Monday, September 21, 2009

The Jew of Malta

The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe is a highly entertaining play. Technically it is a tragedy because the central character dies in the end, but that character, the Jew Barabas, is so hilarious as he commits his crimes that it's hard to take any of it seriously. Like Shakespeare's Richard III, Barabas has so much fun being evil that the audience has fun as well. I think of the play as Hamlet meets the Joker: a revenge play with an evil clown as the central character. I would call it a savage satire.

(It makes me wonder if Shakespeare was attempting to write his own tragedy that is also savagely funny with Titus Andronicus. Face it, the scene in which Lavinia, without hands, takes a stick in her mouth to write in the sand is funny in a sick way. Shakespeare soon realized that his was a gentler muse.)

The play is antisemitic, as is The Merchant of Venice. Marlowe and Shakespeare are products of their culture and they reflect the attitudes of their time. The problem goes beyond antisemitism, as Renaissance plays are filled with medieval values we would question today. Shakespeare seems to accept the divine right of kings, and at the end of his tragedies order is always restored with the last line going to the person of highest nobility left alive onstage. A feminist woman once told me that Katherine's last speech in Taming of the Shrew should be played today as if she is lying and manipulating Petruchio in order to survive in a patriarchal society.

The thing to remember is that antisemitism is not the fundamental purpose of either Marlowe or Shakespeare's play, but is a side issue. Both Marlowe and Shakespeare were great artists, who wrote their plays on broader themes. The Jew of Malta is a play about human nature that says man is a cynical egoist. The word cynical is there to distinguish Marlowe's idea of egoism from Ayn Rand's idea of rational egoism. In the traditional, Christian morality, egoists are thought of as monsters -- Nietzche's Blond Beast -- who will climb over a mountain of dead bodies to get what they want. And mass murder is exactly what Barabas does. People talk about all the dead bodies in Hamlet; in Marlowe's play there are too many dead to count -- the antihero poisons all the nuns in a convent and burns down a house with people in it -- but most of the killing happens off stage.

If you're like me and the idea of poisoning all the nuns in a convent makes you laugh, then this play is for you. (No, I'm not being serious here. I don't really support the mass murder of Christians.)

There is a deep strain of cynicism in Jacobean drama. Webster, Marston and Middleton all wrote dark, dark plays. Even Shakespeare in Troilus and Cressida and Timon of Athens is cynical. I think it all started with The Jew of Malta.

What makes this ugly play entertaining is the humor. And there is no question in my mind that Marlowe meant to be funny. For instance, at one point Barabas's daughter Abigail asks the slave Ithamore a question. He answers with the rhetorical question, "Am I Ithamore?" as in, "Is the Pope Catholic?" Abigail replies -- and I imagine the actress pausing a moment first -- "Yes." She is so slow that she answers a rhetorical question. That's funny. Isn't it?

Or take when Barabas first buys his slave Ithamore. When Ithamore learns that Barabas is evil, he worships his master. They get along so well as they commit mayhem that Barabas wishes Ithamore were his son. How else can you play that but for comedy? And the way Barabas manipulates the stupid Christians is just a scream.

And then there is Barabas's death. If you don't want it spoiled, skip to the next paragraph. Barabas dies by accidentally falling into a huge vat of boiling water that he is preparing to cook other people. Please, it's so absurd that you have to play it for comedy.

Is there any good reason to produce this play nowadays? If you want to do an edgy, politically incorrect play with some sick humor, then this is it. It's interesting that a play can still shock after four centuries. You also get a better understanding of the context of later Renaissance drama, as they all wrote in Marlowe's shadow. In Midsummer-Night's Dream, with Pyramus, Shakespeare parodies Barabas's last line, "Die, life: fly, soul; tongue, curse thy fill, and die!" Finally, the part of Barabas is a great part for a comic actor -- and we comic actors are always looking for great parts.

Best of all, Barabas poisons all the nuns in a convent. Come on, admit it: that's entertainment.

After his death Marlowe was accused of atheism. I don't know if that was true or just propaganda, but he made this atheist laugh.

1 comment:

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