Barabas: The Great Jewish Island

Christopher Marlowe’s play, The Jew of Malta, centers a narrative around the lead character, Barabas. Barabas is a very wealthy Jew who has his fortune stolen by the state so that they may pay off their ten year debt to the Turkish leader, Calymath. Barabas then spends the duration of the play exacting his revenge on the state of Malta. While reading the secondary source, I was particularly intrigued by the section discussing the historical events of Malta mirroring the events happening in Marlowe’s play:

“Other details in the play can be related to Maltese history as well. The transformation of Baraba’s home into a nunnery could well reflect the actual history of the convent of St. Scholastica in Birgu, which before 1496 had been a synagogue. Barabas’s poisoning of the convent’s food may reference La Valette’s decision to poison the wells on the Marsa used by the Turkish Forces during the Great Siege. As Hopkins contends, “If read with close attention to the history of Malta, there are few actions of Barabas’ which cannot be seen at least to have a place in the overall functioning of [Malta’s] internal economy and social order” (94).” (Morrow 346)

Taking this into consideration, I began to look as Barabas as a metaphor for the island itself. Indeed, as we look at the character, he not only has actions that mirror the history of Malta, but also seems to isolate himself from any connections with his fellow characters. Arguably his strongest human connection is with his daughter, Abigail, whom he kills (along with the other nuns) when she joins the convent after discovering Don Mathias and Don Lodowick are dead.

“Barabas: Very well, Ithamore; then now be secret; and, now for thy sake, whom I so dearly love, now shall thou see the death of Abigail, that thou mayst freely live to be my heir.” (Marlowe 756)

Ithamore also is killed by Barabas when he betrays his trust and divulges his secrets to Bellamira. Aside from these two very close personal relationships, Barabas also feels no connection to the state or his religion. He repeatedly refuses to loan the money to the governor, and when he is singled out and has all of his possessions stolen, he replies to his fellow Jewish men:

“Barabas: Why did you yield to their extortion? You were a multitude, and I but one; and of me only have they taken all.” (Marlowe 262)

The rhetoric of singularity (I, me, Barabas, etc.) continues to show his isolation from society. In fact the only thing that Barabas clings to is his wealth, which, surprisingly, is a combination of jewels and treasures from a multitude of various empires and civilizations. This idea seems to create tension in the idea of Barbas’s isolationism in that he could not possibly have any of his riches without trade and establishing connections with other countries.

“So that of thus much that return was made; and of the third part of the Persian ships there was the venture summ’d and satisfied. As for those Samnites, and the men of Uz, that bought my Spanish oils and wines of Greece, here have I purs’d their paltry silverlings…” (Marlowe 80)

At the conclusion of the play, Barabas is killed by his own trap seemingly insinuating that the lack of human connection and compassion is what led to his downfall. However, it could be read that the death of Barabas is representational of the constant flux of the identity of the island. Throughout the duration of the play, there is a constant struggle for ownership of the island, never having a solidified leader who remains unthreatened by outside sources. Perhaps this is similar to the identity of the island, never having ONE identity, but rather, being a space for multiple religions, countries and goods to meld together, making the people of Malta a mix of everything, rather than one single thing.

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