Christopher Marlowe was born in 1564 in Canterbury, England. The son of a shoemaker, Marlowe attended King's School, Canterbury before he gained a scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge at the age of sixteen. During his years at university, Marlowe was writing short plays and literary works that suggested an early interest in drama. Although he was awarded his B.A. in 1584, Elizabeth I's Privy Council had to intervene in 1587 to secure him an M.A. degree. Even at this stage, Marlowe was courting controversy as a result of his long absences from college; many people believed he had fled to France in order to study at a Catholic university.
Controversy dogged Marlowe throughout his life, particularly while he was living in London. James R. Siemon notes that from 1587–1593 the playwright had been arrested five times and charged with crimes ranging from assault and counterfeiting money to promoting atheism. Simultaneously, Marlowe was writing his four major dramatic works: Tamburlaine in 1587, The Jew of Malta, Edward II and Doctor Faustus (dates for the last three plays are uncertain). However, despite his outward respectability, Marlowe never shook off the stigma of criminality and the suggestion that he was somehow involved in underhanded dealings. Along with modern historians and scholars, many of his contemporaries believed that Marlowe was a spy working as part of the great espionage network created by Elizabeth I's secretary of state, Sir Francis Walsingham.
Even Marlowe's death was shrouded in rumors of conspiracy. The playwright was brought before Star Chamber (the royal court of equity) on 20 May 1593 for undisclosed crimes—probably relating to blasphemy or atheism. He was told to report back every day. Ten days later, Marlowe died during a tavern brawl in Deptford, London, when he was stabbed through the eye with his own dagger by a man named Ingram Friser. Marlowe had gone to the tavern to meet some men who, like himself, were suspected of espionage or traitorous activities. Interestingly, Friser was pardoned on the excuse that his actions were in self- defense, spawning rumors of a high-level cover-up that have survived to this day.
Given his colorful life, it is no surprise that Marlowe also wrote to court controversy. Marlowe was a hugely popular playwright, although many regarded him as a suspicious and Machiavellian character. In particular, The Jew of Malta was a resounding success, with the famous actor Edward Alleyn initially playing the lead role. Although it is uncertain what year the play was written, many scholars suggest a date preceding 1591. James R. Siemon argues that the play may be counted as a great favorite with Elizabethan theatergoers as it was performed thirty-six times between February 1592 and June 1596. Although there are no recorded performances between the early seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries, the play was revived in 1818 by Edmund Kean and its profile has risen ever since.
The Jew of Malta resonates with themes of racial tension, religious conflict, and political intrigue, all of which share parallels with sixteenth century England. Although there were no professed Jews in England during this time (they had been banished in 1290 and would be readmitted in 1656 only as converts to Christianity) the play deals with anti-Semitic sentiment that was rife throughout Europe. The play's theme of religious heterodoxy appears highly significant when one remembers that Elizabethan England was dealing with its own religious divisions. Following the failure of the Spanish Armada in 1588, many English Protestants were wary of the allegiance of their Catholic counterparts. Thus, although the play is grounded on a real historical event (the 1565 Turkish invasion of Malta), its characterization appeals to a general sense of fear that many English Protestants felt toward those whom they considered outsiders—be these Muslims, Jews, or Catholics. With Barabas's sly allusions to biblical stories and his ironic treatment of Christian doctrine, one sees how Marlowe raises questions about state religion that would have had deeper significance in a country fraught by its own religious tensions.
Marlowe's writing also captures the anti-Machiavellian feeling that was rife in Elizabethan England. Niccolò Machiavelli was the author of works such as The Prince, which argued that a ruler protected his political power through might and that religion was used as a tool to keep unruly subjects in line. As an avaricious merchant, Barabas displays the kind of strategic cunning that is at odds with Christian notions of altruism but shares much with Machiavellian self-advancement. The play garners a deeply ambivalent response from its audience: on the one hand, we admire Barabas's clever duplicity but on the other, we resent him for his unfeeling manipulation of human beings. In many respects, Marlowe is similar to his protagonist in that the playwright was also decried as a Machiavellian schemer with little loyalty towards his country. It is for readers to determine whether The Jew of Malta is Marlowe's attempt at discrediting Machiavelli, or whether the playwright is satirizing Elizabethan England's stereotyped view of this author.
The plot is an original story of religious conflict, intrigue, and revenge, set against a backdrop of the struggle for supremacy between Spain and the Ottoman Empire in the Mediterranean that takes place on the island of Malta. The title character, Barabas, dominates the play's action.
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