Christopher Marlowe’s fast-moving play The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta, is a tale of violent conflict between Christians, Jews and Turks. Its hero-villain, Barabas a ‘wealthy Jew’, has a cruel but intoxicating desire for money and revenge, but is ultimately punished. The play was first performed around 1592, and first published in this edition of 1633 which includes additions by Thomas Heywood (1574–1641).
Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593) was a renowned Elizabethan playwright, poet and government spy. He achieved fame for his dramatic works, but also for a life full of high drama. In 1593 he was arrested on charges of religious heresy but, while released on bail, he was stabbed to death – probably in a row over the bar bill at a Mrs Bull’s house in Deptford.
Barabas is one of the first of many Machiavellian stage villains defined by their scheming ambition and unscrupulous quest for power. He is first seen ‘in his Counting-House’ in Malta, with ‘Infinite riches in a little roome’ (1.1.37). But this wealth is soon under threat, as we learn that the Turks have demanded a financial tribute from the Maltese people. Ferneze, the governor of Malta, plans to extort this money from the island’s Jews. When Barabas objects, the Christians launch racist abuse against him. They confiscate his goods and convert his house into a nunnery.
Barabas turns to savage revenge, viciously obstructing anyone who crosses his path. He arranges the death of Lodowick, his daughter Abigail’s Christian lover, and then poisons Abigail herself. But finally he destroys himself in his own trap, dying in a boiling cauldron as the Christians deny him mercy.
There was a strong rivalry and rich literary exchange between Marlowe and Shakespeare. Most critics agree that Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596–97) was influenced by The Jew of Malta. Indeed, Shylock describes the Jews as the ‘stock of Barrabas’ (4.1.296). Both playwrights make controversial use of the figure of the Jew to raise moral questions about mercantile culture, and to expose the tensions surrounding notions of justice and mercy.
More specifically, Shakespeare seems to have been inspired by Abigail’s elopement with a Christian, when creating his own Jessica-Shylock plot. There are striking verbal echoes between Barabas’s lament, ‘O my girle, / My gold, my fortune, my felicity’ (The Jew of Malta, 2.1.50–51) and Shylock’s reported cry, ‘My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!’ (The Merchant of Venice 2.8.15)
In this unique copy of The Jew of Malta, five pages have been stolen (sigs. D1, I1, I4, K1, K2) – supplemented at the end with photocopies. The probable thief was a book collector, Thomas James Wise (1859–1937), who amassed a large number of partly damaged plays, which he completed using pages cut from British Library books. Ironically, Wise’s collection – called the Ashley Library – was later bought by the British Library. So we also hold a copy which contains some of Wise’s stolen pages (shelf mark: Ashley1097).