Jasper Britton as Barabas in  the RSC production of 'The Jew of Malta'

Jasper Britton as Barabas in the RSC production of ‘The Jew of Malta’

Here in Stratford-on-Avon some of us went to see Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta at the Swan . It was an excellent performance and one of the delights was to sit opposite a group of English schoolchildren and watch their faces. They were spellbound by the magic of the theater.

The play itself reveals Marlowe’s rumbustious imagination with wickedness that is rollicking. Barabas the Jew is completely over the top in his Machiavellian devilry as he schemes to murder two young men, poison a whole convent full of nuns–including his own daughter–strangle Franciscan and implicate a Dominican for the crime. (a nice recognition of the rivalry that existed between Dominicans and Franciscans btw) and then go on to engineer an invasion by Malta’s enemies, only to blackmail them and turn the tables before the tables are turned on him and he is lowered slowly into a vat of boiling oil.

The program notes focussed on the anti-Semitism of the time. In glancing at them I observed how “them innerleckshuls” tut tut so predictably about the anti-Semitism of the Catholic Church while in the next article wax livid about Israel and vent their anti-Zionist rhetoric. Seems too close for comfort to me–especially as they also go all self righteous about hypocrisy. Never mind.

Of course lots of Catholics were anti-Semitic in the Middle Ages. We all know that. I know, why not sweep this dirty laundry under the carpet like they do the bloody terrors of the Tower, the terrible tree at Tyburn, the rape and pillage of the  monasteries and the 300 year persecution of Catholics?

What The Jew of Malta seemed to me was not so much an over the top piece of anti-Semitic propaganda, but more like a medieval morality play.  The same rollicking style was there with stock figures and a devilishly wicked plot. The good guys won and the devil was lowered down into a cauldron of boiling pitch. The Jew was not so much a Jew, but the devil and this was an old fashioned tale of good vs evil with Barabas the Jew playing the devil. To focus on his Jewishness is to really miss the point of the whole play–rather like debating the painting technique of the Mona Lisa.

The more profound meaning (and it’s not easy to find profound meaning in Marlowe) is that the devil fights dirty. No one has a chance against Barabas the Jews because everyone else in the play operates in a moral universe. Despite the fact that they are greedy, naive, power hungry, lustful and corrupt, they still understand and expect a certain level of nobility, honesty and fair dealing.

Barabas the Jew does not, and neither does the devil. Christopher Marlowe is showing us what pure evil is like. The devil fights dirty. He cheats. He lies. He punches below the belt. He throw salt in your eyes. He steals. He schemes. He manipulates.

Furthermore, he is the Father of Lies. He does this all the time. He can do no other. Continue Reading