The Jew of Malta was not what I expected, having previously read Dr Faustus and thoroughly enjoyed it. The play is about the jew Barabas, whose assets are taken over by the state of Malta, in order to pay off a debt to the Turks. When Barabas refuses at first to offer half his wealth as requested by the governor, his entire wealth is then demanded, as well as that of all the Jews in Malta. Thus begins the antisemitism in the play. And unknown to anyone except his daughter Abigail whom Barabas informs, he has a stash of gold hidden in his house. But as part of his punishment for not complying with the governor, his house is turned into a nunnery. To acquire the gold, Abigail pretends to convert to Christianity and join the nunnery. This is the bulk of Act I and the events unfold slowly with engaging prose that reveals character development.
Then, in Act II, the pace picks up and the focus shifts to several plot lines. There is the love interest between Abigail and the gentleman Don Mathias, but the governor’s son Lodowick also likes Abigail. Naturally, Barabas plots to use this triangle to his favor to frustrate Lodowick as revenge on the governor, at the expense of his daughter’s happiness. Then there’s Barabas buying the Turk slave Ithamore, a rather unusual development foreshadowing something sinister.
In Act III, the scenes become remarkably short, the pace escalates and new characters are introduced. Namely, the courtesan Bellamira becomes the love interest of Ithamore. Her interest in acquiring the hidden wealth of Barabas (which Barabas confided in Ithamore who in turn told Bellamira) drives her to play Ithamore against his master. And then… the play breaks down. The quality shrivels up. Short scene after short scene with one plot twist after another, all the way to the end of Act V. Betrayal after betrayal turned this play from a conceivable tragedy to an entertaining farce. Two friars plot to steal money from Barabas but turn against each other, Barabas tricks the governor who then tricks Barabas, all to be in favor of the new conquerors, the Turks. Abigail becomes a Christian to spite her father for having ruined her love life… and so on.
In the end, the play imparted the following impressions that (i) the Jew is a money hungry scrooge, (ii) the Christian is a self-righteous and pompous idealist, and (iii) the Muslim is the savage invader who conquers through war. One has to admire the charm that for a play written circa 1592, not much has changed today in terms of stereotyping. In terms of writing, however, the degradation of quality and the shift from a more serious tragic play to that of farce brought to mind F. P. Wilson’s lecture that I reviewed recently. He believed that the latter part of the play, from Act III onwards, was not written by Marlowe but perhaps a collaborator or completed by the actors of the theater group that Marlowe worked with. Having read the play, I can understand this assertion.
The Massacre at Paris is, so far, the worst play I have read. It does not do Marlowe justice on any level. The play is about the death of Henry III. The play is difficult to follow, as it opens in media res while still trying to know who’s who and what the plot is about. Basically, the Old Queen of Navarre dies on suspicion of being poisoned, and what follows is a cycle of revenge killings between protestants and catholics, hence the massacre at Paris.
There is little by way of character development and no identifiable protagonist for whom to sympathize with. This is a plot based play focusing on quick action and the prose is quite weak, it reads like dialogue from a badly written script for a B-movie. There is no subtext here.
It is possible, according to scholars, that the text has been so corrupted throughout by publishers, agents and editors that the real essence of the play is gone, or as F. P. Wilson thinks, the idea or sketch of the play was Marlowe’s but his untimely death meant it wasn’t written out in full by him. Whatever the reasons for this disappointing play, one thing is for sure, it is not Marlowe at his best.
All in all, other than the first two acts of The Jew of Malta, these plays read more as the cheaper end of entertainment fiction, focused on amusement and nothing else. While plays were, of course, the source of entertainment of their time, it did not mean they had to be of inferior quality. Just like the different quality of film today, it would be ridiculous to see Stanley Kubrik direct a second rate TV movie, yet Marlowe seems to have written a second rate play.
Samir Rawas Sarayji