Although the Maltese Christians—particularly Ferneze and the two priests—present themselves as agents of morality, Marlowe makes it clear that these men are frauds and hypocrites. This complicates Barabas's role within the play, for it challenges his status as the obvious villain. There is no clear struggle between good and evil, although the Maltese demonize Barabas. Instead, the major characters are presented as strategists who maneuver themselves into positions of strength or weakness depending on their ability to deceive. Even the Catholic priests turn their backs on religious morals when it suits them, shown in their attempts to outmaneuver each other to win Barabas's money.
This is an overarching theme that ties in with many others within the play, particularly religious hypocrisy. Essentially, the characters display an ability to strategize that is alien to ideals of religious sincerity. As Machevill asserts in the Prologue, "religion [is] but a childish toy." Instead of religion and the power of Divine Providence, many characters place their trust in schemes and strategies. Marlowe treats this subject ambiguously. Although the Prologue satirizes Machiavellian scheming, the rest of the play suggests that statesmen must manipulate to protect their own interests. For example, Ferneze is only able to survive and free Malta by outmaneuvering Barabas. In turn, Barabas avoids capture for a long period of time through anticipating other people's moves and motives. Marlowe ultimately leaves us wondering whether or not he believes in Machiavellian tactics. The play's heavily ironic tone could support the view that man is driven by his own motives. Alternatively, it might suggest that our ability to control events always comes second to God's will—which would make political scheming redundant.
This theme dominates the play as it grows to consume Barabas. Notions of vengeance obsess the protagonist, and what Barabas qualifies as a personal injury becomes increasingly broad as the play progresses. Barabas turns from specific wrongs done him by individuals—such as Ferneze—to focus on wrongs done him by Christian society and the world in general. Even those characters who have been loyal to Barabas, or who have brought him great advantages, come under fire. Calymath is a notable example, for the protagonist repays the Turk's generosity with treachery. Barabas even threatens Ithamore at a point when the slave is most loyal to his master, saying, "I'll pay thee with a vengeance, Ithamore." The protagonist's all-consuming wrath has a momentum unlike anything else within the play, including the motivations of the other characters. As a theme, vengeance contributes to the stagy feel and self- referential theatricality of The Jew of Malta.
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.
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.
Gold symbolizes power and success as well as wealth. Barabas is ecstatic when he recovers his hidden gold in Act II, scene i. As the Turkish bashaw states to Ferneze, the Turkish army are driven by "[t]he wind that bloweth all the world besides, / Desire of gold." In sixteenth century Malta, as in our modern era, money makes the world go round. Gold symbolizes faith in the terrestrial world—its schemes, profits and rewards—as opposed to the spiritual realm's less immediate rewards.
Most of the comments about Barabas's nose are made by Ithamore, who makes puns on the idea of smelling and having a nose for things. For example, he says, "Oh brave, master, I worship your nose for this." The slave expresses his admiration for this feature along with Barabas's qualities of character, stating, "I have the bravest, gravest, secret, subtle, bottle-nosed knave to my master, that ever gentleman had." And yet, Ithamore's gentle jibing is not always comic—it can turn nasty. In Act IV he mutters as an aside, "God-a-mercy nose," in response to Barabas's comment that he smelt the priests "ere they came." Marlowe is undoubtedly playing on Jewish stereotypes with this unconventional symbol.
The fact that Ithamore focuses on Barabas' nose symbolizes his need to define the Jew as different, through selecting this feature as a mark of distinction. By saying that Barabas has a nose for crime, Ithamore is somehow connecting what he perceives to be a Jewish identity with a criminal identity. It is unlikely that Marlowe agrees with Ithamore. The slave's comments are so ridiculous—as is Barabas's comment that he could smell the priests before they appeared—that we cannot ignore their sharply ironic tone. While the character of Ithamore might be saying these things in all seriousness, the playwright uses them to deepen the play's darkly comic flavor. Barabas's nose is a symbol of the satire that permeates The Jew of Malta. Just as tragic events in the play are undercut by humor, so its jokes have serious implications about the state of human relationships.
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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