The Jew of Malta
By Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) 
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
First Performance
Verse Format
Plot Summary
Figures of Speech, Foreshadowing
Questions, Essay Topics
Marlowe Biography
Complete Free Text
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2010
Type of Work

.......The Jew of Malta is a tragedy and revenge play that satirizes the willingness of people to put aside moral and ethical principles to achieve their goals. Because the play is darkly comic and contains elements of burlesque, one may also characterize it as a tragicomedy. The full title of the play is The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta.

First Performance and Year of Publication

.......Christopher Marlowe wrote the play between 1588 and 1592. The first documented performance of it was in February 1592. In 1633, more than three decades after Marlowe's death, Nicholas Vavasour published the play in London. 


.......In the prologue of The Jew of Malta, Machiavel addresses the audience as part of the stage performance in London in 1592. The five acts of the play are set in Malta in 1565, the year that the Ottoman Turks besieged the tiny Mediterranean nation. Malta is about sixty miles south of Sicily and one hundred eighty miles north of Libya. Besides the main island of Malta, the nation includes four other islands. 



Machiavel: Presenter of the prologue. He is the literary reincarnation of Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), the Italian author of the influential and highly controversial treatise The Prince. Machiavel is the anglicized form of Machiavelli. The Prince argued that a sovereign from time to time must resort to unethical and immoral policies and practices in order to maintain control of his domain and maximize its safety and welfare. In other words, a ruler needs to lie, cheat, break promises, and so on to strengthen or maintain his control while promoting the welfare of the people. The end justifies the means. After the publication of The Prince, English speakers coined the term Machiavellian to describe unscrupulous political or social activity. 

The Five Acts

Barabas: The main character in the play. He is a wealthy Jewish merchant who is unrelenting in his efforts to gain revenge against his enemies. In a traitorous plot against Christian defenders of Malta, he says, "I'll help to slay their children and their wives, / To fire the churches, pull their houses down." As the prime malefactor in the play, Barabas resorts to deceit, betrayal, sedition, usury, extortion, and murder as means toward his ends. He is such a thoroughgoing scoundrel, in fact, that he is really a caricature of reality, a chimera from a fantasy world. Barabas is a variant spelling of Barabbas, the name of the convicted criminal who—according to accounts in the New Testament—was released instead of Jesus during Passover. For a full account of this story see Matthew 27:15-26.
Ferneze: Governor of Malta. He confiscates the possessions of Barabas to raise money demanded by extortionate Turks. 
Abigail: Beautiful daughter of Barabas. After he uses her in his schemes, she turns against him and becomes a nun. 
Mathias: Young gentleman of Malta. He and Abigail are in love. 
Lodowick: Son of Ferneze. Barabas inflames Lodowick and Mathias with hatred for each other, and they die in a duel he arranged. 
Calymath: Son of the the Grand Seignior, the ruler of Turkey.
Ithamore: Slave purchased by Barabas.
Martin del Bosco: Spanish vice admiral.
Jacomo: Roman Catholic friar.
Barnardine: Roman Catholic friar.
Katharine: Mother of Mathias. 
Bellamira: Courtesan.
Pillia-Borza: Bellamira's attendant.
Zaareth, Temainte: Jewish merchants and friends of Barabas.
Merchants Who Announce the Arrival of Ships
Knights, Guard, Government Officials, Messenger, Carpenters

Verse Format

.......Marlowe wrote most of The Jew of Malta in unrhymed iambic pentameter, often referred to as blank verse. A line of iambic pentameter has five pairs of syllables, or five feet. Each foot consists of an iamb (an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable).  Because there are five iambs—or five iambic feet—in each line, the metric format is called iambic pentameter. (The prefix ''pent'' means ''five.'')
.......The first six lines of Act 1 demonstrate this verse format.

So THAT..|..of.THUS..|..much THAT..|..re TURN..|..was MADE;

And OF..|..the THIRD..|..part OF..|..the PER..|..sian SHIPS

There WAS..|..the VEN..|..ture SUMM'D..|..and SAT..|..is.FIED.

As FOR..|..those SAM..|..nites, AND..|..the MEN..|..of UZ,

That BOUGHT..|..my SPAN..|..ish OILS..|..and WINES..|..of GREECE,

Here HAVE..|..I PURS'D..|..their PAL..|..try SIL..|..ver LINGS

This format does not apply to dialogue with short lines, such as the following:
ABIGAIL. Who's that?
BARABAS. Peace, Abigail! 'tis I.

Plot Summary

.......Sitting in his counting house before piles of gold, Barabas figures up his profits from the sale of Spanish oils, Greek wines, and other goods. He bemoans the tightfistedness of Samnite businessmen and traders from Uz but delights in the generosity of the Arabians..
.......Merchants arrive to announce that ships owned by Barabas have arrived safely in the port of Malta. Their valuable cargo will fatten Barabas's coffers. An argosy from Alexandria, for example, carries gold, precious gems, and Persian silks.
.......After his visitors leave, Barabas observes to himself, “These are the blessings promis'd to the Jews.” He then says he prefers to be a hated but wealthy Jew than a pitied Christian who lives in poverty. Besides, the only fruits of the Christian faith are “malice, falsehood, and excessive pride,” he says.
.......Jews are skilled at generating wealth, he notes, and cites as examples successful Jewish businessmen from Greece, Portugal, Italy, France, and elsewhere. Though he himself has accumulated great riches, he says, his most prized possession is his daughter, to whom he will pass on his property. 
.......Meanwhile, Turks from a fleet of war galleys arrive in Malta to meet in the senate with Ferneze, the governor of Malta. All Jews have been summoned to appear there also. The Turkish leader, Calymuth—accompanied by Bassoes (high-ranking officials)—tells Ferneze he has come to collect ten years of tribute that the Maltese have failed to pay the Turks as part of a protection agreement. Ferneze asks for a month to raise the money Calymath grants the request, saying a representative will return to collect the tribute when the time is up. To raise the money to pay the Turks, the governor orders all Jews to turn over half of their possessions. Any Jew who refuses to pay must become a Christian. Three Jews with Barabas quickly agree to meet the demands, but Barabas resists. The governor then orders him to yield all his wealth. 
.......After everyone except Barabas leaves the senate, his daughter Abigail enters and commiserates with him. Barabas tells her not to worry, for he has hidden a cache of jewels and gold in his house. But Abigail says he will never see these riches again. When she left home, she says, the governor and his men claimed the house and turned it into a convent. Only nuns may enter it.
.......Barabas then asks Abigail to pose as a nun in order to retrieve the cache from its hiding place—a space beneath a marked board on an upper floor. After instructing her on the details of his plan, Abigail returns to her father's house—now a nunnery—just as the abbess (the mother superior of the nuns) arrives to take charge of the property. With her are Friar Jacomo, Friar Barnardine, and another nun. Abigail first identifies herself as a Jew and the daughter of the former owner of the nunnery. She then says her father's misfortune apparently resulted from the failure of Jews to embrace Christianity. Because she is a Jew and is therefore sinful, she says, she  wishes to convert to Christianity, become a nun, and atone for her sinfulness. Her petition impresses the friars and the abbess, and they admit her to the nunnery. 
.......Mathias, a gentleman of Malta who has an eye for Abigail, happens by. Upon seeing Abigail with the nuns, he concludes that she has renounced her religion to join the convent. When Lodowick, the son of Ferneze, comes by, Mathias informs him that he has just witnessed a strange sight: a Jewish maid, the daughter of Barabas, changed into a nun. Mathias describes her as “matchless beautiful.” His interest aroused, Lodowick proposes that they visit her. 
.......In the convent, Abigail finds the cache. Just before midnight, she drops the bags of gold and gems out a window. Her father is waiting below, as planned. Barabas says, "O my girl, / My gold, my fortune, my felicity" (2.1).
.......The next day, Martin del Bosco, vice admiral to the king of Spain, arrives in Malta in his ship, The Flying Dragon, and meets with Ferneze. Del Bosco has a shipload of Greeks, Turks, and Moors that he captured in sea battles and wishes to sell as slaves. Ferneze welcomes del Bosco and approves the sale of Greeks and Moors but not Turks, pointing out that he has a tributary alliance with the Turks. Del Bosco then persuades him to abandon his agreement with the Turks and pledge allegiance to Spain, which will protect Malta instead. Ferneze agrees to do so, calling Calymath and his men "barbarous misbelieving Turks" (2.2), then allows the Spanish to sell all the slaves.
.......When he appears at the sale and encounters Lodowick, Barabas decides to gain revenge against Ferneze through Lodowick. He tells the youth that he is not yet penniless, for he has one jewel left that outshines all the others. His curiosity piqued, Lodowick wishes to see this wonder. While Lodowick waits for Barabas nearby, the latter buys a slave named Ithamore, who was born in Thrace but brought up in Arabia. Barabas instructs him to “Be mov'd at nothing, see thou pity none, / But to thyself smile when the Christians moan” (2.3). This advice pleases Ithamore, who also despises Christians and has burned Christian villages, slit the throats of Christian travelers while they slept at an inn, and worked mischief against Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem. 
.......When Lodowick comes over and asks Barabas to show him the jewel he spoke of, Barabas takes him to the new home he purchased and shows him Abigail. In a private conversation with her, he orders her to pretend that she loves Lodowick even though she and Mathias are in love. When Mathias comes by looking for Abigail, Barabas tells him Lodowick has been wooing her. “He sends her letters, bracelets, jewels, rings” (2.3), Barabas says. Although she returns the gifts, Barabas says, Lodowick persists in his suit. After Mathias sees Abigail and Lodowick together, Barabas forges two letters—one in the name of Lodowick and one in the name of Mathias—in which the young men challenge each other to a duel. Ithamore delivers the letters. 
.......While on his way back from delivering the letter to Mathias, Ithamore sees the prostitute Bellamira and immediately wants her. But she hies away with Pillia-Borza, her attendant, who has a bag of silver for her that he stole from Barabas's counting house. 
.......In the meantime, Mathias and Lodowick duel with swords and kill each other. When mourning the loss of their children, Ferneze and Katharine, Mathias's mother,  note that the young men had been friends and vow to find out who set them against each other. Ithamore informs Abigail of their deaths, believing that she will be pleased. Her father, he says, was the one who caused them to hate each other. The death of Mathias devastates Abigail. She sends Ithamore to fetch friars to speak with her.
.......“I perceive there is no love on earth, / Pity in Jews, nor piety in Turks” (3.3), she says. When Ithamore returns with Friar Jacomo, Abigail now pleads in earnest to become a nun, and he accepts her. Barabas later receives a letter in which she informs him of her decision. Barabas then tells Ithamore,

Ne'er shall she live to inherit aught of mine,
Be bless'd of me, nor come within my gates,
But perish underneath my bitter curse,
Like Cain by Adam for his brother's death. (3.4)
He also tells Ithamore that he is now his heir. Moreover, while he lives, Barabas says, he will share with Ithamore his remaining possessions.
.......So disgusted is Barabas with his daughter that he plots to poison her. He sends Ithamore to the nunnery with a pot of rice laced with a deadly powder, the effects of which take hold forty hours after the powder is consumed. Ithamore sets the pot at a door where the nuns receive alms.
.......In the meantime, Turkish representatives return to Malta and insist on receiving the promised tribute. Ferneze, who now has an agreement with the Spanish, refuses to provide it. The Turks then say their leader, Calymath, will come to Malta himself with a force that will reduce Malta to ashes. Ferneze orders Malta to prepare for war.
.......At the convent, all the nuns have died except Abigail, who is near death. She confesses to Friar Barnardine her role in her father's plot against Mathias and Lodowick. Then, with her last breath, she asks him to convert her father. 
.......When he learns that his plan has worked, Barabas rejoices—even at the death of his own daughter. Friars Jacomo and Barnardine visit Barabas to carry out Abigail's dying request, asking him to repent for setting Mathias and Ithamore against each other. Barabas and Ithamore mistakenly think he wants them to repent for poisoning the rice. Barabas then pretends to convert, saying he will repent by wearing “a shirt of hair / And on my knees creep to Jerusalem” (4.1). In addition, he says, he will give all the gold he has to the friar who takes him in. The friars argue over who will receive Barabas (and his gold), and they fight. Barabas parts them and chooses Jacomo as his priest. After Jacomo leaves, Barabas and Ithamore strangle Friar Barnardine and stand him against a wall with his staff. 
.......When Friar Jacomo returns to accept the gold from Barabas, he encounters the dead Barnardine, still upright against the wall. Believing Barnardine is blocking his way and means to harm him, Jacomo grabs the staff and strikes him. The body falls. When Barabas and Ithamore return, they accuse Jacomo of killing Barnardine, take him in hand, and turn him over to the law. Friar Jacomo is found guilty of the crime and hanged.
.......Bellamira, meanwhile, sends Ithamore a letter saying she fell in love with him when she first she saw him. It's a lie, of course; she just wants to use Ithamore to get Barabas's gold. Ithamore, who remembers how beautiful she was when he caught a glimpse of her, is delighted. When he goes to her house, Pillia-Borza says Ithamore 
can prove that he is worthy of Bellamira by bringing her Barabas's gold. He can get it, Pillia-Borza says, by telling Barabas that he will reveal evil deeds committed by the merchant unless he turns over the gold. 
.......Ithamore immediately writes a letter to Barabas, saying he will “tell all” unless Barabas gives the bearer of the letter, Pillia-Borza, three hundred crowns. While Bellamira keeps Ithamore company, Pillia-Borza delivers the letter and returns with the money. However, he pockets two hundred ninety crowns and gives Ithamore the remaining ten crowns, saying that was all that Barabas would part with. Ithamore sends him back, this time demanding five hundred crowns. 
.......After Pillia-Borza returns, Bellamira questions Ithamore about Barabas. He tells her about the plot against Mathias and Lodowick, the poisoning of the nuns, and the strangling of Jacomo. Barabas enters, disguised as a French lute player. In his hat is a beautiful flower that Bellamira fancies. When he gives it to her, she, Ithamore, and Pillia-Borza all take a whiff of it. It is, of course, poisoned. When they ask Barabas for music, he excuses himself, saying he does not feel well. 
.......As Ferneze instructs his knights on how to defend Malta from Calymath, Bellamira intrudes to inform him that Barabas caused the death of his son and Mathias. Pillia-Borza adds that Barabas also poisoned the nuns and strangled a friar. Bellamira says his slave, Ithamore, can testify to the evil deeds of Barabas.
.......Ferneze's officers round up Barabas and Ithamore. When Ferneze orders his men to prepare to torture the captives, Ithamore immediately accuses Barabas of arranging the deaths of Lodowick and Mathias by forging letters. Ferneze's officers take Barabas and Ithamore away. Not long afterward, an officer enters and tells the governor that Mirabella, Pillia-Borza, and Ithamore are all dead. (The poison from the flower killed them.) He also announces the death of Barabas, and several men bring in his body. (Barabas has taken a potion that put him in trance.) Ferneze says justice has been done and decrees that the body of Barabas be thrown over the walls after the battle with the Turks.
.......After Ferneze and the officers leave, Barabas awakens, rises, and swears vengeance against everyone in town. Calymath comes upon him with several officers. Seeing an opportunity, Barabas says he knows how Calymath can easily conquer Malta. While Calymath assaults the walls, Barabas will lead five hundred of his Turks through a drainage conduit to the center of town. There, he will emerge from the conduit and open the gates for Calymath. The Turkish leader likes the plan, saying he will make Barabas the governor if it works.
.......A short while later, the town falls. Calymath makes Barabas governor, as promised, and gives him a team of bodyguards. Barabas imprisons the captured Ferneze and his officers. But Barabas is not happy. Because the people of Malta hate him, being their governor will only provoke them. He would rather rule money than Malta. So he summons Ferneze and tells him of a plan to rid Malta of Calymath and the Turks so that Ferneze can again become the governor. For his part, Ferneze must go about the town and raise money for Barabas. Ferneze agrees to the plan. 
.......Barabas then invites Calymath and his officers to dine with him in a monastery big enough to accommodate everyone. Beneath a trap door constructed by carpenters, he places a cauldron in which Calymath is to be boiled alive. When Calymath steps on the trap door, a cord attached to it will be cut, dropping him into the cauldron. Calymath's men will be taken by surprise and slaughtered. Barabas informs Ferneze of his scheme. 
.......After all the guests enter the monastery, Ferneze turns the tables on Barabas and cuts the cord when the merchant is on the trap door. He falls into the cauldron. At first Barabas begs for help. But when no one responds, he becomes defiant, saying,
Know, governor, 'twas I that slew thy son,—
I fram'd the challenge that did make them meet:
Know, Calymath, I aim'd thy overthrow:
And, had I but escap'd this stratagem,
I would have brought confusion on you all,
Damn'd Christian dogs, and Turkish infidels! (5.5)
Barabas dies.
.......At the same time, the Maltese surprise and defeat Calymath and his men. Ferneze orders the Turks to repair all the damage to Malta so that it may continue as a free nation. Until the Turks make reparations, Calymath will be held in Malta as a prisoner. 



.......The climax occurs when Barabas falls through the trap door and into cauldron. 


Machiavellian Expediency

.......Characters in the play espouse the high moral principles of Judaism, Catholicism, or Islam but are only too willing to sidestep their spiritual ideals to achieve wealth, power, revenge, and sexual gratification. Herein lies the purpose of the play: to call attention to the human tendency to ignore the dictates of morality in favor of satisfying perverse desires. 
.......Machiavel lays out the theme of coldhearted expediency and opportunism in the prologue of the play.

Wanton Vengeance

.......The offenses Barabas endures—including anti-Semitism and confiscation of his wealth—turn the already mean-spirited Jewish merchant into a juggernaut of revenge against the world. In Act 2, Barabas acknowledges—and seems to revel in—his forays against his enemies.

…..........I walk abroad o' nights,
And kill sick people groaning under walls:
Sometimes I go about and poison wells;
And now and then, to cherish Christian thieves,
I am content to lose some of my crowns,
That I may, walking in my gallery,
See 'em go pinion'd along by my door.
Being young, I studied physic, and began
To practice first upon the Italian;
There I enrich'd the priests with burials,
And always kept the sexton's arms in ure [80]
With digging graves and ringing dead men's knells:
And, after that, was I an engineer,
And in the wars 'twixt France and Germany,
Under pretence of helping Charles the Fifth,
Slew friend and enemy with my stratagems:
Then, after that, was I an usurer,
And with extorting, cozening, forfeiting,
And tricks belonging unto brokery,
I fill'd the gaols with bankrupts in a year,
And with young orphans planted hospitals;
And every moon made some or other mad,
And now and then one hang himself for grief,
Pinning upon his breast a long great scroll
How I with interest tormented him. (2.3)
Barabas even kills his own daughter after accusing her of betraying him. Near the end of the play, he is ready to take on everybody, saying, 
I'll be reveng'd on this accursed town;
For by my means Calymath shall enter in:
I'll help to slay their children and their wives,
To fire the churches, pull their houses down,
Take my goods too, and seize upon my lands.
I hope to see the governor a slave,
And, rowing in a galley, whipt to death. (5.1)

.......Marlowe staged The Jew of Malta before audiences that were generally anti-Semitic. Whether his intention in developing the theme of anti-Semitism was to play to the prejudice of his audiences or simply to hold a mirror to society is arguable. Of course, he ridicules Catholics and Muslims in the play, as well as Jews. However, his depiction of Barabas as unremittingly grasping and vengeful suggests that Marlowe deliberately intended to capitalize on Jewish stereotypes and excoriate Jews as the more reprehensible wrongdoers. 
.......Anti-Semitism was commonplace in Europe since ancient times. In England, where Marlowe wrote and presented the play, prejudice against Jews increased around 1190 after non-Jews borrowed heavily from Jewish moneylenders, becoming deeply indebted to them. In York, about one hundred fifty Jews committed suicide to avoid being captured by an angry mob. King Richard I (reign: 1189-1199) put a stop to Jewish persecution, but it returned in the following century during King Edward I's reign from 1272 to 1307. The government required Jews to wear strips of yellow cloth as identification and taxed them heavily.
.......Finally, in 1290 Edward banished them from England. Only a few Jews remained behind, either because they had converted to Christianity or because they enjoyed special protection for the services they provided. France, Spain, and Portugal had all expelled Jews between 1390 and 1500. In Marlowe's time, anti-Semitism was still widespread in England even though almost no Jews lived in the country.

The Love of Money

.......The love of money is the root of all evil, the Bible says. In Marlowe's play, "The wind that bloweth all the world [is] gold," says a Turkish Basso. Barabas dotes on money, as if each of his coins is a child he fathered. Calymath demands gold from Governor Ferneze. Ferneze, in turn, demands gold from the Jewish merchants to pay Calymath. When Barabas resists, Ferneze orders his men to expropriate all of Barabas's assets. When Ithamore, Mirabella, Pillia-Borza, Friar Jacomo, and Friar Barnardine learn that Barabas has a considerable fortune remaining even after Ferneze confiscates his assets, they all scheme to get some of it. 

Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the play.


he whose steel-barr'd coffers are cramm'd full, (1.1)
Give me the merchants of the Indian mines (1.1)
in his house heap pearl like pebble-stones (1.1)
Why stand you thus unmov'd with my laments? 
Why weep you not to think upon my wrongs?
Why pine not I, and die in this distress? (1.2)

Ne'er shall she grieve me more with her disgrace;
Ne'er shall she live to inherit aught of mine (3.4)

sooner shall they drink the ocean dry,
Than conquer Malta (5.5)
A fair young maid, scarce fourteen years of age,
The sweetest flower in Cytherea's field,
Cropt from the pleasures of the fruitful earth (1.2)
Comparison of Abigail to a flower

I'll be thy Jason, thou my golden fleece (4.2)
Ithamore compares himself to the mythological figure, Jason, and 
Bellamira to the golden fleece.

Admir'd I am of those that hate me most (Prologue) 
now I think on't, going to the
execution, a fellow met me with a muschatoes [bushy mustache] like a raven's
wing, and a dagger with a hilt like a warming pan (4.2)
Comparison of the mustache to a raven's wing and the dagger to a pan

he that liveth in authority,
And neither gets him friends nor fills his bags,
Lives like the ass that Aesop speaketh of (5.2)
Comparison of a human to an ass

Foreshadowing With an Allusion

.......Marlowe uses an allusion to a Greek myth in order to foreshadow the death of Abigail.

I have no charge, nor many children,
But one sole daughter, whom I hold as dear
As Agamemnon did his Iphigen;
And all I have is hers.—But who comes here? (1.1)
Agamemnon—King of Argos, Greece—was the commanding general of the Greek forces in the Trojan War. When he and his fleet gathered at the port city of Aulis to sail to Troy for the war, the winds were still. In petitioning the gods to favor him with wind, he sacrificed his own daughter, Iphigenia. In The Jew of Malta, Barabas murders his daughter to feed his thirst for revenge. For additional information about Agamemnon, click here

Study Questions and Writing Topics

1. Was Marlowe an anti-Semite? Or was he using his play to arouse opposition to anti-Semitism?
2. The Jew of Malta is classified as a tragedy. Do you agree that it should instead by called a tragicomedy? Explain your answer.
3. The Ottoman Empire and Spain vied to control Malta. Write an essay explaining why Malta was considered a valuable possession.
4. In The Jew of Malta, is Marlowe satirizing the ideas in Machiavelli's The Prince? Write an essay presenting your answer.