The Jew of Malta

by: Christopher Marlowe

Motifs

Deception and Dissimulation

Most characters in The Jew of Malta deceive and dissemble, mostly for political expediency or criminal purposes. Abigail is the only exception, as she pretends to convert to Christianity in order to help her father recover his gold. In the scene where they plan this false conversion, father and daughter use the word "dissemble" three times in as many lines. In response to Abigail's assurance, "Thus father shall I much dissemble," Barabas replies, "As good dissemble that thou never mean'st / As first mean truth and then dissemble it." As far as the Barabas is concerned, it is no worse to deceive when you know you are lying than it is to do something honestly and later become hypocritical. Marlowe has Barabas—who is never troubled by his false actions— stand by this maxim throughout the play. Other characters, such as Ferneze, also try to conceal their own motives but meet with variable success. The priests Bernardine and Jacomo are prime examples of poor dissimulators. A clear example is Act IV, scene i, where the priests pretend to have Barabas's best interests at heart but really want his gold in their coffers. It is no coincidence that these men of faith have impure motivations—Barabas stands out in comparison as an able strategist, precisely because he does not espouse false moral ideals. The protagonist regards dissembling as a strategic tool to achieve political ends; he remains unconcerned about the immorality of such duplicity.

Proverbs and Biblical Allusions

Barabas's (and by extension Marlowe's) use of biblical and classical allusions is heavily ironic. Barabas refers to the story of Cain when he hears of Abigail's conversion to Christianity, exclaiming "perish underneath my bitter curse / Like Cain by Adam, for his brother's death." While Barabas's allusions display the breadth of his knowledge, they are often used mockingly to undermine the seriousness of events. Ithamore uses proverbs in a more overtly jocular way, as shown by his comment, "he that eats with the Devil had need of a long spoon." Also, both allusions and proverbs serve to bridge the world of the stage and the audience. They form part of a cultural dialogue that traverses the gulf between theater and real life. When Pilia-Borza knowingly asserts, "Hodie tibi, cras mihi," (Today you, tomorrow me) Marlowe is speaking to the minds of his contemporaries about the unpredictability of fate. Although the play pertains to be about past events in Malta, such proverbial wit suggests that it dramatizes the tensions and concerns of contemporary Elizabethan England.