In ‘The Jew of Malta’, Marlowe uses the character Machevil to introduce the play in his prologue. This representation of Machiavelli instantly introduces the ideas and principles associated with his political ideas, and Machevil admits his villainy openly. He immediately exposes the conflicting attitudes that people would have had to his works, ‘Though some speak openly against my books, yet will they read me.. ‘ Machiavelli, although often condemned in public, was read by many people in private.
Machevil associates himself straight away with Barabas the Jew and evil doing, presenting him as his candidate who uses his ‘means’ to gain money and success. Barabas then becomes representative of what is foreign closely linked with wrong-doing and villainy before the play has even started. Marlowe uses the figure of the Jew as a powerful rhetoric device, Barabas becomes an embodiment for a Christian audience of all they loathe and fear, for all things that are ‘different’.
It is Barabas’s desire for gold and wealth that exemplifies the desires that drive all the other characters in the play, in fact, Barabas seems to have acquired his wealth in a more honest and respectable way, as a merchant, than the other characters who try to extrapolate money in seemingly more dishonest ways, The Turks forcing tributes from the Christians, who in turn, take away the wealth from the Jews. Even a convent is seen to profit from the taking of money. It seems that the religious and political ideology that at first seems to govern a Christian society is actually motivated towards profit and little else.
Barabas’s ‘sin’ of being a Jew is used when the Christian society need his money, he is almost a victim at the level of religion and political power. His murderous activities do not signal his exclusion from Malta’s society, but his central place in it. Whilst Marlowe never actually goes against anti-Semitic views, and the conventional portrayal of his villain, he seems to be suggesting throughout the play that Barabas the Jew is not the exception to, but rather the true representation of society. The character of Barabas is brought into being by the Christian society that surrounds him.
Looking at his actions, we can see that they are brought about by the actions of others. The plot of the play is set in motion by the Governor taking his wealth, and each of Barabas’s schemes are in response to perceived threats to him. Although Marlowe does not challenge directly the renaissance stereotype of the Jew, in that Barabas is identified with egoism and his selfish needs, he highlights the fact that Barabas success in his role is because of Christianity alienating relationships in society. The Christian practice of alienation is ongoing throughout the play, and is present most strongly in Barabas himself.
His actions are provoked by Christian actions, and his identity is to an extent, the product of the Christian concept of Jewish identity. Barabas sense of self and his response to the world are mainly constructed by the dominant Christian culture. His identity is a social construct , which he loses as the play goes on, until his character becomes no more than an abstract, anti-Semitic construct of a Jew. One of the true emblems of society highlighted in the play is the slave market – ‘every one’s price is written on his back’, (II. 274).
At that low level of society, the barriers of religion and race fall away as a Jew buys a Turkish slave at a Christian slave market. This slave market becomes the concrete symbol of the alienation practised by the Christian society. In ‘The Jew of Malta’, Marlowe does not directly challenge the renaissance conception of the foreign, but rather he uses it as a tool to point out the inadequacy of typical Christian society. His main character, Barabas, is still shown in an anti-Semitic light, and is placed in the role of typical villain.
However, his character is shown not to have come about through his ‘sin’ of being a Jew, but is shown to be a product of the Christian society around him, whose morality is at least in part called into quest. Marlowe manages at once to show Barabas as an alienated figure, and also as an embodiment of the society he is in, his difference comes about from the energy which he displays throughout the play. He is a character that embodies all that was negative regarding the Renaissance conception of the foreign, and yet, in many ways, he is no different to the Christian society that is supposed to represent the good and the familiar.
Marlowe takes the Renaissance conception of the foreign and turns it around to face inwards, towards the audience, questioning the difference between what is foreign and what is familiar. If Barabas’s identity is constructed by the Christian view of a typical Jew, then it says a lot for the negative impact of such stereotyping. In Jonson’s ‘Volpone’ we can see how these kind of tactics are employed in a similar way, the actions of the play become seemingly distant from the renaissance audience, when a foreign setting is employed.
With the help of the characters from the subplot, we can see, however, that the use of stereotypes that arise from the renaissance conception of the foreign, can be turned inwards yet again, and held up against the audience who help to construct and maintain them.
Bibliography Butler, M. Ben Jonson’s Volpone: a critical study (1987) Greenblatt, S. ‘Marlowe and the will to absolute play’ in New Historicism and Renaissance Drama ed. R. Wilson and R. Dutton (1992) Kelsall, M. Christopher Marlowe (1981) Parker, R. B. ‘Jonson’s Venice’ in Theatre of the English and Italian Renaissance, ed. J. R Mulryne and M. Shewring (1991)