The Jew of Malta

by: Christopher Marlowe

Symbols

Main ideas Symbols

Gold

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.

Barabas's nose

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.