Actors' Renaissance Season 2008

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Stuff that Happens
stuff that happens in the play
  • Barabas, the rich Jew of Malta, counts his money as he waits for news about the return of his ships from the East.
  • To his horror, Barabas learns that all the Jews in Malta must forfeit half of their estate to help the government pay the Turks.
  • Barabas protests and Ferneze, the governor of Malta, confiscates all of Barabas’s wealth and turns Barabas’s house into a convent.
  • Abigail, Barabas’s daughter, pretends to convert to Christianity in order to smuggle her father’s gold out of the convent at night.
  • Ferneze mets with Del Bosco, the Spanish Vice-Admiral, who convinces Ferneze to break his alliance with the Turks in return for Spanish protection.
  • Barabas dupes Ferneze’s son, Lodowick, into thinking Abigail will marry him.
  • Barabas buys Ithamore, a slave who hates Christians as much as his new master does.
  • Barabas orders Abigail to get betrothed to Lodowick, in spite of her relationship with another man, Mathias.
  • Barabas tricks Lodowick and Mathias into a duel.
  • Ithamore falls in love with the prostitute Bellamira, who, with her pimp Pilia-Borza, is scheming to steal Barabas’s money.
  • Abigail learns of her father’s treachery against Mathias and returns to the convent.
  • Barabas cooks a special dish for the nuns.
  • Ferneze tells the Turks he will not pay for them and they threaten to attack the island.
  • False conversions, deaths, and deep-frying ensues.
Notes from the Director of Mission
a plague on all your houses of worship

Just as Volpone, though inhabited by comedic types and structured like a comedy, takes us into the oral world of tragedy; The Jew of Malta with its deaths and tragic protagonist surprisingly leaves us on some odd, comic shore, aghast at the very laughter it produces.

Where Marlowe’s other works look at distant countries or times – Tamburlaine at Asia Minor, Edward II at Medieval England, and Doctor Faustus at Germany a century earlier – The Jew of Malta looks at a Mediterranean almost contemporary to Marlowe’s time. This is the Marlowe play that works most subversively to give his audience a satiric mirror on their own fears and bigotry.

He achieves this mischief through the character of Barabas, a larger than life cartoon of the English conception both of the Machiavel and of the Jew. Barabas’s name, of course, is a reference to the criminal freed from execution at the crucifixion; it’s both the evil and the comic genius of the play that Barabas is obviously an anti-Semite’s idea of a Jew. What also becomes obvious is that the Christians and the Muslims who surround him are themselves despicable and that Marlowe is sending ten plagues on all religious houses. The result is a play that becomes ever more wacky in its illustration of evil.

Wacky and breathtaking.

For at the heart of this play is the soaring imagination of the man wholly contemptuous of taboos. Untrammeled by a sense of limits, Marlowe’s mind considers “all things between the quiet poles,” and that fearlessness together with his “mighty line” – the ravishing iambic pentameter that he introduced to the English stage – gives the play a kind of inexhaustible delight. We never seem to anticipate the horrors Marlowe is willing to depict, nor the ease and beauty with which he will describe those horrors.

What makes us laugh is our continual surprise at our own fascination with evil and at the pleasure we share with Barabas as he wreaks havoc on his enemies. At his “tragic” end we know ourselves too good to mourn for such an evil protagonist, but we also know that we will miss him.

And knowing that is really very funny.

Ralph Alan Cohen

Director of Mission