A Complex Play of Love, Revenge, and Murder
For a long time I felt that Kit Marlowe's best play was [book:The Tragical History of Doctor Faust], and though I had read this play previously, it had not stuck in my head in the same way that Doctor Faust did. I suspect it is because the last time that I read this collection of plays I had read them all on one go (that is reading the plays one after the other without reading something different in between) and because I had been so blown away by Doctor Faust I ended up not paying all that much attention to the other plays in the book. This time around I have come to appreciate the brilliance that is The Jew of Malta.
It has been suggested that this play inspired [book:The Merchant of Venice], however the Merchant of Venice is more of a comedy and you also find that Shylock does not attract as much sympathy as does Barrabas. Mind you, by the end of this play Barrabas does not attract as much sympathy as he does at the beginning of the play, but that is because, in the end, he deserves his fate (namely by being thrown into a cauldron of hot oil, a fate that he had initially set aside for another). The Jew of Malta a play of political intrigue and machiavellian manipulation as influential Maltese struggle against each other to try to come out of top. In fact, to add emphasis to the Mmchiavellian nature of the play, Marlow actually opens with an introduction of a character named Machiavell (no doubt referring to the Machievelli of a similar name).
The basic plot (if one can actually call this plot basic because the other three Marlowe plays that I have commented on so far have pretty straight forward plots, though some very interesting characters, at least in the case of Doctor Faust) is that the Turks lay siege to the island kingdom of Malta and demand a tribute, to which the governor responds by confiscating property and using it to pay the tribute. Barabas, the Jew of the tale, objects to this acquisition of his land and in response the governor decides to take all of his wealth and gives his house to the church. Fortunately for Barrabas, he has some wealth secreted away and he arranges a ploy where he convinces his daughter to pretend to become a nun so that she might sneak into the house and take the money.
Not only does this play have political intrigue, but is also has a love triangle, one that Barrabas arranges. He convinces the son of the governor to pursue his daughter, while another boy is also attempting to court her. In this Machiavellian world of sex and intrigue, the two suitors end up coming to blows and killing each other in a duel, though Barrabas manages to keep his hands clean of the killings by using a Turkish slave that he had acquired to do his dirty work. Obviously the governor is out for blood, but Barrabas manages to get him removed from his post, and through further political maneuvering, gets himself appointed. Obviously, now that he is effectively at the top of his career, things begin to unwind (as if they hadn't already due to all of his wealth being confiscated) and when he attempts to enact his final plot to get rid of the last of his enemies, he suddenly finds that the tables have been turned and he, instead, finds himself thrown into the cauldron of boiling oil.
If there is a major theme with this play and that is the theme of religious conflict, and Marlowe demonstrates his ability to create a truly complex story through the use of not just conflict between two parties, but three – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. At this point in history there was not much understanding of other religions (they were all heresy), and unlike today where we have people trying to understand the beliefs of others, in the 16th century it seemed to be much more as treating the members of other religions as aliens (though in many cases that conflict still very much exists today between members of different religions – I do not think the word opposing is proper in this context). However, what we do have are two religions with established territory and one religion without a territory, that is the Jew. For the last two thousand years, as we all understand, the Jews were drifting around other people's lands, trying their best to create a comfortable life for themselves, and in many cases quite successfully. However, we find that for much of the time they were subject to abuse, such as the pomgroms during the crusades, and the fact that all Jews were expelled from England in the 12th century, and though they were later allowed back in, it was only on the condition that they convert to Christianity. In Merchant of Venice, while not in the play, it was certainly in the background, the Jews were forced into the Ghetto (a section of Venice that was effectively a gaol for people whose only crime was being a Jew) and what we see here in this play is that when the King of Malta is forced to give tribute to the Turks, he turns to the section of society that had the least amount of rights form which to get that tribute: the Jews.
Finally I want to say a little about Malta, not that I know all that much about the place, except that it is a small island in the middle of the Mediterranean whose language is connected to Arabic, which surprised me. I found that out through, of all places, Wikipedia (the place where I get all of my information these days). I have known a few Maltese people in my time, but I suspect, as is evident in this play, it was for a long time a domain of Islam. This is not surprising because Sicily was a Muslim domain for much of early European history, and after that it became a Norman State, which actually surprised me because it is as far from Normandy as one could expect (I didn't learn that from Wikipedia, I learnt it from a documentary on the Normans). However, I always thought that the Maltese were more connected with the Italians, considering that the Maltese that I have known looked a lot like Italians that I know (which is probably because most of the Italians that I know come from Southern Italy, where pretty much most of the Italians that emigrated to Australia and America come from). Well, I guess one learns something different every day.