This week, we’re wrapping up Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, written somewhere around 1589. Marlowe routinely built his plays around unexpected (anti?) heroes, and The Jew of Malta is no exception. Although Jews had been formally expelled in England during 1290, they retained a presence in early modern culture, often in a villainous role. Chaucer’s Prioress’ tale recounts the story of a child’s murder at the hands of a Jew. In The Croxton Play of the Sacrament, a Jew named Johnathas systematically tortures the Host until it transubstantiates and Jesus cries out in pain. In spite of the expulsion, Jews were still present in English life – in 1589, a Portugese Marrano (a hidden Jew) named Roderigo López became the official Physician to Queen Elizabeth (it all ended badly, with López being accused of conspiring to kill Elizabeth and being hanged, drawn and quartered in 1594 in what is now known as the Lopez plot). The religious and literary representations of Jews were as untrustworthy, money-hungry and dangerous, exploiting Christianity’s ban on charging interest on lending by making high-risk loans at a usurious rate of interest.
Marlowe’s play explores the significance of the myth of Jewry by conflating Barabas with Machiavelli, a link made explicit by the prologue, spoken by Machiavelli. Niccolò Machiavelli, a Florentine diplomat and philosopher wrote his most famous treatise on politics, The Prince, in 1505, while in exile from Florence. The Prince deals with the question of power: how to get it, and more importantly, how to hold on to it. The Prince posits that the most important aspect of maintaining power is to seem to be generous, kind, Christian, and noble, but to maintain (what we’ll call) a certain moral flexibility when it comes to one’s commitments. The text takes the position that all men are inherently untrustworthy, so the nice man will always finish last. The most popular passage from the text is usually the discussion of whether it’s better to be feared or loved (Machiavelli’s answer: feared, obviously), but my personal favorite line is when Machaivelli suggests that men are so simple and subject to the present needs that he who is willing to be deceived will always find those willing to be deceived. The bottom line for Machiavelli is that men are inherently dishonest and self-interested, and the wise man is the one who recognizes that and can take advantage of it. While maintaining the façade of decency and respectability, of course. By the end of the century, Machiavelli’s text was widespread and notorious, making his name synonymous with evil.
Machiavelli is a terrific jumping off point for Marlowe, who announces his attentions in the prologue, when Machivel states “though some speak openly against my books, / Yet will they read me and thereby attain / To Peter’s chair, and, when they cast me off, / Are poisoned by my climbing followers” (Prologue 11-13). It’s hard to read or watch Marlowe’s work and not see the extent to which Marlowe thought Machiavelli had a point. One of the things The Jew of Malta does so successfully is take the already villainous stage Jew, conflate it with the most disreputable man early modern audiences can face, then ask his audience to root for him. And believe me, we will.