Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), a contemporary of William Shakespeare, wrote an anti-Semitic play like Shakespeare. Shakespeare wrote “The Merchant of Venice” and Marlowe “The Rich Jew of Malta.” Both writers were Englishmen. Both wrote excellent, very insightful plays. Marlowe was killed in a bar-room brawl, apparently over a dispute over a bill, and died at age 29 after living only long enough to complete seven plays. Many critics consider “The Rich Jew of Malta” and “Dr. Faustus” as his best plays. Some literature critics also claim that Marlowe wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare.
Difficulty in understanding the language of the plays
The problem that many people have is that the plays are written in outdated English of the sixteenth century with words, expressions, and metaphors that are not only difficult to decipher, but often had a different meaning in the past than they do today. Fortunately, there are books available today that translate the plays into modern English.
Two solutions are the “No Fear” series and the “Retelling” series by David Bruce.
The “No Fear” series gives readers the original text on left-sided pages with translations on the right so that readers can understand what is being said and scan the ancient poetic manner that the author wrote whenever the reader choses to do so.
David Bruce retells the plays in modern English without giving the original text. His retelling includes many explanations of what the author meant. Both methods are excellent and enjoyable. Bruce’s “Christopher Marlowe’s Complete Plays: Retellings” contains all of Marlowe’s seven plays. The Kindle version of the book can be purchased on Amazon for only 99 cents. One can click on the play one wants to read in the Table of Contents and on the chapter one wants to see, and the Kindle will take the reader to the site instantly.
The anti-Semitic depiction of the rich Jew of Malta
It is around 1590. The small island country of Malta has not paid the tribute demanded from them by the Ottoman Empire for ten years and the Empire threatens Malta. The governor promises to pay but not having any money, he demands that the Jews living in Malta, but not the Christians, give him half of their wealth to pay the tribute. He threatens the Jews by saying he will forcibly convert them to Christianity if they fail to give him half their wealth. He confiscates all of the money and property of Malta’s richest Jew and makes his house a nunnery.
Marlowe names the rich Jew Barnabas, the name of a murderer in the New Testament, Mark 15:7 and Luke 23:19, and as a thief in John 18:40, a name that no self-respecting Jewish parent would give their child. He is depicted as having the stereotypical large nose, being power-hungry, overly interested in money which he obtained in the past by deceit and other improper means, and is described as a man who kills simply because of the joy involved. The governor states that Jews can be punished severely because Jews are responsible for the murder of Jesus and because they are haters of Christianity.
Barnabas decides to take revenge against the governor and others because they took his wealth. He kills the governor’s son, other Christians including clergy, and murders his own daughter because he believes she converted to Christianity.
It is hard to think of what Marlowe could have added to portray the Jew in a worse manner.