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The play is also known by its full title The Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta. In which ways can the play be understood as a tragedy, and how does its heavily ironic tone support or undermine its tragic elements?
The Jew of Malta may be described as tragicomic. Its profoundly ironic tone suggests that it plays on features of tragedy in order to highlight the strategies that underlie men's actions. These features include Barabas's blindness to his own mistakes, the play's intricacy of plot, its many catastrophic climaxes—such as Lodowick's and Mathias's deaths, Abigail's conversion, and Barabas's arrest—and dramatic conclusion. However, Marlowe puts a spin on traditional tragic forms by creating an unsympathetic protagonist. Although we share Barabas's disgust at the religious hypocrisy of his peers, he often appears to be nothing more than a monstrous caricature. The play's ironic tone further undermines its tragic elements, for it suggests nothing is quite as it appears. Deaths and murders are humorous more often than they are heartrending, and many relationships seem tainted by the participants' lust for gold.
Is Barabas wholly evil? In what ways does Marlowe complicate our response to his protagonist, and how does this response affect the play's moral tone?
Initially, we are tempted to pity Barabas because of his unjust and discriminatory treatment by Ferneze. However, it becomes clear that the protagonist knows how to defend himself—or at least, how to exact vengeance on his enemies. Clearly, Barabas is a pitiless criminal mastermind. His murderous scheming marks him as ruthless, although Marlowe suggests he feels fatherly affection for Abigail. Barabas only wishes to be left alone to enjoy his wealth and prosperity. As he notes in Act I, scene i, he seeks "peaceful rule" that will allow him to become "on every side enriched."
There is no clear moral divide between Barabas and the Maltese Christians. Prejudice is rife, and people hide avaricious motives beneath a veneer of religious sincerity. Ferneze is particularly hypocritical and duplicitous, as he cites Christian virtues but does not practice them. Barabas alone recognizes the shallowness of his conscience; he does not pretend to care about the needs of other people because he does not need to. No one looks to Barabas for sympathy. It may be said that Marlowe's protagonist only fulfills the role crafted for him by Christian prejudice and intolerance. One could argue that Barabas poisons, strangles, and deceives because he has no means of openly fighting his enemies. His requests to be treated fairly in Act I, scene ii are ignored; similarly, his demands to "have law" in Act V, scene i are treated rather evasively by the governor. The ambiguity of the play's moral tone depends upon the ambivalent response Barabas elicits from the audience. Barabas commits evil acts in a way that highlights society's evils as well as Barabas's immorality.
What parallels does Marlowe draw between the scheming of the Maltese islanders and the "policy" of Malta, Spain, and Turkey?
Just as Barabas, Ithamore, Bellamira, and Pilia-Borza conspire against each other, so, too, do Ferneze, Calymath, and Del Bosco strategize in the name of "policy." Calymath's ultimatum—that Ferneze pay ten years' worth of tribute or Turkey will invade Malta—is nothing more than a trumped up bribe. Marlowe thus compares politics to a web of commercial deals. Although Ferneze trumpets that "[h]onour is bought with blood, and not with gold," it is clear that he is motivated by financial concerns. Ferneze's decision to break the league with Calymath and sell Turkish slaves in the marketplace attests that mercenary interests determine state policy. Del Bosco's comment that the governor can "keep the gold" if he goes to war against Turkey, further suggests the importance of money in international politics.
This same "desire of gold" motivates Bellamira, Pilia-Borza, and Ithamore (although the slave professes to bribe Barabas in the name of love). Marlowe thus compares the acquisitiveness of statesmen—particularly aristocratic statesmen such as Ferneze—with the cupidity of common criminals. Ironically, Barabas is the only character whose crimes are motivated by more than a need for money. In the final act, Marlowe shows how Barabas's essentially motiveless crimes affect the course of international politics. When the protagonist becomes governor, the nature of his plots remains the same—to conspire murder—except that these schemes are played out in a larger arena. Ultimately, Barabas's goals do not vary much from Ferneze's; while the protagonist seeks to profit by Calymath's death, the governor attempts to gain by his capture.
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