Thursday, January 05, 2012

The Maltese Jew

I'm not done with my secondary works yet; I have probably 10 or so more to go. But I am going to start working on the plays. And since I know Shakespeare best, Middleton second-best, and the others hardly at all, I'm starting with playwrights whose works I haven't read, so that when I need to speed through Lear again, I can.

Today I read The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe. Marlowe's Jew, Barabas, is much more central to the plot than Shylock, Shakespeare's famous Jew. The introduction said that Barabas is more sympathetic, too, but I'm not sure I agree. Barabas has a lot of Shylockian characteristics, only drawn more extreme. He loves his daughter more than Shylock loves Jessica; she is his partner in crime and in one scene, they have a sort of balcony-moment. He is yelling up to her to throw down the bags and there is a similar conflation of daughter/ducats in his line "Oh my girle, my gold, my fortune, my felicity" and later in "O girle, oh gold, oh beauty, oh my blisse." But at the same time he calls her "the Loadstarre of my life" which is pretty romantic-sounding.

But after she becomes a nun, Barabas not only wishes her dead, as Shylock wishes Jessica, but actually kills her with a poison. Barabas is more vengeful, more greedy, more conniving, more everything than Shylock. Here indeed is the Marlovian hero and even though he's a terrible person whose life goal is to thwart and hurt Christians, I find myself hoping that his shenanigans will work out--that he will be able to trick both the Governor and Calymath out of the ownership of Malta and that he'll spend the rest of his days diving, Scrooge McDuck-like, into giant piles of money--"infinite riches in a little roome." But more sympathetic than the beaten, wounded Shylock, forced to convert, whose lamentations for his daughter and his ducats are pitiful? I don't think so. Barabas scorns your sympathy; he goes down into the pit cursing everyone and assuring you that, even now, he doesn't regret a single thing.

Barabas's Jewishness is troubling. Although he later converts (is forced to), Shylock seems to have more loyalty to his tribe than Barabas. Barabas is always saying things like, "Some Jewes are wicked . . . am I to be tried for their transgression?" and screwing over his fellow Jews with false promises of help and protection. He seems to distance himself from Jewishness at the same time as he wears it as a badge "Rather had I a Jew be hated thus / than pittied in Christian poverty." I think he just really likes being disliked by people, so he takes on any identity that increases disdain and hatred.

If Barabas is a Marlovian hero, is he more like Faustus or Tamburlaine? It's hard for me to say, since I haven't read the end of Tamburlaine and I don't know how he dies. Barabas's death is a literal drop-into-hell (hell as the lower part of the theater under the trapdoor) and the analogue to Faustus is clear; on the other hand, Faustus wrestled with his conscience (and his fear) so openly and palpably, which feelings Barabas seems not to have.

Connections to Merchant of Venice:
Barabas, like Antonio, is a merchant whose fortune depends on trade and who waits for  his vessels to come in laden with riches.
In the scene where Barabas loses his fortune, the Governor gives him a chance to lose only half of it, and when Barabas refuses and then recants, the Governor pulls the same sort of petty second-grade move that Portia does: "No, you already said you didn't want it, so you have to take the worst penalty now."

Connections to other Marlowe work:
Ithimore tells the Courtezan to "live with me and be my love."

Connections to other Renaissance literature:
The "Chorus" figure is named Machiavel, and although he does not appear again in the play, it would be interesting to figure out who usually played him and how this role was double-cast. Is it Ithimore, who seems to be as conniving as Barabas? Could it be Pilia-Borza? Also, it would be interesting to compare this play with other plays about more typical Machiavellian leaders, such as Henry V. Is Barabas really a Machiavel, or is he more of a malcontent like Bosola?

Who is this Pilia-Borza chap? What's his deal? He seems pretty weird. Is he the Courtezan's pimp? Is he a dandy, or a ragged fellow? I can't tell, from descriptions of him, what he looks like or what kind of person he is (other than a thief).

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