By Charles Matthews

Saturday, May 22, 2010

14. "The Complete Plays," by Christopher Marlowe, pp. 241-271

The Jew of Malta, Act 1
This seems to be Marlowe's first actual play -- you know, with a plot and plausible characters. Dido, Queen of Carthage is a pageant for very precocious (by our standards) schoolkids, and Tamburlaine really has no plot to speak of other than "I came, I saw, I conquered, I got sick and died," and only a couple of characters that are even mildly interesting, like Tamburlaine's cowardly (or just prudent) son, Calyphas.

How can you not be intrigued by a play that has Machiavelli -- okay, Machevil -- as its prologue, speaking lines like "I count religion but a childish toy / And hold there is no sin but ignorance"? We begin with Barabas gloating in his counting-house about how much money he has -- "Infinite riches in a little room," and all that. Merchants enter to tell him his ships have come in, and Barabas chortles
Thus trolls our fortune in by land and sea,
And thus are we on every side enriched.
These are the blessings promised to the Jews,
And herein was old Abram's happiness....
They say we are a scattered nation;
I cannot tell, but we have scambled up
More wealth by far than those that brag of faith. 
But then three of his fellow Jews enter to tell him that they've been summoned to the senate-house. Something is up because "A fleet of warlike galleys, Barabas, / Are come from Turkey." None of my business, says Barabas, but he goes anyway.

Ferneze, the governor of Malta, is meeting with a Turkish delegation led by Callapine (who was Bajazeth's son and heir in Tamburlaine) and Calymath. They're demanding a tribute that has been left unpaid, and Ferneze is trying to stall them. They grant him a month to collect the revenue from the inhabitants of Malta. Barabas and the three Jews are told that the governor can't raise the funds, "And therefore are we to request your aid." Some "request": The Jews are ordered to pay half of their estates, and anyone who refuses is to be forcibly converted to Christianity. And anyone who refuses to do that "shall absolutely lose all he has."

The three Jews quickly agree, but Barabas denounces them as "earth-mettled villains, and no Hebrews born!" When Ferneze orders him to pay his half, Barabas protests, "Half of my substance is a city's wealth. / Governor, it was not got so easily, / Nor will I part so slightly therewithal." However, when Ferneze insists, "Either pay that, or we will seize on all," Barabas backs down and agrees, "you shall have half." But Ferneze says that Barabas has "denied the articles, / And now it cannot be recalled." Barabas protests, "Is theft the ground of your religion?" But Ferneze argues that it's "better one want for a common good / Than many perish for a private man," and he agrees not to banish Barabas but let him stay in Malta and try to amass his fortune again. And one of the Knights of Malta adds to the insult with the anti-Semitic argument that the Jews were cursed because they crucified Jesus:
If your first curse fall heavy on thy head
And make thee poor and scorned of all the world,
'Tis not our faith, but thy inherent sin.
It's the "you brought it on yourself argument." Ferneze chides Barabas with "Excess of wealth is cause of covetousness, / And covetousness, O, 'tis a monstrous sin." To which Barabas responds, quite rightly, "Ay, but theft is worse." Ferneze is not swayed, however, and at the suggestion of the knight, orders Barabas's house converted into a nunnery. Persisting in his argument that he is only serving justice, Ferneze says, "Content thee, Barabas, thou has naught but right." Barabas retorts, "Your extreme right does me exceeding wrong."

He gets only scant sympathy from his fellow Jews, one of whom tells him to "remember Job" and the other to "be patient." His daughter, Abigall, enters in distress at what has happened, and volunteers to go plead for her father at the senate. "No, Abigall, things past recovery / Are hardly cured with exclamations," he says, and then tells her that he has hidden a lot of his wealth in his house. She tells him that the nuns are already moving in, and that they won't let him in again, so he hatches a plot: She will become a nun -- "for religion / Hides many mischiefs from suspicion" -- and smuggle the valuables out to him. So when the nuns, accompanied by Friar Jacomo and Friar Bernardine, enter on their way to Barnabas's house, she volunteers to enter the nunnery as a novice. Barnabas whispers to her that the jewels and gold are hidden underneath a board marked with a cross, and that he will meet her outside the house the following morning.

Mathias and Ferneze's son Lodowick enter and discuss the news that Abigall, described as "A fair young maid, scarce fourteen years of age," is entering the nunnery. Lodowick suggests, "'Twere time well spent to go and visit her," and Mathias agrees. In an aside, Lodowick confides, "And so will I too."

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