The Unbearable Opacity of Christopher

Another Marlowe play is on the reading list. This time it’s The Jew of Malta. In this play, Barabas, a rich Jew living on the island of Malta has his wealth confiscated by the governor, and he avenges himself against the Christian leaders, only to end up double-crossed and eventually dead.

In modern parlance, the treatment of Jews in Elizabethan drama (and in society in general) is “problematic.” The stage Jew of the time was always represented by an actor wearing a large false nose and a red-haired wig. Marlowe, as does Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice, presents his Jewish protagonist as someone who loves money above all else, a racist stereotype that persists even to this day. (I use the term “racist” in the conventional sense, though the idea of a Jewish race is scientifically invalid.)

There are some who are willing to credit Marlowe with a somewhat progressive outlook. While Barabas undoubtably looks bad, the actions of the Christians are also duplicitous and self-serving. Marlowe, they contend, is using the play to illustrate the hypocrisy of Christian society as well. There may be some truth to that, but given how villainous Barabas is, it’s hard to believe that the audience of the day wouldn’t consider the actions of the Christian justified, and anyway, in this particular play, they Christians are all Spanish Catholics, who were definitely unloved by the Protestant English.

Maybe Marlowe isn’t being forward thinking at all. Maybe he’s just giving his audience a greater villain and a lesser villain and letting the spectators enjoy the two opponents beat the crap out of each other.  After all, just a few doors down from the theatre district were the bear-gardens where the crowds would watch bears and dogs fight to the death. Apparently Elizabeth I found bear-baiting to be such an entertaining sport, she intervened when Parliament attempted to ban Sabbath fights.

Despite Marlowe’s cynicism about religion and his digs at both the Jews and the Catholics, for me, this piece smacks more of blood-sport and spectacle than of sly tolerance and broad-mindedness. But, as with Dr. Faustus, just what he intended will probably never be known.


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