MACHEVILL I count religion but a childish toy, And hold there is no sin but ignorance. Birds of the air will tell of murders past? I am ashamed to hear such fooleries: Many will talk of title to a crown. What right had Caesar to the empire? Might first made kings, and laws were then most sure When like the Draco's they were writ in blood. (Prologue. 14–21) But whither am I bound, I come not, I, To read a lecture here in Britaine, But to present the tragedy of a Jew, Who smiles to see how full his bags are crammed, Which money was not got without my means. I crave but this, grace him as he deserves, And let him not be entertained the worse Because he favors me. (Prologue. 28–35)
In this passage, Marlowe introduces a theme of Machiavellian strategy that runs throughout his play. The Prologue satirizes Machiavelli's theory of statecraft as the narrator holds religion to a "childish toy" and regards ignorance as the only sin. Machevill notes that Barabas "favors" him, which could mean that Barabas either resembles Machiavelli or advocates his tactics. Either way, before we are even introduced to Barabas, Marlowe associates his protagonist with the most notorious political schemer of his day. The audience is effectively forewarned to expect such Machiavellian-style duplicity in the play itself.
BARABAS Bring you scripture to confirm your wrongs? Preach me not out of my possessions. Some Jews are wicked, as all Christians are: But say the tribe that I descended of Were all in general cast away for sin, Shall I be tried by their transgression? The man that dealeth righteously shall live: And which of you can charge me otherwise? (I.ii.111–118)
This passage comes from the scene in which Ferneze has cheated Barabas out of his estate. Barabas makes barbed comments about Christian hypocrisy and suggests that Ferneze is using scripture as false justification for his actions. The protagonist reiterates his identity as an individual as well as a member of a race when he asks if he will be tried by the transgressions of his "tribe." Barabas knows that the Maltese are after his wealth and that Ferneze is only using his Jewish identity as an excuse to steal it. Barabas's prejudice towards his persecutors shows through in the line, "Some Jews are wicked, as all Christians are." The protagonist suggests the importance of judging each man on his own merit when he notes, "The man that dealeth righteously shall live." Concluding his speech with a biblical proverb, Barabas uses the governor's tactics against him through quoting scripture.
ITHAMORE Why, was there ever seen such villainy, So neatly plotted, and so well performed? (III.iii.1–2)
This quote displays the current of irony that runs throughout the play. Ostensibly, Ithamore is referring to the success of Barabas's plot to kill Lodowick and Mathias. However, his comment is also a sly reference to Marlowe's skill at "plotting" the course of his drama, which is now being "performed" in front of an audience. Although there are no explicit references to theater within The Jew of Malta, as there are within other Renaissance plays, Marlowe uses this quote to deepen the self-referential irony of his text.
ABIGAIL Then were my thoughts so frail and unconfirmed, And I was chained to follies of the world: But now experience, purchasèd with grief, Has made me see the difference of things. My sinful soul, alas, hath paced too long The fatal labyrinth of misbelief, Far from the Son that gives eternal life. (III.iii.61–67)
This quote is filled with Christian terminology that supports Abigail's sincere desire to convert. A sense of Christian humility and self-humiliation is conveyed in phrases such as, "I was chained to follies of the world," and "My sinful soul," making Abigail's speech sound overblown and stagy. We wonder if she is converting because she really believes, or if she feels alienated from her Jewish heritage because of Barabas's acts. In particular, Abigail's comment about seeing the "difference of things" reinforces the pathos of her conversion. This line is a sickening euphemism for becoming prejudiced. It is tragic that Abigail, who seemed the only unbigoted character within the text, has become narrow-minded and discriminatory because of her disgust toward Barabas.
FERNEZE So march away, and let due praise be given Neither to fate nor fortune, but to heaven. (V.v.123–124)
The play's last two lines hint at the nature of the conflict the actors have just dramatized. The Jew of Malta toys with the idea that God has less influence on the affairs of man than other men do. Strange things happen within the play that do not accord with a hierarchical, Christian understanding of the world: the clergy are corrupt, Muslims invade a Christian stronghold, and a Jew becomes governor. We are left wondering just who is responsible for the way things have turned out—has Divine Providence ruled that events should pan out as they do, or is Ferneze suggesting that the characters' Machiavellian scheming was simply a tool for God's will? In these two lines the governor distances himself from his past acts and lauds God as being the driving force behind human affairs. Ironically, the rest of the play seems to suggest that God has less influence on earthly events than men do—particularly if men scheme and wile to achieve their own ends.
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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