The wealthy Jewish merchant Barabas and his daughter Abigail live peacefully and prosperously on the island of Malta, until - under threat of conquest by Turkish forces - the governor Ferneze orders all Jewish citizens to pay no less than half their wealth in tribute to the invaders. Reduced to financial ruin, Barabas vows to have his revenge on Ferneze, and begins a series of murderous plots to destroy the governor. Barabas’ single-minded spiral into hatred results in the death of Ferneze’s son, the poisoning of Abigail and Barabas’ devoted servant Ithamore, and brings Malta itself to the brink of disaster when Barabas aids the invading Turkish army. Ultimately, his revenge plot is unsuccessful, and his own schemes betray him when he is double-crossed by Ferneze, and falls to his death in his own murderous trap. Barabas’ downward journey from morally neutral merchant to hate-fuelled criminal is set against the backdrop of one of the most famous victories of Christian Europe in the Ottoman wars, the Great Siege of Malta. As a result, the play naturally lands on challenging themes of religion, bigotry, and antisemitism, as well as questions about the interplay of wealth and power.
The Jew of Malta was an immediate theatrical success, and enjoyed dozens of performances in the fifty years after its premiere. Some scholars speculate that Marlowe’s figure of Barabas influenced his contemporary William Shakespeare, who would go on to write The Merchant of Venice only a few years later.
The Jew of Malta guide sections