Friday, 26 February 2016

26 February, 1592 - The Jew of Malta

Here's what Lord Strange's Men performed at the Rose playhouse on this day, 424 years ago...
Henslowe writes: R at the Jewe of malltuse the 26 of febrearye 1591 ... ls 

In modern English: Received at The Jew of Malta, 26th February 1592 ... 50 shillings

Finally, we are looking at a play that has stood the rest of time! Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta is still occasionally performed today, so it's fun to begin with a trailer for the (now closed) RSC production of 2015, which starred Jasper Britton and was directed by Justin Audibert. It's a useful introduction to the play, although I would disagree with the interviewed audience member who labels it "Wolf Hall with knobs on"; it really isn't.

The Jew of Malta was clearly a crowd-pleaser at the Globe in 1592: it made 50 shillings today, almost twice what Harry of Cornwall made yesterday, and way more than some of those plays earlier in the week which only made 15 or so shillings. No doubt this was due in part to Edward Alleyn's performance as the enjoyably villainous Barabas. But the play isn't just fun - it's a comic tragedy with a sophisticated and subversive attitude toward its subject matter.

The play

Describing the plot of The Jew of Malta does not fully capture what makes the play so remarkable, but here goes. (If you prefer, you could watch the director of the RSC production describe the play).

The play opens with an prologue spoken by the ghost of Niccolò Machiavelli, who boasts that his cunning followers are taking over the world, and sneers, "I count religion but a childish toy, / And hold there is no sin but ignorance".

Caravaggio's portrait of the Grand
Master of the Knights of Malta,
The island of Malta is ruled by the Catholic Knights of Malta, led by Governor Ferneze. They confiscate the money of the island's Jews in order to pay a tribute to the threatening Turks. When one of the Jews, Barabas, objects, they confiscate all of his money and turn his house into a nunnery. Barabas's daughter, Abigail, fakes conversion to become a nun and find a stash of jewels hidden in the house. Meanwhile, Ferneze acquires Spanish military support and thus decides not to pay the Turks their tribute - and yet he also refuses to return the Jews' money. This fires Barabas with the desire for revenge. He buys a slave, Ithamore, who revels in villainy as much as he. And together they devise a series of outrageously cunning plots which result in Ferneze's son Lodowick and his friend duelling and killing one another; the entire nunnery being killed with poisoned porridge; and one monk strangled while another is framed for his murder.

By this point, you may find this plot summary disturbing, as the money-obsessed, sadistic Jewish villain sounds like the most noxious kind of anti-Semitic caricature. And on one level, the play does indeed originate in the stereotypical images that abounded in Elizabethan London. But what makes it more sophisticated than that - and thus still performable today - is that Barabas is no less evil and avaricious than the Christian rulers of Malta or the Muslim Turks, who are equally Machiavellian. As a result, the play instead comes across as a satire on hypocrisy in all religions, and on the human ability to use religion to justify crimes, rather than singling out one religion for special hatred. The 2015 RSC production was amazingly well-judged in the way it deftly navigated the religious, racial and political minefield that the play opens up (take a look at Peter Kirwan's review for a vivid description).

Edmund Kean as Barabas in 1818
The other thing that a plot summary can't capture is the wicked comedy that fills the play, despite its hideous events. The audience loves Barabas, as he repeatedly speaks directly to them in a conspiratorial manner, inviting them to be complicit in his crazy plans. He has deliciously nasty lines, such as "How sweet the bells ring now the nuns are dead!", and performs a gloriously sadistic speech about his violent hobbies:

As for myself, I walk abroad o'nights,
And kill sick people groaning under walls;
Sometimes I go about and poison wells.
[...] Being young, I studied physic, and began
To practice first on the Italian;
There I enriched the priest with burials
And always kept the sexton's arms in ure
With digging graves and ringing dead men's knells...

Having placed the audience on Barabas's side, Marlowe then presents us with his tragic (but still funny) doom. Barabas loses his daughter, who had loved the murdered Lodowick; she rejects her father by joining the nuns for real, only to die by his poisoned porridge. As Barabas progresses with increasingly devious plots, he is ultimately outwitted: he makes a deal with Ferneze to kill the leader of the invading Turks, but the governor is fooling him and it is Barabas who plunges into a boiling cauldron while the Christians and Muslims negotiate a wary peace.

The play's satirical tone, which emphasizes the way religion is used by all of  the characters in a self-serving manner, means that the play's final lines, spoken by Governor Ferneze, are filled with irony:
So march away, and let due praise be given
Neither to Fate nor Fortune, but to Heaven.

If you would like to read The Jew of Malta, there are plenty of modern-spelling editions available in print.

Looking towards Valletta - Malta

What we learn from this

It's interesting to take a famous play like the The Jew of Malta, which we would normally think of as a work of art on its own terms, and see it instead as just one part of the repertory of Lord Strange's Men at the Rose.

In that context, it has a lot in common with the other plays we've seen so far. In particular, religious conflicts in the Mediterranean have been present, even if only as a backdrop, in John of Bordeaux, Muly MoloccoOrlando Furioso, and Sir John Mandeville, so that The Jew of Malta's setting and subject matter are not surprising. And the play is therefore an important reminder that the Rose productions were not always straightforward fun. In my descriptions of the plays I've tended to emphasize the spectacle, the patriotism, and the simple entertainment value. But The Jew of Malta is a brilliant and intelligent satire that was nonetheless extremely popular with its audience, so perhaps we should not automatically assume any of these plays to have produced merely straightforward responses.

What's next?

There will be no post tomorrow, because 27 February 1592 was a Sunday and the players did not perform. Henslowe's Diary will thus return on 28 February!


Jew of Malta information

  • Roma Gill, intro. to The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe, Volume IV: The Jew of Malta (Clarendon Press, 1995)
  • Martin Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue, vol. 2 (Oxford University Press, 2012), entry 828.
  • Sally-Beth MacLean and Lawrence Manley, Lord Strange's Men and their Plays (Yale University Press, 2014), 85-8.

Henslowe links


Did I make a mistake? Do you have a question? Have you anything to add? Please post a comment below!

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