The Jew of Malta
By: Christopher Marlowe
Format/Source: Audiobook via LibriVox
Prejudice, the intricacies of Mediterranean politics, and Machiavellian strategy abound in this masterpiece of Elizabethan theater. The eponymous character in this suspenseful drama, a prototype for Shakespeare’s Shylock, schemes desperately against Christian and Moslem hostility to cling to his wealth, his status, and his daughter.
So I’m finally getting around to Marlowe’s other plays. I decided to start with this play because of the connection to Shakespeare’s Shylock, but also because it seemed shorter (not quite ready to tackle the two-parter Tamburlaine).
I guess I should start with the titular character, Barabas. I can see how he is considered the prototype for The Merchant of Venice‘s Shylock for his anger, the wrongness in which he is treated by the Christians, and then the Muslims. But unlike Shylock, I find Barabas to be far less sympathetic, if at all, really; aside from the wrongness in which society treated him, there was nothing in his sentiments or his behaviour that compelled me to root for him. He’s quite the villanous fellow, planning the demise of everyone around him, including his own flesh and blood. Which leads me to my next point: this book is dripping with every single bad stereotype you can think of the Jews in the 15th century world (or later, even). I’d love to know what Marlowe was thinking in depicting his main character the way he did; from the 21st century perspective, it’s deeply uncomfortable, and again doesn’t provide any reason why the audience should side with his character.
And yet this play was rather entertaining. I wasn’t quite sure how events would play out, whether Barabas would succeed or fail in getting back his wealth, regaining his status and even moving up the social ranks, whether he would exact revenge on all those who wronged him. I admit, I did fall asleep somewhere in Act 4 while listening to the audiobook (it was late, I was tired 😛 ), but nonetheless it was interesting to see how far he got before his house of cards fell.
Overall, The Jew of Malta was an intriguing play that looks at the hypocrisy of the actions of the three major religions during this period, and one man’s attempt to strike back at those who wronged him while rising the social ranks. I read one review that talked about the black comedy in this play, but it’s so dark I probably didn’t get it. Nontheless the play is pretty accessible, the characters devious, and the story curious (despite of all of the…not so nice characteristics conveyed here). I’m now curious to check out his other plays, particularly Tamburlaine as I heard this was his best play.