The Jew of Malta opens with the ghost of Niccolò Machiavelli, the man who literally wrote the book on playing dirty to achieve and maintain power. With that kind of introduction, it shouldn't surprise you that most characters in this play are down with lying and cheating. For some characters, like Ferneze, deceit is mostly a means to an end; with Barabas, though, it feels like deceit becomes an end unto itself. Barabas goes from devising plots to achieve recognizable goals (get back his money, kill Lodowick) to living for the plots themselves. But here's the question: are we supposed to condemn all these lies? Or is this just something leaders have to do?
While Barabas himself dies, deceit and manipulation win out in this play—Ferneze doesn't emerge victorious because he's morally superior, but because he turns out to be the most successful practitioner of these kinds of tactics.
While many characters are willing to employ trickery and deceit, Barabas's special joy in plotting and lying makes him the real Big Bad of the play.
The Jew of Malta hits us with two levels of prejudice: First, your run-of-the-mill every racial/religious group hating on every other racial/religious group. Second, the fact that this play is about a man who gleefully embraces every anti-Semitic stereotype the Maltese can come up with. Seriously, Shmoopers—we're talking people are afraid to even stage this play because it's so racist. But is the play racist? We're not so sure. At the beginning of the play, Ferneze is spouting baldly racist rhetoric, but probably not a single member of the audience is thinking, "Yeah, that guy sure is right to steal from those Jews." And Barabas is ultimately made out to be so over-the-top and so different from the other Jews in the play that he emerges not as a representative of the Jewish community, but a representative of prejudices against Jews. Maybe we'd better leave this with the guy at Yo, Is This Racist.
Even though the play uses anti-Semitic stereotypes, it condemns prejudice against Jews.
As the play goes on, Barabas becomes less of an individual Jewish man and more of a product of his society's prejudices against Jews.
Our characters aren't out buying Ferraris or $3,333.33 ice cream sundaes; they're buying cities and people. Money doesn't just buy you cool stuff in The Jew of Malta: it buys you power. And in this play, power is the coolest thing of all. Ferneze has to pay off the Turks to keep Malta safe; Barabas gets the friars off his back by offering them money; the Spanish offer to help Malta largely so that they can sell slaves on the island. It's definitely a rich man's world. In a universe where having the upper hand is way more important than being moral, money ends up being the main indicator of advantage.
More than religion or revenge, money is the main motivational force in this play.
While money starts out as the main issue (Ferneze's need of it, Barabas's lack of it, the Turks' demand for it) by the end of the play other issues (questions of religious, political, and national identity) have taken center stage.
Religion: it brings people together; it ties us to our past; it encourages us to be kinder and more loving. Right? Well, not in The Jew of Malta. In Marlowe's play, religion is just one more way to make people hate each other. Religion and race are so closely tied that we can't tell if the fight with the Turks is a political battle or a religious battle—or if there's any difference. And take Barabas: do the Maltese Christians hate him because they truly think his religion is wrong, or do they just need someone to blame and steal money from? One thing is sure: by the end of the play, we're not feeling particularly worshipful.
Nobody really adheres to religious principles in this play; they just use religion as a front to get what they want
Barabas chiefly identifies and defines himself through his Jewishness.
Ah, hypocrisy: the gift that keeps giving. Well, if you're on Malta, anyway. Generally speaking, hypocrisy is claiming you have one set of moral standards and then acting according to a different set of rules. Sounds bad, right? Sure. But remember that The Jew of Malta is presided over by Machiavelli, a guy who thought that hypocrisy was fine and dandy as long as it kept you in power. For a politician like Ferneze, hypocrisy lets you have your gold and bathe in it too: you sound good, because you openly espouse Christian morals, but you also get the luxury of doing really immoral things.
Power matters more than morality in this play, so hypocrisy is less a personal sin and more of a useful tool—you get all the advantages of professing morality while getting away with really immoral behavior.
Barabas claims that "A counterfeit profession is better/Than unseen hypocrisy (1.2.289-290), but ultimately his own "counterfeit profession" falls flat before Ferneze's "unseen hypocrisy."
If Barabas were a teenager, he'd be stomping off to his room to slam the door and scream, "It's not fair." And it's not. The events of The Jew of Malta are set off by one moment of blatant unfairness, when Ferneze basically steals the Jews' property to pay off Malta's debt to the Turks. But Ferneze packages this action not just as right, but as legal. So, we have some questions. Is law just a political tool? Or is it a safeguard of justice? Is there any true justice to be found? Or is everything that happens simply the outcome of various power plays? If Barabas told you at the end that he fought the law and won, would he be right?
There is no real force of justice in this play; law is simply a political tool for people to leverage.
While things are pretty crazy for most of the play, the ultimate defeat of the Turkish threat and Barabas's death demonstrate that there is in fact a force of justice at work.
Jews weren't popular in Renaissance Europe. (We know, you're shocked to hear that: The Jew of Malta is so full of praise.) They frequently faced the decision of either converting to Christianity or being expelled from their country. Remind you of anybody?Ferneze's Convert Or Fork Over Your Wealth bargain, even though it sounds crazy, would have sounded relatively normal at the time The Jew of Malta was being performed. But the ordeal didn't end with conversion. There was a lot of paranoia over whether or not these Jews had really converted or were still practicing Judaism in secret—being obdurate. Barabas is a prime example of exactly what the Christian world was losing sleep over. He absolutely refuses to convert, wholeheartedly embraces every horrendous Jewish stereotype, and is really, really (really really really) hard to take down.
Barabas has to die, because once he moves from wanting money to wanting control of Malta, there's nowhere to go but down.
Despite his professed maniacal will to survive, Barabas loses, instead of gains. The play suggests that maybe compromise is the way to go.
We like our revenge cold with a little drizzle of honey. The Jew of Malta might not be a full-on revenge tragedy but we definitely agree that revenge is a major theme in this play—the first murder of the play, Lodowick's, is an act of vengeance against Ferneze's father. But how does it work? When is revenge the real motivation behind people's actions? And who is taking revenge on whom? When you think about it, the only clear-cut case of vengeance is when he kills Lodowick to get back at Ferneze. After that? It gets a lot murkier.
More than anything or anyone else, Barabas acts in pursuit of revenge.
In The Jew of Malta, revenge eventually transforms transforms into something different.
Welcome to Malta, dead center in a huge geopolitical struggle between East and West. The Turks are threatening to invade the defenseless city, and Ferneze is making deals left and right to try to make sure Malta doesn't get torn apart. By the time The Jew of Malta ends, you're left wondering what exactly makes a good politician—and it may not involve squeaky-clean ethics. Politics are so relentlessly brutal that only those who are willing to break the rules can survive, much less ensure civic harmony. In the game of Maltese politics, you win or you die.
Convenient hypocrisy and deceit, of the kind you see employed by Ferneze, is ultimately shown to be the only way to ensure stable government.
Marlowe ultimately suggests that force and violence aren't great ways to gain political power.