Whilst Marlowe was writing, anti-Semitism was rife across the entirety of Europe. The Renaissance period saw the rise of increasingly xenophobic, anti-Jewish fears somewhat comparable to the prejudice against Islam in the Western world today, fed on and augmented by President Trump. We only have to look at the work of the so-called Old Masters to see how widespread these anti-Semitic sentiments really were. Not only were Jesus and his followers stripped of their Jewish identity and transformed into anachronistically Christian figures, but also, on the rare occasion that Jews were actually depicted in Renaissance art, their portrayal was far from complimentary. Albrecht Durer’s Jesus Among the Doctors is a case in point: the Jew that stands to the right of Jesus is almost caricature-like with his grotesque grin and hooked nose. Given the pervasiveness of this anti-Semitism, it’s no wonder that Marlowe’s Barabas is likewise presented according to the bigoted values of the age. He is, in fact, a complete caricature of the selfish and cruel Jew. And yet, what’s interesting about Marlowe’s play The Jew of Malta is that Jews are not the only group to receive criticism. Indeed, almost every religious group, Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, seem to be at the receiving end of Marlowe’s reproach. This can be said for the majority of Marlowe’s work, much of which is dedicated to the analysis and condemnation of religious doctrine and hypocrisy. So, with reference to Marlowe’s work and in particular The Jew of Malta, I intend to explore Marlowe’s views on religion as presented through his plays.
I must, of course, begin this essay with an analysis of the loathsome and Machiavellian character of Barabas. The prologue of the play, delivered by Niccolò Machiavelli himself, describes how Barabas ‘smiles to see how full his bags are crammed, / Which money was not got without my means.’ Immediately, then, he is presented as a typical machiavelle figure of Renaissance drama, characterised by the same scheming villainy encapsulated by Iago (Othello) and Edmund (King Lear) in Shakespeare’s plays. The words ‘my means’ refers to the philosophy set out by Machiavelli in his famous work Il Principe – a proto-self-help book preaching expediency over morality and the appearance over the reality of virtue. Barabas fills this role perfectly, almost all of his actions recalling Satan’s words in Book 4 of Milton’s Paradise Lost: ‘Evil be thou my Good.’ For example, he distances himself from the man with a conscience who ‘for his conscience lives in beggary.’ It is by acting without a conscience, Barabas implies, that he has acquired his huge fortune. This lack of conscience links directly to his greed and self-interestedness, obvious in the equal weight he gives to his wealth and to his daughter when he exclaims: ‘O girl! O gold!’ This levelling comparison clearly influenced Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice when he had Shylock exclaim “O my ducats, O my daughter…” Barabas’s selfishness is also evident in his asides during the conversation he has with the other Jews in Malta. He says: ‘Assure yourselves I’ll look – unto myself.’ He cares only for himself, even bringing about the murder of his daughter’s lover to get his revenge on Ferneze. But, in the words of Harry Levin, these asides also serve to show Barabas’s Machiavellian emphasis on appearance, distinguishing between ‘deeds and words.’ He hides his true intentions from the other Maltese citizens, but treats the audience as his confidantes and thus implicates us in his crimes.
Though we may have some pity for Barabas in his cruel treatment by the Maltese governor and his similarities to Job, our sympathy quickly dissipates as he develops from a simple miser to a murderous villain. As Levin points out, Barabas ‘is a man with a grievance, but his retaliation outruns the provocation.’ Though he may begin as a revenger, he very quickly turns into the villain himself. This murderousness is clear in the famous speech Barabas gives when purchasing Ithamore as a slave: ‘As for myself, I walk abroad o’ nights, / And kill sick people groaning under walls; / Sometimes I go about and poison wells…’ Whether these claims are true is uncertain. It’s possible that this speech is only made in order to entice Ithamore, whom Barabas seems to have already discerned as a villain who, like him, hates Christians. Perhaps, also, Marlowe was simply playing on and parodying the extreme hatred for Jews in Europe. Whatever the answer, it’s undeniable that Barabas fulfils these murderous claims – by the end of the play, he has poisoned and killed the whole of a nunnery (including his own daughter), caused the death of two friends, slaughtered numerous Turkish soldiers, and much more. As the play progresses, his hands grow more bloody and his heart blacker, becoming exactly what European society expected a Jew to be. So it’s clear that Marlowe is playing on these early modern prejudices to present us with the frightful image of a Jew who really only cares for himself and his revenge.
And yet, it’s not just Barabas who is presented as a loathsome figure – almost every character in the play, apart from Abigail, is selfish and unsympathetic. And though we may strongly dislike Barabas, we are watching ‘the tragedy of a Jew’ - Barabas is our tragic hero, and to an extent we see the play from his perspective, often taking his side against the play’s other characters. Our sympathy for Barabas is stirred when he has his wealth seized by Ferneze the governor, under threat of Christian conversion. During this scene, Barabas launches a succession of bitter attacks against Christianity, beginning with the words: ‘Will you then steal my goods? / Is theft the ground of your religion?’ Here, Barabas points out the hypocrisy of their actions, going against the commandment ‘Thou shalt not steal.’ When Ferneze attempts to justify the cruelty of the Christians, he explains that Jews are infidels and that they ‘stand accursèd in the sight of heaven.’ This idea, that the Jews are to blame for the death of Christ (the ‘first curse’) and are therefore born sinful, was a typical trope of the period. Though the audience of the time may also have held this belief, it’s clear that Marlowe did not, or else he would not have allowed Barabas to respond in such cogent terms, appealing as he does to our sense of justice: ‘Shall I be tried by their transgressions? / The man that dealeth righteously shall live…’ Though we know that Barabas is far from righteous, we still sympathise with his argument that men should be judged according to their actions, not according to the actions of their ancestors. This can also be read as a Marlovian argument against the Calvinistic doctrine of Original Sin which held that all humans are born sinful due to Adam’s fall. And so, in this episode it is the Christians who are presented as heartless, with ‘policy’ (trickery or duplicity) as their profession, using scripture to confirm their wrongs. Arguably, it is this unjust and hypocritical treatment that leads Barabas to ‘make bar of no policy’ and adopt the same cruel attitude as the Christians have towards him.
So when Barabas says to his daughter that ‘religion / Hides many mischiefs from suspicion’ we can’t help but agree. The Christians of Malta have used their religion to justify their cruelty against the Jew, even though that cruelty goes against the New Testament credo ‘Love thy neighbour.’ Marlowe also takes care to demonstrate the vices of churchmen themselves, with Friar Jacomo and Friar Bernardine fighting over Barabas’s wealth. They care nothing for the cleansing of his soul or for his conversion – they care only for the goods he promises them. Indeed, Jacomo is so covetous of Barabas’s wealth that he stabs Bernardine, a fellow Christian. So Marlowe, here, is mocking and criticising the greed of the church and their hypocrisy. There are numerous other instances of this throughout the play. For example, when Abigail dies, she asks Friar Bernardine to ‘witness that I die a Christian’ and he simply replies: ‘Ay, and a virgin, too, that grieves me most.’ He breaks Church law when he reveals the contents of Abigail’s dying confession, and hopes to use what she has told him as blackmail. Once this scene has taken place, we can’t help but recall Ithamore’s earlier question: ‘have not the nuns fine sport with the friars now and then?’
It’s clear, then, that Christians and the Church also come under attack in this play. Indeed, the play’s conclusion reinforces Abigail’s beautiful lament that ‘there is no love on earth, / Pity in Jews, nor piety in Turks.’ She’s certainly right that Ithamore (the main representative of the Turks in the play) and Barabas are wicked. Abigail’s mistake, though, is to think there is love, pity, or piety in the Maltese Christians, who reveal themselves to be just as sinful and scheming as Barabas himself. Barabas is only killed at the end of the play because he is out-manoeuvred by another schemer, Ferneze, who, despite his religion, shows no mercifulness whatsoever at the play’s conclusion. As Barabas calls out ‘Help, help me, Christians, help!’ and asks ‘Governor, why stand you all so pitiless?’ Ferneze explains that he has no pity for him at all, wishing to see his ‘treachery repaid.’ Again, this demonstrates his religious hypocrisy – as a Christian, he ought not only to forgive and show mercy, but also to see it as God’s role to ensure justice, not his own. Thus, Ferneze abandons his religious morality (which he seems never really to have had) and uses Barabas’s own tactics against him. We might conclude with Levin, then, that ‘Morally, all of them operate on the same level, and that is precisely what Marlowe is pointing out.’ Every religious group is shown to be vicious and hypocritical, and various Christian doctrines come under attack, notably the idea that ‘Faith is not to be held with heretics,’ which Barabas himself uses against the Christians.
What’s most interesting, though, is that, whilst Marlowe was simply following theatrical clichés and contemporary bigotry when he presented Barabas in such a negative light, such an attack on Christians and Christian doctrine was rarely seen on stage. Perhaps this goes some way to reveal Marlowe’s own religious views. Indeed, as Paul H. Kocher suggests, Marlowe was ‘one of the most highly subjective playwrights of his age.’ Thus, the outright criticism of Christianity in The Jew of Malta may be suggestive. Moreover, Christianity is repeatedly questioned in Marlowe’s other works, notably Dr Faustus. Though the play is set within an undoubtedly Christian framework, and though Faustus is inevitably damned for his transgressions, we cannot help sympathising and even admiring his revolt against religion. We too desire to know the answer to eschatological questions like ‘who made the world’ and we too appreciate human beauty. Thus, the beautiful speeches Faustus gives cannot help inspiring our approbation. Indeed, Faustus’s paean to Helen (‘Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?’) is one of Marlowe’s most powerful speeches, urging us to appreciate the strength of Faustus’s emotions when he tells the spirit: ‘thou art fairer than the evening’s air.’ W.W Greg argues that, sharing Faustus’s aesthetic appreciation, we allow ourselves to sympathise with him. Moreover, the fact that Marlowe’s verse reaches its pinnacle during a description of Helen, a symbol of pagan Greece, is surely indicative of his own feelings.
We don’t have to look far to find proof of these doubtful feelings in Marlowe’s biography. As Kocher pointed out, criticism of religion (and Christianity specifically) seems to have been ‘the most absorbing interest of his life.’ The first hint that Marlowe may have had an aversion to Christianity came when, having studied at Cambridge under an Archbishop Parker scholarship, Marlowe did not take holy orders as expected. More convincing are the allegations of atheism that Marlowe received a few years after his death: Baines, Aldrich, Cholmley and others all accused Marlowe of similar crimes, largely revolving around the preaching of atheism and the jesting at religious scripture and doctrine. Marlowe, like Machiavelli of the prologue, seems to have seen religion as no more than a ‘childish toy’.
Hence, when Faustus says that ‘hell’s a fable’ we cannot help recall Baines’s statement that Marlowe ‘perswades men to Atheism willing them not to be afeard of bugbeares and hobgoblins.’ And when Tamburlaine briefly comments ‘The God that sits in heaven, if any god,’ (my italics) it’s hard not to attribute this doubt to Marlowe himself. After all, given that Marlowe never intended to write two parts to Tamburlaine’s story, it’s odd that Tamburlaine is not punished for his crimes and his blasphemous aspirations in Part 1, and it’s doubtful whether his death in Part 2 can be seen as retributive justice rather than the natural result of mortality. Despite killing thousands of innocents, no god punishes Tamburlaine, suggesting Marlowe’s doubts as to whether there is any god at all. Moreover, when Barabas jests at Christian doctrine and blasphemes against Christ (for example, by marking his hidden jewels with a cross), it cannot escape our notice that Marlowe probably made similar jests and blasphemous remarks during his own lifetime, and thus that Marlowe is, to some extent, talking through Barabas. I hope, then, that I have shown how Marlowe’s own doubts and possible atheism are demonstrated in his work. Given the corruption of the Catholic Church in the Early Modern period (Anthony Kenny described Pope Alexander VI as ‘the most villainous man ever to have occupied the Roman See’), and given the oppressive nature of the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, it’s no wonder that an intellectual like Marlowe had difficulties in accepting Christianity. Like the characters he created, he struggled to see past the hypocrisy of churchmen, the contradictions in religious doctrine, and the restraints that Christianity (or indeed any religion) placed on its followers.