Barabas reads the letter Ithamore sent in an attempt to bribe him. The protagonist vows to kill Ithamore and scathingly describes Pilia-Borza as a "shaggy tottered staring slave." On cue, the pimp appears with Ithamore's second demand for 500 crowns. Barabas tries to get Pilia-Borza to send for the slave; when this fails, Barabas requests that the pimp stay for dinner and in an aside makes it clear that he wants to poison him. Pilia-Borza refuses this invitation and asks for the money. After some prevaricating in which Barabas claims he has lost his keys and bemoans the fact that Ithamore has betrayed him, the pimp receives his crowns. After Pilia-Borza leaves, Barabas realizes that Ithamore will probably confess to his master's crimes anyway. The protagonist hatches a plan to visit Ithamore in disguise and kill the slave, the pimp, and Bellamira.
Bellamira and Ithamore sit around drinking. Ithamore tries to show Bellamira how much he loves her by drinking a lot of wine. Ithamore confesses to Pilia-Borza what he and Barabas have done—namely, poisoning the nuns and causing Mathias's and Lodowick's deaths. The pimp says in an aside to Bellamira that he will tell the governor; she replies that they should get more money off Barabas first. Barabas enters, disguised as a French lute-player. Pilia-Borza asks for the "posy" in his hat and gives it to Bellamira. Unfortunately, the flowers have been poisoned. In a series of asides, Barabas vents his anger over the theft of his gold. He calls Pilia-Borza a "villain" and is enraged by the false things Ithamore says about him. For example, Ithamore asserts that the merchant "lives upon pickled grasshoppers" and that he never changes his shirt. The pimp and the prostitute ask Ithamore to demand more of Barabas's gold. Ithamore decides to send a message by "word of mouth" to his old master, this time demanding 1000 crowns.
Plots and intrigue abound in these scenes as Bellamira and Pilia-Borza scheme, and Barabas vows revenge on Ithamore. In contrast to Barabas's fatal machinations, the pimp and the prostitute are straightforward villains: they seek money, not vengeance. Barabas recognizes Pilia-Borza's crudeness and tries to divert him from his task with clever speeches. However, although the pimp is less subtle than Barabas, Pilia-Borza sees through such trickery. In his own way, Pilia-Borza is too wise to be fooled. The pimp's comment, "Here's many words but no crowns; the crowns," evidences his hardnosed materialism and lack of patience with the Jew's wiles. Pilia-Borza may even be described as an honest villain, for he does not hide his avarice behind elaborate language. The protagonist describes him as a "shag-rag knave," and indeed, in comparison to Barabas, the pimp's villainy is relatively uncomplicated.
The same might be said for Ithamore. Although the slave parallels Barabas as a pitiless criminal, his love (or lust) for Bellamira indicates that he is more fallible than the protagonist. It is for us to decide whether this makes Ithamore a more sympathetic character. These two scenes also raise the question of what we should feel for Barabas. We might feel pleased that he is being schemed against or strangely saddened at his betrayal by Ithamore. Our emotional response is further complicated by the obvious humor employed in Act IV, scene iv. The comic value of Barabas's appearance as a French lute-player should not be overlooked. Although The Jew of Malta purports to be a tragedy, the play is cut through by deeper ironies that undermine the seriousness of events. It is not hard to imagine how contemporary English audiences must have laughed to hear Barabas's ridiculous impersonation of a Frenchman, particularly when the protagonist states, "Must tuna my lute for sound, twang twang first." This humor undercuts the horror of Barabas's crimes; similarly, the poisoned flower suggests that the protagonist is more of a villainous clown than a psychopathic murderer.
Just as Marlowe manipulates his audience's responses to Barabas, so do his characters toy with one another. A sense of Machiavellian double-crossing pervades these scenes, for while Ithamore is betraying Barabas, Bellamira and Pilia-Borza are deceiving Ithamore. Ithamore justifies his behavior by reverting to religious hypocrisy, saying, "To undo a Jew is charity, and not sin." Surprisingly, the slave has defected to join two Christians, even though he told Barabas in Act II, scene iii that he delighted in harming members of this religion. This reinforces the play's larger themes of religious hypocrisy and strategic double-crossing: having abandoned Barabas, Ithamore makes prejudicial remarks against Jews in general, just as he did against Christians in Act II, scene iii. Thus, as well as joining a different criminal faction, Marlowe suggests that Ithamore has changed sides with regard to the Christian/Non- Christian divide. In particular, the word "charity" calls to mind ideals of Christian morality that the slave previously rejected. But although religion is a prominent theme, it takes second place (as always) to money. All the characters in Act IV, scenes iii and iv come across as agents of immorality, tainted by their lust for gold. Although Marlowe's treatment of individual characters is ambiguous, he makes it clear that all have been corrupted by avarice.
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.
Take a Study Break!