all of Barabas's fellow Jews try to console him, reminding him of the trials of Job.
  • Barabas remains by the fact that Tomorrow Is Another Day. (This is one of the many ways in which Barabas differs from Scarlett O'Hara.)
  • Fun fact: when reading about how everybody around Barabas is telling him to be "patient," keep in mind that in Renaissance times this word would have still clung to its original Latin root, "patior," which means "I suffer." So "be patient" meant something more like, "Sit down and suffer in silence." And our boy Barabas is not into suffering.
  • The other Jews depart and Abigail enters, understandably worked up about what's gone down between her father and the Maltese.
  • Not to worry. Barabas wasn't dumb enough to not have a secret stash of gold hidden in the house.
  • There's a hitch, though: the house is already being converted into a nunnery and Barabas can't go inside, because he's a man. (It would seems that the Maltese bureaucracy works a lot faster than our present-day ones.)
  • Hold up, though! Abigail's a girl, right? So why doesn't she just show up at her old house claiming to want to become a nun, find the treasure and then sneak it out to her dad?
  • Sounds like someone's been watching Sister Act.
  • Becoming a nun is apparently no big deal in Malta, since Abigail just trots up to the Abbess and Friars explaining that she really, really wants to be a nun.
  • Within a few lines they decide, yeah, sure, the daughter of the most famous Jew in town wants to be a nun now? Seems legit. Come on in!
  • Barabas helps out: he appears on the scene and throws a fake hissy fit about Abigail converting to make sure everyone's convinced, and then whispers to Abigail where he's hidden the treasure in the house.
  • As everyone leaves, Mathias enters, having seen Abigail promising to become a nun.
  • His friend Lodowick, Ferneze's son, approaches and asks him why he's in a bad mood.
  • Mathias is sad because he thinks that Abigail is way, way too hot be a nun.
  • We also find out that Abigail is 14—because it wouldn't be Renaissance drama if all the girls weren't creepily underage.
  • They decide to go see Abigail.

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