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The governor of Malta, Ferneze, meets with the "Bashaws." The Turkish leader Calymath demands that ten years' worth of tribute be paid and agrees to give Ferneze one month to collect the dues. After instructing the governor to keep his promise, Calymath leaves with his troops. Shortly afterward, the Jews enter accompanied by Barabas, and Ferneze sets out to explain the situation. Barabas attempts to stall Ferneze's inevitable request for money by pointing out that the Jews cannot help him fight. Despite this and other interjections, Barabas's disingenuousness does not pay off: Ferneze commands that all the Jews give one half of their estate to pay the tribute or else convert to Christianity. In response to Barabas's disbelieving question, "Are strangers with your tribute to be taxed?", the governor replies that Jews are damned in the sight of heaven and thus subject to heavy penalties. Barabas now changes tack and requests that he not be forced into giving up half of his estate since this is worth a "city's wealth" and was not earned effortlessly. Ferneze reminds the merchant that he has to agree to the decree or lose all his wealth; Barabas blasphemes and again asks to be treated more fairly, at which point Ferneze states that he is appropriating all of the Jew's estate. Barabas protests at this unjust treatment, querying whether Christianity is a religion based on coercion and "theft." An argument then ensues between Barabas, the governor, and a knight about the "inherent sin" of the Jews and whether or not the merchant will be able to regain his fortune. Barabas holds that stealing is a worse sin than "covetousness." The knight convinces Ferneze to convert the protagonist's mansion into a nunnery. The governor's officers return and state that Barabas's riches have been seized. In response to Barabas's assertion that it would be better if the governor had taken his life, Ferneze rather hypocritically replies that it would be against Christian morality to "stain our hands with blood." All the men then leave from Barabas and the three Jews.
The protagonist rails against the "policy" of the Christian leaders, which is shrewd strategy in the guise of moral superiority. Although his companions entreat him to be patient, Barabas berates them for their lack of support against the governor. The merchant rejects the men's request that he be like Job; Barabas argues that Job did not have nearly the number of goods he himself possessed. The Jew then asks his friends to leave him in his misery, and the men leave. Barabas's daughter Abigail enters, despairing at her father's loss. Barabas reveals that there is hidden treasure in his house, and the two hatch a plot to get Abigail admitted to the new nunnery so that she can recover these goods. Barabas enjoins his daughter to dissemble well and reveals that the money is hidden under floorboards in the upper chamber of his mansion. When two friars, Jacomo and Bernardine appear along with an Abbess and a nun, Abigail pretends to confess her sins, and all agree that she should enter the convent, all the while Barabas makes an elaborate show of renouncing his daughter. In asides to each other, Abigail and her father plan that Barabas will come early the next morning to the nunnery to take away the recovered riches. The group leaves, and their departure is witnessed by Mathias, a young man in love with Abigail. He tells his friend, Ferneze's son Lodowick, what he has just seen Abigail and describes her incomparable beauty as being ill-suited to a convent. Lodowick's curiosity is stirred, and the two men agree to visit Barabas's daughter as soon as possible.
In this scene, Marlowe conveys the importance of wealth to Barabas even more forcefully than in Act I, scene i. The merchant is distraught at the loss of his estate; his verse sounds like an incantation when he cries, "My gold, my gold, and all my wealth is gone." Like a true Machiavellian, finance and politics are closely linked in Barabas's mind. Following his loss, the protagonist is consumed by notions of strategy; he speculates on his own actions and what policy he will pursue as well as decrying the hypocritical "policy" of the Maltese rulers.
Marlowe suggests that his protagonist is a subtler tactician than any Christian. In many respects Barabas is also more honest, for he does not hide his motives behind any religious creed. Although he is undeniably greedy, it is understandable that the merchant is upset at Ferneze's hypocrisy. Despite the hard work that has gone into earning his fortune, Barabas's estate is taken from him on the basis of faith alone. While the officials blithely assure him that he can earn it all back, the merchant remains unconvinced. Unlike the governor, Barabas is fully aware that money does not come from nowhere, stating a proverbial "[o]f nought is nothing made." Barabas sets no store by lofty definitions of morality; for him, worth is a discrete quality measured in economic terms. This allows the protagonist to compare the theft of his worldly riches with dying at the hands of Ferneze. Ironically, "Barabas" was the name of the thief freed by Pontius Pilate in place of Jesus. Elizabethan audiences would have been aware of this association, and the deeper religious connotations of Barabas's name.
The protagonist suggests that his very life amounts to nothing if he is left without money. While this is not the most moving of sentiments, it nonetheless inspires us with a sense of how harshly Barabas has been treated. The protagonist is not being punished for his immorality or persecuted for his religion—he is being victimized for his wealth. Rather astutely, the protagonist points this out to Ferneze when he argues, "Preach me not out of my possessions Some Jews are wicked, as all Christians are." The protagonist seems to be the only one capable of seeing beyond the bounds of religion. Marlowe leaves it to us to determine whether this marks him as sacrilegious or the only character unaffected by religious hypocrisy.
The idea of nothing—particularly as it relates to the creation or accumulation of wealth—is a recurring motif within this scene and throughout The Jew of Malta. It hints at the biblical story of Genesis, but neither in support nor in denial of this doctrine. Marlowe leaves us to determine whether something can be created out of nothing. As such, this is one instance in the text where Marlowe's writing may be read as a defense of Christianity or an atheistic rejection of Christian doctrine. Certainly, the protagonist can afford to be outspoken in his blasphemies, and Barabas frequently rails against Christianity, both in the ideas he voices and the words he uses to express them. For example, exclamations such as "Corpo di Dio!" meaning "Body of God" in Italian, are clearly something the Maltese Catholics would not use. Therefore, in his words and actions, Barabas stands outside of society as defined by its religious parameters. While his Judaism brands him as a "stranger" or foreigner in Malta, it also allows him the freedom to criticize the values of that society.
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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