A Malted Milkshake of Human Unkindness
ASC actor James Keegan plays the title character in the American Shakespeare Center’s current production of The Jew of Malta
. He says that Christopher Marlowe’s play really is anti-Semitic – and he also shows us how it’s not. Keegan talks to ASC Marketing Director Erik Curren about the merits of Marlowe’s brilliant, politically incorrect classic.What do you think audiences get out of seeing The Jew of Malta?
Audiences get surprised by how much the biting satire against religion and its hypocrisies in general leaps to the forefront. You have someone, a central character, a Jew named Barabas, who is subjected to cruel stereotypes about Jews, and in ferocious reaction to these stereotypes the character himself assumes them. Barabas proceeds to become comically villainous. He does this in part to point out how unfair the stereotypes are. Barabas’s comic villainy is a function of and a response to the hypocritical villainy he finds himself subjected to in the Christian world.Do you think this play is anti-Semitic?
I do think it is. It is playing off of stereotypes of Jews and therefore has to display those stereotypes. But the anti-Semitism is undercut drastically by what you might call anti-religionism at the heart of the play. Christopher Marlowe as the bad boy of the Renaissance is questioning the very stereotypical images that he has put at the center of the play. He’s using these prejudices as a jumping off point to question the ethics of all religious people. Religion was at the center of Marlowe’s society, but yet, in his view, people had no difficulty using Machiavellian tactics to get ahead in the world despite their stated morality.So if the play is critical of all religious hypocrisy, do the Christians come off any better than Barabas and the other Jews?
They come off worse. They are the majority and they are the rulers; they hold the power in the society. Barabas holds the money, that’s his access to power, as he says, it’s his “a quiet rule.” But because even with more money than anyone else, as a Jew in a Christian world, money doesn’t give Barabas access to the political power that he wants and needs. As we see in the play, since Barabas is nearly powerless politically, his whole fortune can be taken away by the government acting for the Christian majority. Is too much of a stretch to see Barabas as an allegory for any person who is a member of a religious, ethnic, or other kind of minority living in a sometimes hostile society?
While perhaps not exactly an allegory, the play does speak to this situation. It has application to all individuals who feel that they are subjugated outsiders amidst an arrogant majority. This problem is as relevant in America today as it ever was anywhere else at any time in history.Marlowe’s play is often compared to Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, since Barabas is in a similar situation to Shylock. Is this a fair comparison?
The two plays are related in that both Shakespeare and Marlowe are taking on and questioning the stereotype of the Jew in early-modern London. They are both making that stereotype extremely problematic by revealing someone who is not just a stock personality type, but a genuine human character, with complex responses to the world’s treatment of him. Barabas transforms over the course of the play into a comic villain, whereas Shylock, especially when the role is played well, is perhaps more fully human than Barabas. And they’re both tragic. They both finally lose to the power structure. But Barabas is funnier.Why funnier?
He so richly begins to enjoy his own villainy, like Richard III, Iago in Othello, or Edmund in King Lear. If Marlowe wanted to bust stereotypes about Jews, why didn’t he just create a saintly, gentle, long-suffering Jewish character who, so to speak, suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and then, instead of responding with various clever schemes for revenge as Barabas does, just turns the other cheek?
It’s not Marlowe’s way. Instead of saints, he created characters like Tamburlaine, Faustus, and Barabas, so it seems that what Marlowe is partially fascinated with is someone who has the potential to be attractively strong. If you have someone who is utterly subjugated and almost weak, you don’t have the kind of hero Marlowe is interested in. Tamburlaine is the Machiavellian militarist, the scourge of God. Faustus is intellectually arrogant, and frustrated with the limitations of the intellectual life. Then you have Barabas who is highly intelligent and is able in his chosen field of making money but suffers under the yoke of an arrogant and oppressive force. They’re all grand personages.Since nearly all his main characters are strong people behaving badly, and since nearly all believers in his plays turn out to be hypocrites, is Marlowe a cynic?
I don’t know if I’d pigeonhole him as a cynic, but when we look at the plays, there’s a certain cynical realism that he has about the world. And we don’t know exactly what shady operations Marlowe was involved with in his short life, but we do know he was doing some spying for Queen Elizabeth, which means he was with people making decisions out of Realpolitik rather than Christian morality.Was writing this play a way for Marlowe to question his own life?
I’m not an expert on Marlowe, but there’s clear evidence that he was atheistic. But to be an atheist in a largely Christian world, with the religious conflicts of the day between Catholics and Protestants and the possibility that even Shakespeare was from a recusant Catholic background, shows that Marlowe was clearly willing to think about religion in an original way and that he was courageous about his own convictions. You have somebody who is willing to be an independent thinker and challenge powerful received ideas with often dangerous political consequences.What about the societal context of the play in Renaissance England? What about today?
There was a Jewish presence in England in Marlowe’s day but it wasn’t highly visible, especially after the expulsion of the Jews sometime earlier. Queen Elizabeth’s personal physician, a Spanish convert from Judaism named Dr. Lopez, may have been an inspiration for Shylock. Lopez was wrongly executed for plotting to murder the Queen, and Shakespeare probably saw the execution.
Doing the Jew of Malta
is properly uncomfortable in a twenty-first century context. Certainly in a post-Holocaust world, it would be intellectually dishonest not to acknowledge the anti-Semitism in the play. But it would also be wrong not to recognize that Marlowe was reacting against these stereotypes and also saying that the Christian world should look at is own ethics and use of anti-Jewish stereotypes to oppress a minority.
Barabas says late in the play that whoever gives him the most advantage will be his friend, and he adds that Christians do the same thing. That’s what Marlowe is saying, he’s calling everyone to account. The stated position of higher morality and rectitude is really just a cover for self-serving greed.All the characters seem so selfish and hypocritical. Can audiences identify with any of them?
I would hope that, to a degree, people can identify with Barabas. Even more so, I think his daughter Abigail is in a difficult position. It’s interesting that in both The Merchant of Venice
and The Jew of Malta
both the Jewish characters have daughters, not sons, and they both fall in love with Christians. Abigail shows great love for her father, and he returns her love at the beginning. But he also wants some modicum of control over his child. I can understand this – I grew up Irish Catholic, and my parents had some expectations that I would marry someone white and Catholic. If I stepped outside of that, there would have been many fireworks. It also reminds me of the recent film The Namesake, about a young man from India who doesn’t understand his father. It’s still subject matter that has moment for us. Abigail for me is really the tragic figure of the story.
Of his daughter, Shylock says that he’s willing to sacrifice her on a pile of wood rather than give her to a Christian. Too often in familial situations you have parents who are willing to sacrifice a relationship to a child, if not her life, if their child’s behavior doesn’t fit into the parents’ belief system. When he poisons his daughter with the other nuns, Barabas is not able to see that a life has been sacrificed to a belief system, a false confidence in what is right. That has a strong tragic element and so I see Barabas as both comic and tragic at the same time.What about all the comedy in this production? The actors, who make all the decisions about the play during our Actors’ Renaissance Season, have added lots of Jewish jokes and material to the skits in the pre-show and in the two intervals.
I think the stereotype of Barabas is by its very nature is over the top. Marlowe pushes it to the extreme. Barabas takes on every activity that the stereotype that Christians spread about Jews – that they’re poisoners, usurers, etc. He has done what many oppressed people do, taking on every negative quality that the larger society has foisted on them. But it’s that Barabas is successful at making money that bothers the Christians the most, I think. It reminds me of what the Native American writer Sherman Alexie says about casinos on Indian land. While whites say they worry about crime related to gambling, what they’re really mad about is that Native Americans now have a chance to make money. And money leads to power, which scares the majority.
As to the over-the-top-ness of our production: As an acting company, all we do is we get the text of the play, we don’t have any director telling us what it’s about. As a unit, we decided that the play itself is written as over-the-top comedy that has a strong tragic undertone. Since Barabas’s schemes go so far beyond ethical behavior but also beyond plausibility, it made sense for us in the interludes and the pre-show to take it over the top and to celebrate various aspects of Jewish culture.
In the second interlude – when we’ve got two interludes, we usually say the second one is when we need the “hoo-hah,” to wake the audience up for the last part of the performance -- that’s when we invite the audience on stage to do the Hava Nagila. There’s no way not to be happy when you hear that music and do that dance. And Tyler Moss, who does Moses reading the “Ten Commandments” of a Blackfriars performance, is Jewish himself. He and came up with the Moses shtick, and he decided to push the limits of taste. Meanwhile, “Gentile” Ben is up there, as his straight man, reminding us all that we’re pushing the limits of bad taste. Like Marlowe, we decided to push those limits. This kind of disturbing comedy is a cousin of blue material and can have the same effect on the audience.
The play succeeds best when we have larger audiences sitting close to the action and surrounding the stage at the Blackfriars. That’s because Barabas is taking to the audience all the time, and he does have fifty percent of the lines in the text. The Jew of Malta
is a play that’s built for an audience that’s sitting in the light, as at the Blackfriars, rather than in a darkened house as at most theaters today. In this, Marlowe knew what he was about. When you come to the play you will feel engaged and included. You’ll have fun. And you might just start thinking about the choices we all make in our daily lives informed by religious and ethnic prejudice and about the hypocrisies of our own world.