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The Jew of Malta, by Christopher Marlowe

Second speech of third scene (Act 2 Scene 1):
ABIGAIL: Now have I happily espied a time
To search the plank my father did appoint;
And here, behold, unseen, where I have found
The gold, the pearls, and jewels, which he hid.
I just loved this. Barabbas, the Jew of the title, is screwed out of his substantial property by the Christian rulers of Malta, and exacts revenge upon his enemies - at great personal cost, in particular as regards his own beautiful daughter Abigail. I paused after reading the first act, rather hoping that Barabbas would find some way of delivering his Christian oppressors into the hands of the Turks; well, without undue spoilers, I was more than satisfied by the way it ended.

Despite the grim subject matter (large numbers of violent deaths on and off the stage) there's also a deadpan humour about it, and I felt Marlowe was satirising both the cliches of bloody revenge (which I think are accepted rather less sceptically in Tamburlaine) and the unquestioning anti-Semitism of his times - Barabbas does end up as a villain, sure, but it is very clearly the Christians who have pushed him into it through state-sanctioned theft and humiliation - and if any religious group is subjected to cliche, it is the monks and nuns who were of course a focus of fear and disgust in Marlowe's England. Machiavelli introduces the play by saying, "I count religion but a childish toy", and I don't think that Marlowe is necessarily agreeing with him but I do think he is stressing that Christians can be every bit as evil as non-Christians (Machiavelli was also of course a tremendously loaded figure in Marlowe's England).

I found Barabbas a better rounded character than Shylock, to whom he clearly is closely related. Of course the Merchant of Venice is probably better in the end - the plot is less linear and more interesting, the other characters apart from the lead better rounded out - but the dialogue between the two plays is more equal than I had realised. And Barabbas gets one of the best lines in the whole of Marlowe, brought up before a tribunal of Christian clerics and accused of all manner of sins:
FRIAR BARNARDINE. Thou hast committed--
BARABBAS. Fornication: but that was in another country;
And besides, the wench is dead.
I'd really love to see this, more perhaps than any other of Marlowe's plays. I think the resonances with our own time could be played out in a way that would make an audience of today justifiably uncomfortable.

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
(Anonymous)
Sep. 1st, 2016 09:33 am (UTC)
I played the Governor at school. The teacher was determined to do it as black farce. The monks, it turns out, can be very funny caterpillars.

'These arms of mine shall be thy sepulchre!' is a real tongue-twister of a line to wail.
nwhyte
Sep. 1st, 2016 03:44 pm (UTC)
Thanks, but who are you?
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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