Elazar Larry Freifeld

The Jew of Malta, Revisited

A little corruption is good for the soul, and Christopher Marlowe’s ‘The Jew of Malta’ is no saint, not by a long shot!

Contrary to Shakespeare’s Shylock in the ‘The Jew of Venice’, Barabas, the anti-hero of this remarkable play written in 1588[1], is neither a devil nor prophet in need of redemption. He is not to be pitied. He is Barabas, precisely what he is, a Jew, exiled and cut off from his homeland, among a handful of other protected Jews on the Island of Malta. This Island can be can be found anywhere in the world, a place, a state of mind, a particular time differential; its always the same Jew, an ancient ghost slowly rising from his slumber, only to find himself surrounded in his false utopia by a horde of advancing, inarticulate barbarians. It is a tale of incredible cruelty and subliminal outrage! Though he means them no harm, they wish eternally to destroy him, his dreams and visions of Jerusalem. Like John Bunyan he is beset on all sides by real and imaginary monsters all claiming ascendancy over his soul, not knowing which is which, or where to turn and run away. But there’s no place to run to! Wherever he goes, another door opens and shuts. He’s haunted by the bitch goddess of success and security, an illusion which passes with the passing of life, only to find himself lost, robbed of his land and birthright, alone and despicable unto death!

The plot of ‘The Jew of Malta’ briefly stated, is as follows: Barabas and his daughter Abigail live peacefully on the Island of Malta where he plies a lively trade in spices, oils, silks, opals, sapphires, diamonds, rubies and ‘grass-green emeralds’. So successful is he, that as his ‘…wealth increaseth, so enclose Infinite riches in a little room’. The play opens with an anti-Semitic prologue by Machiavel, describing the wealthy Jew seated alone in his counting house before heaps and heaps of gold. The atmosphere positively sweats and pervades a kind of animistic claustrophobia, complete with candles, cobwebs, dusty curtains and other images of filmic horror.

Marlowe would later employ a similar device in his ‘Tragical History of Doctor Faustus’ (1609). This kind of cartoon villain is typical of 16th century theater, and as the plot unfolds, it becomes apparent that Barabas’ relations with Ferneze, the Christian governor and his son Lodowick seem altogether amicable and self-serving.  That is, until the proverbial sh-t hits the fan and the Turkish fleet is sited offshore, gathering its forces for an invasion of the Island. Under these pressing circumstances, Ferneze sends an emissary to Barabas and other wealthy Jews, demanding an excise tax, amounting to more than half of their entire combined wealth. All but Barabas submit to this blackmail, though he is encouraged to do likewise.

At this point, it is of interest to note Marlowe’s symbolic connection between Barabas of the Christian Bible and our Barabas of Malta. The Christian Bible Barabas, scheduled to be crucified along with Jesus, was reputed to be a thief, a murderer and insurrectionist. Accused by the Romans of killing one of their soldiers, Barabas had the reputation of being a rabble-rouser, a terrorist and freedom fighter — depending on which side of the line was being towed. No other record of his crimes exist, or just how popular he was among the people, except that Pontius Pilate, persuaded by the elders and priests, thought it expedient not to martyr him along with Jesus, and to release Barabas from imprisonment on the Feast of Passover – as a gesture of conciliation, saving him from crucifixion (which was delayed until after the holiday). Marlowe’s Barabas experiences no such reprieve. Nor does he wish to be reprieved.

Now to the straw that breaks the camel Barabas’ heart. Abigail, his daughter, upon whom he dotes, is portrayed in Torah as the heroine who brings food (against her husband’s wishes) to the future King David, (later to become his second wife), in Marlowe’s corruption, falls in love with the governor’s Christian son Lodowick, abandons her faith, betrays her father and flees in desperation to a nunnery, where she awaits her lover to be bound in marriage. Barabas, having lost his daughter, the one treasure he valued most in life over all, has now become the spiritual leader of a Jewish insurrection!

The emotional well-spring and motivation of his contempt and hatred for his enemy, who was once his friend and ally, is brilliant and masterfully painted by Marlowe in his usual swift brush strokes — almost abstract expressionist in its literary aesthetic value. It proceeds, a la Marlowe, almost to a state of poetic, premature ejaculation!

Then comes the ‘piece de resistance’ in this war of attrition, when Barabas orders one of his slaves to poison the entire nunnery, including his own daughter Abigail, (for whom he has symbolically said Kaddish), to become a sanctuary of death for all those who would injure his offspring and rob him of his birthright. A difficult if not impossible act to follow, Barabas has closed the door on both his generation and progeny. He has shut the door on history, and proclaims by his protest a new generation of what it means to be a Jew!

The soul selects its own society,

Then shuts the door;

On her divine majority

Obtrude no more.[2]

Like Isaac Babel’s Benya Krik, Marlowe’s Barabas borders on criminality. And he goes at it with a vengeance unparalleled in the history of modern literature. (Incidentally, both Marlowe and Babel were themselves murdered under mysterious circumstances.)

Only the last step to Zionism remains untold in this otherwise prophetic masterpiece written by a master poet. Nonetheless, Marlowe, without slackening a single metrical foot, advances his plot quickly to its symbolic/existential conclusion. The combination of symbolism and stark realism is quite remarkable. Barabas is perhaps the first genuine literary anti-hero of the coming Jewish reformation. His path is clear and unswerving. He now turns his allegiance to Selim Calymath, the Ottoman, against the Christian Ferneze, killing as many Christians now, as earlier conspired with Christians to defeat the Ottomans — who were incessantly harassing his argosies, demanding baksheesh[3] and other bills of transport.

Playing both sides of the coin, burning the candle at both ends, Barabas succeeds for a time by turning one against the other, in killing as many Christians and Ottomans as possible, until his final denouement, when he is denounced and accused of treason, stripped of all his earthly goods, executed, and cast into an unmarked grave. Short of crucifixion, Barabas (thanks to Marlowe) has become the first modern proto-Zionist Jew of the reformation. It took another 200 years until the latter part of the 18th century for the Jew to reach this reformation with Haskalah and the Baal Shem Tov. What the Cabalists of the 13th century failed to accomplish with their obscure redactions and appendix of mystical doctrine, to what they sensed was a declining interest in Judaism, the revolution and reformation of Mendelsohn, and Hasidism, achieved. It was Haskalah that paved the political way, and later Rav Kook, the spiritual way to Zionism, and the return to the homeland of Israel. Herzl was the Lenin of modern Zionism, not its founder, which lies in the collective consciousness/synthesis of ancient war-like and modern liberal Judaism. Herzl, in the end, sought the assistance of religious Zionists from the orthodox community, because he realized that without Torah, the ideology of Zionism could not endure the second millennium.

Among those most prophetic of the advent of modern Zionism, Marlowe’s name must be added, as a righteous gentile, not an anti-Semite writing a typical 16th century anti-Semitic play, but a great visionary poet of immense stature. The Jew of Malta stands as a monument to the cause of freedom from political oppression and religious persecution. It also stands as a monument to the fallen soldiers of the wars against the Jews, and of the right to bear arms against our enemy. And to take the offensive! No war was ever won as a defense, only. Barabas goes down because he was ahead of his time, and exiled to the Island of Malta. But if he must go down, he will take as many of the enemy as possible, so that Jews of future generations will not have to suffer the indignity of losing their daughters, and to see the temple they have re-built go down the drain, and all they have fought for go up in flames!

And so once again the forces of darkness and evil surround us, of Medievalism and ignorance. Our enemies are prolific as the fields of Iowa and everywhere growing fast. What will you do? Where will you run to? It may take a day, a month, a year, an entire lifetime; but sure as I stand here and still breathe, one day, or hour, or nanosecond you will come face to face with the demon inside of you. And peering into the mirror of your life, you will ask yourself, ‘What am I?’

And slowly, surely as Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ increases obsessively in depth and intensity, as ‘out of the sea endlessly rocking’[4], a still determined voice will come knocking at your door, repeatedly, like ‘The Raven’[5], whispering, “You’re just a Jew writing Hebrew in the ghetto”.

15.07.02 – 18.11.15

[1]  Though written 1588, the first quarto edition appeared in 1633.

[2]  Emily Dickinson

 [3] Arabic for ‘bribery’

 [4] Walt Whitman

 [5] A poem by Edgar Allan Poe

About the Author
Born April 15, 1941 in Manhattan, of Jewish immigrants from Poland and Galicia, Elazar spans three literary generations from the streets of New York to Tel Aviv. His poems and stories have appeared in numerous books, literary magazines, newspapers and anthologies throughout the world. Since first publishing in 1964, he has had 17 books published, including The Importance of Swimming, Television Analogs, Love Cycles, A Jew in the House of Harvard, Poet's Guide to the Holy Land, The World According to Animals and What Walks. A Jew in the House of Harvard was awarded first prize by the Israel Federation of Writers for the year 1987. Translated into 8 languages, including Hebrew, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Turkish and Hungarian, Elazar's readings and seminars include such venues as, The New School for Social Research, The Whitney Museum School of American Art, WBAI Radio, WNET TV/Channel 13, CBS TV/Video at The School of Visual Arts, and the American Embassy in Tel Aviv. During the Scud War in Israel, continuing a career begun in the U.S., Elazar wrote a weekly column for The Jerusalem Post and is now contributing editor of LeConte Publications, in Rome.