Marlowe, Christopher°

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MARLOWE, CHRISTOPHER ° (1564–1593), English playwright. The Jew of Malta (c. 1590) portrays the monstrous Jew, Barabas; T.S. Eliot described the play as a savage farce. Indeed it has elements of melodrama and exaggeration which suggest that Marlowe was not completely serious in his portrayal of the Jew. Barabas is a rich merchant whose wealth is expropriated and whose house is turned into a nunnery by order of the governor of Malta. In revenge, Barabas indulges in an orgy of slaughter, poisoning his daughter Abigail, her lover, and many others. Malta being besieged by the Turks, Barabas enters upon a career of political intrigue, first betraying the island to the enemy and then plotting the destruction of the Turkish commander. But Barabas is himself betrayed and perishes in a boiling cauldron. The story represents a mingling of traditional antisemitism (in the Middle Ages the Jews were often charged with poisoning the wells) with the late 16th-century taste for the "political thriller." Barabas, a disciple of Machiavelli, practices political stratagems with a view to gaining power in the state. From this point of view his Jewishness is no more than incidental, the main interest being focused on his "Italian" villainy. Barabas' conspiracy with the Turks may have been suggested by the career of Joseph *Nasi. The Jew of Malta was almost certainly in Shakespeare's mind when he wrote The Merchant of Venice some years later. Like Shakespeare's Jew, Barabas has a beautiful daughter who becomes a Christian, and a comic servant, Ithamore, who directs the audience's laughter against the Jew. This latter feature may be a relic of the medieval religious drama in which the Devil was frequently accompanied by a comic figure, the Vice. In spite of his negative portrayal of the Jew, Marlowe undoubtedly projected into the portrait some of his own restlessness as well as his notorious dislike of the Establishment. But Marlowe's work differs markedly from Shakespeare's depiction of Shylock in being two-dimensional, in contrast to Shakespeare's ambiguous and three-dimensional portrayal of his Jewish character.


J.L. Cardozo, Contemporary Jew in the Elizabethan Drama (1925); M.J. Landa, Jew in Drama (1926), index; H. Michelson, Jew in Early English Literature (1926), 70ff.; T.S. Eliot, Selected Essays (1932), 118–25; H. Sinsheimer, Shylock (1947), 51–54; H. Levin, Overreacher: a Study of Christopher Marlowe (1954), index; H. Fisch, Dual Image (1959), 25–29. add. bibliography: odnb online.

[Harold Harel Fisch]