The narrator Machevill introduces the play. The renowned author on statecraft says that although everyone thinks Machevill is dead, his soul has crossed the Alps to "frolic"—cause mischief—with friends in England. Machevill mentions the Duke of Guise's death in passing to suggest that political considerations have reached England, thus contradicting those who maintain that the country is unaffected by such concerns. The narrator dismisses religion as a "childish toy" and disdains popular superstition. He asserts that those who follow his lead will attain political success; according to Machevill "might" or manifest strength in a leader is more necessary than knowledge of "letters." As he paints his picture of evil megalomania, Machevill suddenly states the real reason for his presence: to introduce the "tragedy of a Jew." The narrator states that this man's riches were gained through close adherence to Machevill's own recommended methods. He concludes by hoping that his subject is not treated badly, since the Jew "favors" him.
This scene introduces Barabas, the play's Jewish protagonist. The action is set in a counting house filled with piles of gold; Barabas starts to speak as if in mid-sentence. We discover that he is a Maltese merchant whose ships have arrived safely from the East. A merchant asks the protagonist to come and pay customs duties on his goods, saying that this cost alone is worth more than the wealth of many traders. Barabas dismisses him after enquiring about his "argosy" or ship that is bringing him luxurious goods form the East. Another merchant enters and explains that the argosy has arrived safely, having lost sight of the other ships after it ran into the Spanish fleet chased by Turkish galleys. Barabas tells the man to leave and bring his goods ashore. The protagonist then launches into a speech about his great fortune and personal wealth, deciding that he would rather be rich and hated (as a Jew) than poor and pitied (as a Christian). Thus, Barabas rejects traditional notions of Christian charity. He further disparages Christianity by noting that those who are truly pious live in penury and that he sees nothing in the religion but "malice, falsehood, and excessive pride." The protagonist talks about the success of Jewish people, even though they are a "scattered nation." He notes that all he wants is peaceful rule so that he can accrue wealth to leave to his only daughter.
Three Jews enter seeking Barabas's advice. They state that a Turkish fleet is blocking their sea-passage and that an embassy has come ashore to meet with the Maltese rulers. Barabas instructs the men not to worry, saying that they will either conquer the Turks if they make war or let them go in peace if they have not come to fight. However, in an aside, Barabas states that he does not care about other Maltese, or even his fellow Jews, so long as the Turks "spare me, my daughter, and my wealth." Barabas reassures the men that Turkey and Malta are in league and that officials must be discussing some other matter—such as the invasion of Venice. The men inform Barabas that all Jews must go to the "senate- house" for a meeting, to which the wealthy merchant responds that he will look out for their interests, but, again in an aside, Barabas states that he will only protect his own. The Jews leave, and Barabas hypothesizes to himself that the Turks have come to raise the tribute demanded from Malta. He concludes by asserting that he would let the foreigners invade rather than help his rulers out with any money.
In the prologue, Marlowe introduces themes of Machiavellian scheming and disrespect for religion that run throughout the play. The narrator Machevill is a scheming, covetous strategist who bears little resemblance to the real Machiavelli, the Italian author of the Discourses and The Prince. He represents a caricature of the type of man the English most feared—a self-interested politician who advocates tyrannical rule to exact obedience from his subjects. The narrator states that the Jew of the play's title "favors" him, indicating that the men resemble one another or that Barabas follows him in teaching. Machevill's rejection of religion anticipates the derogatory remarks the protagonist makes about Christianity throughout the play. The narrator suggests that those who wish to gain power or wealth must place earthly concerns before spiritual ones. He even states that those who "attain / to Peter's chair"—i.e. those who want to become Pope—do so by following his teaching; spurning his lead, they find themselves poisoned by others with similar ambitions. This comment refers to the murder of Pope Alexander VI in 1503, supposedly by his son Cesare Borgia. Machevill also mentions the death of the Duke of Guise, a French nobleman. There is evidence to suggest that Elizabethan audiences regarded Machiavelli as evil and took as evidence all the foul political dealings on the continent that sprang from Machiavellian ambitions in Popes, princes, and state leaders. They would have accepted Machevill as an accurate characterization of real scheming figures in Europe. Thus, Marlowe weaves historical facts into his prologue in order to lend credibility to his play's themes of political strategy and self-interest.
These themes come to the fore in Act I, scene i. Although Barabas rejoices in the safe return of his precious horde of "spice and silks" from the East, which has earned him a fortune, he prepares to guard his riches from any outsiders—be these the rulers of Malta, Turkish troops, or even his fellow Jews who come seeking advice. (In the next scene Marlowe shows that, just as delegations from these states argue over tribute, so Barabas manipulates and prevaricates in an attempt to avoid losing money.) The protagonist refuses to concede anything to anyone. The only exception is his daughter, Abigail, who will receive her father's fortune on his death. Barabas thus appears unashamedly self-serving and strategic. Although he reassures his three friends that he will protect their own interests, he mutters in an aside that he will only "look unto myself." From the opening scene, Marlowe makes it clear that Barabas is more interested in his profits than he is in his religion. This makes the persecution he encounters as a Jew all the more ironic. Throughout the play, characters use Barabas's faith as an excuse to cheat him out of his money. Instead of being a "childish toy" as Machevill asserts, Marlowe will show how religion—and particularly religious hypocrisy—may be used as a tool to earn a profit.
The characters speak in blank verse in the Prologue and in Act I, scene i, as they do throughout the play. This adds a blunt force to the characters' speech—particularly Machevill's—and highlights the crudeness of their motives.
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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