The Jew of Malta: Theme Analysis
Power and Riches
Barabas is the stereotype of the greedy Jew who cannot get enough money. In Act I he is in his counting house enjoying his “infinite riches in a little room”(I,1,l.37). He believes the Jews have been promised wealth as God’s chosen people: “What more may heaven do for earthly man/ Than thus to pour out plenty in their laps” (I,1,ll.105-06) ) He cites the wealth of Abraham and Job but brags he has more than they did. At first he says he is content with money instead of office. The Gentiles can keep their governments because he has more than any government. This is proven true when Ferneze, the Governor of Malta, calls on the Jews, and particularly Barabas, to pay the tribute money to the Turks to buy peace for the country. Later, however, Barabas is even more content when he has both his money and is Governor of Malta.
His politics are described in the Prologue by Machiavelli: “Might first made kings” (line 20) and laws are made through violence and blood. Barabas does whatever he must to hold on to power and money, including treachery and murder. After he has won the governorship of Malta by betraying the town to the Turks, he reminds himself: “And, since by wrong thou gott'st authority,/ Maintain it bravely by firm policy” (V,ii, ll.35-36). When he sends Ithamore off on a dirty errand, Barabas warns him to “be not rash, but do it cunningly” (II,iii, l. 374), reminiscent of Machiavelli’s advice that it is not so important to be virtuous, as to appear so to the populace. To Abigail, whom he wants to pose as a nun so she can get access to his hidden money, Barabas says, “in extremity, / We ought to make bar of no policy” (I,ii, ll. 272-73).
It is not only Barabas who is obsessed with money and power. Barabas strikes a deal with Ferneze who shakes hands on mutually turning on the Turks to free Malta. Barabas explains that he is “Making a profit of my policy;/And he from whom my most advantage comes, Shall be my friend. / This is the life we Jews are us’d to lead;/ And reason too, for Christians do the like.” (V, iii, ll.112-116). Ferneze proves the truth of that; he too is Machiavellian as he betrays Barabas to get back the governorship and make a captive of Calymath. Barabas is too confident of his control, believing the Governor will honor his word.
The Jew of Malta is described as a revenge tragedy but is equally a satire, with all parties coming under savage attack for human frailty. Christians, like Ferneze, are very un-Christian in their lack of forgiveness, mercy, and brotherly love. Ferneze tells the Jews they should be heavily taxed for, “through our sufferance of your hateful lives,/ Who stand accursed in the sight of heaven,/ These taxes and afflictions are befall’n” (I,ii, ll. 63-65). Barabas challenges him: “Is theft the ground of your religion?” (I, ii, l. 96). The Christian Knights justify their taking of his money because Barabas is cursed and sinful as a Jew in their opinion, and he replies; “What, bring you Scripture to confirm your wrongs?/ Preach me not out of my possessions./ Some Jews are wicked, as all Christians are” (I,ii, ll. 111-113).
Each side justifies cruelty to others in the name of religion. Barabas says that Christians pretend to be honest, but “policy! That’s their profession,/ And not simplicity, as they suggest (I,ii, ll.161-162). He tells Ithamore, a Muslim, that they are justified in killing Christians because Christians are hypocrites. There are many jokes about the friars enjoying the nuns. When Abigail dies, Friar Bernadine, her confessor, grieves that she dies a virgin nun, indicating that this is rare and a waste.
Barabas talks about being a Jew but does not practice solidarity with his own people. As he says in several places, the only people who are his friends are the ones who serve his ends. When Abigail, shocked at her father’s arranging for Don Mathias, her lover, and Don Lodowick, to kill each other in a duel, she withdraws to the nunnery to be a Christian. Her judgment is that “there is no love on earth,/ Pity in Jews, nor piety in Turks” (III,iii, ll. 47,48). Barabas has no feeling for his daughter once he perceives she betrays him to be a Christian. He curses her as Adam cursed Cain, and then he adopts his man, Ithamore, a Muslim Turk, and a vicious criminal, to be his heir.
Appearance vs. Reality
Along with hypocrisy, the theme of appearance vs. reality shows that nothing is as it seems in Malta. Barabas uses this to his advantage, further hiding and disguising his own motives. Ferneze and the Knights of Malta seem like patriots, but they are ready to sell out to Calymath with tribute money in the beginning, rather than go to war. The Spanish Vice-Admiral, Del Bosco, who is actually looking out for Malta as eventual Spanish property, chides Ferneze for giving in to the Turks. Barabas pretends to be a quiet Jew minding his own business with his trade, uninterested in political issues, but he has his finger in every pie, manipulating things to his own interest. He is ambitious, an overreacher, and is quite happy about being Governor of Malta.
In the beginning, Barabas seems to love no one but his daughter. He says how fond he is of her, but he uses her like everyone else. He forces her to pretend to be a nun and then to pretend to make love to Lodowick, though she is in love with Don Mathias. Finally, he has no qualms in killing her when she turns Christian. Ithamore and Barabas swear to be bosom buddies, based on their mutual evil ways, but Barabas no sooner makes Ithamore his son and heir than he threatens to cut his throat if he is not loyal. Ithamore does not hesitate to blackmail his master to get money for the courtesan, Bellamira. Bellamira pretends to be in love with Ithamore, so she and Pilia-Borza can take advantage of the blackmail scheme.
The Friars, Bernardine and Jacomo, supposedly holy men, fight to get Barabas to join their order so they can get his wealth. Their religious veneer is very thin. Barabas sets up an elaborate dinner for Calymath after he has taken over Malta with Barabas’s help. Barabas appears to be grateful, but lays a trap to kill Calymath and all his soldiers. During the entire play, Barabas has kept up his juggling act with one deception after another, but at the end, he has to face the truth of treachery, falling into his own cauldron of boiling oil.
The Jew of Malta is known as a revenge tragedy, a popular genre on the Elizabethan stage. It is a tragedy in the sense that the main character is killed in the end, trying to revenge himself on his enemies. He has his reasons for wanting to take justice into his own hands, and the audience is sympathetic to some degree because they are in on Barabas’s plans. As in a thriller, it seems the cleverest one wins. In this play, Barabas is the main avenger, but many of the characters are motivated by revenge.
Barabas is the proud and arrogant man who is set up for a fall: “Barabas is born to better chance/ And fram’d of finer mould than common man” (I,ii, ll. 219-20) he brags in Act I. After he has lost his money to Ferneze, he swears to revenge himself on the Governor: “I am not of the tribe of Levi, I,/ That can so soon forget an injury” (II,iii, ll. 18-19). He contrives to get Lodowick and Mathias, once best friends, into a quarrel of revenge over Abigail, killing both to the desolation of Ferneze, for Lodowick was his son.
Barabas teaches his slave, Ithamore, the trade of revenge: “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” (II,iii, ll. 166-169). Barabas loses his daughter over this act, however. She says of him, “Thou wast set upon extreme revenge” (III, iii, l. 42) as she turns to Christianity and becomes a nun. With each turn of the plot, Barabas finds he has more people to revenge himself upon.