Christopher Marlowe most certainly chose some interesting and horrid characters as the subject of his plays. There's
Dr. Faustus, who sold his soul to the devil, and the really miserable excuse for a human being,
Tamburlaine, whose lust for conquering and tyrannical rule eventually, finally brought him
to his end. And now! Oh! This Jew is the epitome of everything foul and rotten in humanity; no scruples whatsoever. And the Christians and Moslems aren't much
better. Marlowe was an atheist, and manages to offend everyone in this play.
As for Marlowe, his life was quite as colorful as his characters, and is still a mystery. The Dover edition of this play gives a tantalizing bit of information concerning Marlowe's own character.
His death certainly came way too soon, at age 29. Many people wonder if he would have surpassed Shakespeare had he lived longer. (They were born the same year.) There are some theories that even hint that he faked his death and escaped, and that it was he who wrote under the name Shakespeare. "If you looked at both men's work at that time, how could you predict that Shakespeare would come out ahead."
There are some theories that Marlowe was a spy, accounting for his long absences from Cambridge University's Corpus Christi College, for which they refused to grant his master's degree (and also because he refused to take Holy Orders). But the Queen interceded, saying that he had served her well. (As a spy? Hmmm.) He was also accused of heresy because of his atheist beliefs, and was arrested five times. Supposedly the cause of his death was by stabbing--Ingram Frizer and Marlowe had gotten into a dispute over an unpaid bill and Frizer stabbed him in the eye. But keeping in mind all the other activities in which he was involved, there has always been speculation that the murder was an assassination.
In any case, the other point brought up in this lively introductory note is the question of whether The Jew of Malta is actually a tragedy, or a very dark farce. After having read it, I vote for the second choice. I found it hysterical! Marlowe gave his miserable Jew so much power, that he just went around murdering everyone that rubbed him the wrong way. T. S. Eliot wrote:
"If one takes The Jew Of Malta not as a tragedy, or as a "tragedy of blood," but as a farce, the concluding act becomes intelligible. . . I say farce, but with the enfeebled humour of our times the word is a misnomer; it is the farce of the old English humour, the terribly serious, even savage comic humour, the humour which spent its last breath on the decadent genius of Dickens."
Marlowe's play was also thought to be a major influence on Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. The note then continues:
"The more one thinks about this suggestion, the more enlightening it seems. If the play was meant to be a tragedy, why would the title character, Barabas, have been given a huge false nose to wear. Certainly the only way to interest a modern audience in this play is to present it as a black comedy"
C'mon, false noses are funny. And furthermore:
"What makes Marlowe interesting is his readiness to offend everyone and anyone. Whereas Shakespeare had good guys and bad guys, Marlowe says the hell with the lot of them."
We first meet Barabas as he awaits the return of his ships and his forthcoming increase of his already vast store of wealth.
Meanwhile, Ferneze, the governor of the tiny Mediterranean Island of Malta is visited by the Emperor of Turkey, Selim Calymath, who is demanding payment of a
ten-year past-due debt. Of course, Malta has not the money, so he summons the Jews and informs them he is confiscating their wealth and Barabas's ships.
Barabas thinks it will be OK, however, because he has bags of gold hidden in his house. But when he arrives home, he is met by his daughter Abigail, who has been put out of the house because it is being made into a nunnery.
So he convinces his (Jewish) daughter to become a nun, and tells her exactly where the marked boards are, under which the money is hidden. He meets her later as she throws the bags of money to him. He has another house, and Abigail leaves the nunnery and returns to her father. Meanwhile, Barabas has bought a really shifty slave named Ithamore to help him do his dirty-work.
Now, Barabas is still pretty ticked off at the governor. Mathias and Abigail are in love, so he tells Abigail to feign love to the governor's son, Lodowick, who is in love with Abigail. She goes along, assured that it will be right with her and Mathias. Well, it isn't, because Barabas writes nasty notes between Lodowick and Mathias and has Ithamore deliver them. They fight and both die.
So now, Abigail is ticked off, and she really does join the nunnery. Now Barabas is ticked off at her, so he sends Ithamore with some poison porridge and all the nuns die. Then they strangle the friar, and the other friar gets the blame. Then Barabas really gets going. . .
This short excerpt spoken by Barabas basically sums up his personality:
As for myself, I go abroad o' nights
And kill sick people groaning under walls:
Sometimes I go about and poison wells;
And now and then, to cherish Christian thieves,
I am content to lose some of my crowns,
That I may, walking in my gallery,
See 'em go pinioned along by my door.
Being young, I studied physic, and began
To practice first upon the Italian;
There I enriched the priests with burials,
And always kept the sextons' arms in ure
With digging graves and ringing dead men's knells:
And after that was I an engineer,
And in the wars twixt France and Germany,
Under pretence of helping Charles the Fifth,
Slew friend and enemy with my stratagems.
Then after that was I an usurer,
And with extorting, cozening, forfeiting,
And tricks belonging unto brokery,
I filled the jails with bankrupts in a year,
And with young orphans planted hospitals,
And every moon made some or other mad,
And now and then one hang himself for grief,
Pinning upon his breast a long great scroll
How I with interest tormented him.
But mark how I am blest for plaguing them;
I have as much coin as will buy the town.
Over the top, indeed! This is a funny play.
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