Friday, 31 January 2014

The Jew of Malta: A Jew Demonized?

This month is Shakespeare's month for the Classics Club Project. I just have to be a part of it. And yet, although I have mustered all my courage and determination to at last read Macbeth, I still couldn't do it. Not this month.

This month is a month of journey, of new things, of work, and of ideas. For me, it's also a month of melancholy and poetry, especially because I have been very much in love lately with Keats' Ode to a Nightingale – a brilliant, sweet, and sad poem. I couldn't bring myself to read anything Shakespearian or his contemporaries until this morning.

Having in my hand a compilation of Christopher Marlowe's plays, the library's, which I haven't returned for more than a month now (and I can't even think about the penalty for it. I will return it as soon as possible), I just felt that this book must not lie here in vain. I must read it. And I knew I must read it before the end of the month. So I just woke up this morning with the book beside my pillow and started to read The Jew of Malta.

One more reason to choose The Jew of Malta instead of other plays on the list – it inspired Shakespeare's Merchant, one of my favourites among the canon. I didn't expect it to be so different.

Machevill opens the play with a prologue, introducing to the audience the Jew – Barabas. Barabas, just like Shakespeare's Shylock was just a merchant Jew, who got rich through his trade. He had some ships trading precious merchandise – pearls, silk, and numerous types of gems. He was the richest man in town. But everything changed overnight.

The Governor of Malta was to give a great sum of money to the son of Ottoman Emperor. To provide such massive amount of money he forced the Jews – all Jews – to give up half of their riches, or else convert to Christianity. If they would not accept either, all their riches would automatically go to the city's treasury. As the Governor was too quick in his judgement, Barabas was too late to realise his unfortunate position. He lost all he had. His riches went to the city's, and his house was transformed into a nunnery.

Meanwhile, the Jew had a daughter. While he vowed that he loved her as much as Agamemnon loved Iphigenia, he did exactly what Agamemnon did to his daughter – used her to his own advantage. Firstly Abigail, the girl, was asked to enter the nunnery and saved her father's left riches, hidden inside the house. Next, the girl was forced to entertain the best friend of the man she loved, resulting in a fatal duel between the two. When she realised what had happened, she re-entered the nunnery, vowing to be there for the rest of her life, punishing herself for the death of Mathias, her beloved.

Barabas was not happy. He would rather see the girl burn in fire than become a Christian. So he, with the help of his purchased slave, poisoned the whole house and all the nuns in it, including his daughter. Before she died, she confessed everything to a friar, adding that she wanted to see her father become a Christian. Upon learning that this friar knew everything, instead of becoming a Christian, Barabas killed him.

That's not all. The slave-turned-heir of his started to threaten him to get his money. When he was drunk, he spilled all his master's secrets to a courtesan and her friend. They ended up poisoned – but not before telling the Governor everything there was to know. Barabas was sentenced to death and thrown outside the city.

It was not easy to kill him, apparently. He survived and made an alliance with the Turk Prince who was about to war against Malta. He betrayed the city and was appointed Governor. His reign was not long. Trying to play both sides, he was tricked by the old Governor and died alone. The old Governor took the Turk Prince captive and restored peace to the city.

The end.

It was not a pleasant story. Just like what Shakespeare did to Richard III, I feel that Marlowe extremely demonized his Jew, Barabas. While the Christian Governor was not free from sin either, neither was the Turk Prince, the Jew got all the blame for what happened, and we don't have a chance to see what's wrong with him – what was it all about. True he talked of revenge, but, revenge for what? Revenge to whom? Whose fault? He seemed to be angry to everybody and hurt every single one he'd want to blame.

The “contest of crime” that he had with his slave Ithamore is also extraordinary. Both bragged for being the worst person between the two. His first advice to his slave reflected his way of life. “First be thou void of these affections:/Compassion, love vain hope, and heartless fear;/Be mov'd at nothing, see thou pity none,/But to thyself smile when the Christians moan.”

One other thing to note: This play to me feels like the triumph of the Christians over the Moslem world and over the Jews. However, the fight was not won fairly. The Governor tricked the Jew to get his riches, therefore he was the main cause of all things that happened to the city in Barabas' revenge process, and later on tricked Barabas into his death. The Governor at first agreed to give the Turks a sum of money, he changed the deal later on, believing that Bosco and the King of Spain would help him.

Taking Marlowe's belief into consideration, it's very likely that the play really describes religion as a 'childish toy,' something that people play for their own advantage. Just as the Governor used Barabas' status as a Jew to justify taking all his riches, Barabas used her daughter as a nun to regain riches. The praise that the Governor gave “Neither to Fate nor Fortune, but to Heaven” ends the play in rather a sarcastic tone after all.  

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