2007 Norton Scholar’s Prize Winning Essay

    << Return to List

    “Making a Profit of My Policy”: Ideological Tensions in Sixteenth-Century English Identity and Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta

    Kathryn C. Fore

    Fie, what a trouble ’tis to count this trash!
    … a carat of this quantity,
    May serve in peril of calamity
    To ransom great kings from captivity.
    This is the ware wherein consists my wealth.
    And thus, methinks, should men of judgement frame
    Their means of traffic from the vulgar trade,
    And, as their wealth increaseth, so enclose
    Infinite riches in a little room
    …But who comes here? How now?
    …Go tell ’em the Jew of Malta sent thee, man.
    Tush, who amongst ’em knows not Barabas?


    At first glance, the character presented to the audience in the opening act of The Jew of Malta seems worth becoming acquainted with. Here is a man who counts “infinite riches” as “trash,” whose “wealth” protects against “calamity,” and who has the power to “ransom great kings”; this merchant’s gains hold manifold attractions in the new mercantile world of sixteenth-century England. But the glories of the man’s financial accomplishments fade in light of the revelation of his identity—he is Barabas, a Jew, a strange and dangerous outsider.

    Barabas’s opening monologue in Marlowe’s play establishes his dual characterization as Jew and merchant. As a Jew, he represents the dangers of exchanges with non-English peoples and their threat to the well-being and identity of the nation. He is portrayed as a dangerous anti-European, who claims to “walk abroad o’ nights, / And kill sick people groaning under walls; / Sometimes I go about and poison wells: / And now and then, to cherish Christian thieves, / I am content to lose some of my crowns, / That I may, walking in my gallery, / see ’em go pinioned along by my door” (II.iii.177-183). Barabas’s claims that he walks “o’ nights,” poisons wells, kills, and “pinions” people with debt from usury fit the contemporary stereotype of Jews as maliciously antisocial,1 and this willingness to victimize specifically “Christian thieves” puts him in radical opposition to his alleged audience and confirms the belief that non-Christian “others” are inherently hostile toward Christians and a threat to English and European identity at the same time.

    At the same time, Barabas is portrayed as a wealthy merchant whose commercial enterprises have led to riches that rival “the merchants of the Indian mines / that trade in metal of the purest mould, / the wealthy Moor that in the eastern rocks / Without control can pick his riches up / and in his house heap pearl like pebble-stones, receive them free, and sell them by the weight” so that he has “infinite riches in a little room” (I.i.19-37). His interactions with non-European traders who are “Indian” or “Moor” have led to gaining “purest” metal, “pearl,” and other treasures that are “without control” and “free” and that lead to “infinite riches.” This Barabas represents the significant gains to be had from participation in the new merchant culture through interaction with non-Europeans. Since England was at this time entering a new commercial era (Vitkus 163-164), Barabas’s audience, members of this new mercantile culture, would find him a positive character with whom to identify.

    The double-characterization of Barabas as a Jew and a merchant represents the clash of the new mercantile culture with the state-supported ideology of English Christianity at the time of Marlowe’s play. Increased trade with non-European countries in the sixteenth century led to vast increases in wealth, but only through increased contact with non-European peoples. According to Daniel Vitkus, “because foreign trade was, by definition, conducted through cross-cultural exchange … it was seen as a threat to England’s very identity as a Christian commonwealth,” since England’s “Christian commonwealth” was defined by being not Muslim or not Turkish, and trade with Turkish countries jeopardized that definition (171). Trade interactions with these countries often required a suspension of the English trader’s religious identity as Christian to facilitate better economic relations, and this suspension in turn created a “‘double-sided’ relationship” with countries of other religions, in which the “commercial and political interlocked with and impinged upon what were ostensibly issues of religious difference” (Burton 138). The new “commercial” interests, which “impinged” on the “issues of religious difference” that defined English identity as distinctly Christian, thus put two aspects of English nationhood in tension with one another and created the need for a redefinition of English identity.

    The drama of Marlowe’s period captures the possibility of this tension particularly well because its growth resulted from the new cash economy created by England’s sixteenth-century mercantile interests. Theaters in England like the Rose and the Globe were “purpose-built theaters … whose doors allowed admission to be charged … [because] an impresario put up the capital, shared the profits with the actors and hired bit-players” (Hale 278). These theaters depended on the support of the patrons who “put up the capital” and who, presumably, had become rich enough in a merchant economy to have cash to put toward building them. The charging of admission also assumes that the audiences attending the plays performed in these theaters had some form of cash to spend on leisurely pastimes such as attending plays. Thus, the whole theater operation reflects the concerns of English mercantilism in its very structure and existence, and as such it represents the concerns of its newly prosperous English audience. This accurate representation allows sixteenth-century English drama to explore the conflict of mercantile and ideological interests in English identity because, as a creation of new economic interests that also depicts events affecting pro-English or pro-Christian characters on stage, it prompts what Jean-Christophe Agnew calls a “‘crisis of representation’ bearing on identity” (Pye 501). The double-characterization of Barabas in The Jew of Malta represents the tension created by two conflicting interests in English identity, and it creates an opportunity to find a means of reconciliation between the two in light of contemporary conflicts.

    As a manifestation of these conflicting interests, Barabas shifts cultural standards in the play that traditionally determined who held power—and who therefore determined the nature of English identity—by subverting previous understandings of power itself. Upon capturing Barabas, Ferneze orders his knights to “make fires, heat irons, let the rack be fetched” in an attempt to coerce Barabas into confessing that “twas you who slew my son” (V.i.24, 40). Thus, Ferneze attempts to use Barabas’s punishment as a means of enforcing the official power of the standing ideology by upholding the law against an outsider who has attacked the well-being of the state through the murder of the ruler’s son. Barabas disrupts this display of power, however, by remaining defiant and then, apparently, dying before the official power can be practiced against him. He rails against the officials, saying “Devils, do your worst; I’ll live in spite of you” (V.i.42), and then fakes his own death, which the officials think “very strange” (V.i.54). His ingenious method of surviving “in spite” of the official power decrees by faking a “strange” death disrupts the official ideology’s control over its standard treatment of outsiders, implying that the flawed or ineffective ideology cannot be enforced in a society that interacts with other cultures. The figure of Barabas thus provides Marlowe’s audience with a choice between the state’s ideology of anti-other and Barabas’s new anti-ideology through subverting the message of ideological control Ferneze attempts to convey. The Jew implies that the standing anti-other ideology of the day is not worth being conformed to while offering in its stead a new ideology of exchange with others through his merchant identity.

    Barabas’s new merchant ideology shifts the standards by which to judge where power over English identity actually lies, so that the identity is no longer about traditional forms of power based on race or religion but is instead about profit. In debating the seizure of Barabas’s goods, Ferneze tells Barabas that the laws governing his ruin are “not our fault, but thy inherent sin” (I.ii.110), to which Barabas retorts, “preach me not out of my possessions. / Some Jews are wicked, as all Christians are; / … The man that dealeth righteously shall live; / and which of you can charge me otherwise?” (I.ii.111-118). Ferneze, as a representative of political authority, links the persecution of non-European “others” and the “inherent sin” caused by their very Jewish or non-European identity. Therefore, he ties the official identity as defined against cultural otherness to the belief that being not of the same nationality or religion is inherently wrong. Barabas, however, in claiming that his tendency to “dealeth righteously” as a merchant outweighs the “transgression” of sin he may be beholden to as a Jew, and that the Christians are thus more “wicked” than he is as a Jew for using religion to “preach” him out of his “possessions,” seeks to prove that he is wrongly discriminated against. His loss leads him to curse the officials who stole his goods, saying “I ban their souls to everlasting pains / and extreme tortures of the fiery deep / that thus have dealt with me in my distress” (I.ii.167-169). The basis for all his crimes, which lead to “everlasting pains,” is not, therefore, racial, but is more in retaliation for the way the officials “dealt” him his commercial or mercantile “distress.” Thus, Barabas divorces racial judgments from mercantile uprightness and, in doing so, works on the audience’s sensibilities—for, as members of the new merchant economy, they would do the same as he has done. By switching the mode of discourse from religious or national standards of judgment to commercial ones, Barabas changes the standard by which to judge character from the point of view of English identity. Power is no longer about who best falls in line with traditional identity, but about who best protects the dominant mercantile class and its interests.

    Within this newly established economic standard, Barabas seems to hold the most power because he best speaks the language of profit. He entices Lodowick, Ferneze’s son, to follow him to his house, for example, saying he has a “[diamond]. … I have one left that will serve your turn / (Aside) I mean my daughter,” but leaves the price of the object ambiguous, saying “(Aside) Your life an if you have it. —Oh, my lord, / We will not jar about the price; come to my house, and I / will give’t your honour— (Aside) with a vengeance” (II.iii.50-69). Barabas uses a mercantile metaphor here in describing his daughter as a “diamond,” an expensive commodity, and shows considerable dexterity as a merchant in not allowing Lodowick to “jar about the price” on the spot. Rather, he leads him to the house to “honour” him with a further look at the commodity, which will lead to the closure of the business deal. His discussion of the potential marriage of Lodowick and Abigail marriage as a primarily economic exchange illustrates his mastery of the language of profit. He further uses this language to gain personal power, because the promised commodity convinces Lodowick to follow Barabas to his house, where he will pay with his “life” for Barabas’s “vengeance” against those who created his financial ruin at the beginning of the play. Barabas’s asides to the audience reveal the extent to which his economic language is a mere facade, a tool he uses to gain his real desire, the restoration of his profit and power. His use of the language of profit therefore puts Barabas in a position of power within the new discourse of economic interests in English identity familiar to those in his audience who belong to the rising merchant class.

    As soon as Barabas uses his profit-making power to destroy the state of Malta, however, he reverts to being a foreign enemy in his audience’s eyes. After helping Christians and Turks by delivering Malta to Calymath while simultaneously promising Ferneze aid, Barabas explains that he allies himself with both indiscriminately because “loving neither, will I live with both, / Making a profit of my policy; / And he from whom my most advantage comes / shall be my friend. / … My policy detests prevention. / To what event my secret purpose drives, / I know; and they shall witness with their lives” (V.iii.111-123). His “policy” is “profit,” not the standard state-supported policy, and he is willing to align himself with whoever is most “advantageous” instead of with official ideology. This declaration of motive exhibits his mastery over the language of profit-as-power in its replacement of matters of official “policy” with his desire for wealth, and within the new standard of profit he should be best representing the interests of the Maltese/English identity as a merchant. The Maltese will lose their “lives,” however, as a result of his mercantile interests, and thus his gain in power comes at the expense of the well-being of the people whose identity he supposedly represents. He ceases to be a sympathetic character in the eyes of the audience because, while he flatters and supports their economic interests as merchants, he leaves their national identities as Englishmen vulnerable. His switch from sympathetic to unsympathetic character suggests that within this new discourse of profit-power, the switch in standard of judgment from state-sponsored cultural ideology to ability to attain wealth has not altered the inherent need for Englishmen to have their national identity supported. Barabas’s choice to sacrifice the protection of national identity in the interest of profit ultimately leaves the dual nature of the audience’s identity as English merchants unreconciled. The struggle between ideology and mercantilism remains unresolved.

    It is ultimately Ferneze who, as a state leader and an adept mercantilist mind, reconciles the two. Ferneze defeats Barabas in the end by entangling him in the trap he himself set for Calymath, because Ferneze will not “in pity of thy plaints or thee, / . . . base Jew, relent[.] / No, thus I’ll see thy treachery repaid” (V.v.71-73). By speaking of having political treachery “repaid” through vengeance to describe state or ideology-sponsored justice meted out to a foreign “Jew” whose “treachery” has harmed the national identity, Ferneze also masters the new standards of power based on profit and, in doing so, works toward the good of the state. He furthermore deploys this adept economic skill to use Barabas’s treachery to force Calymath’s father to “[make] good / The ruins done to Malta and to us, / . . . for Malta shall be freed / Or Selim ne’er return to Ottoman” (V.v.110-113). Again he uses the mercantile concept of making “good,” as in to make good on a financial agreement, to ensure that Malta’s state welfare is protected. In becoming “freed,” he defeats the “Ottoman,” the nation’s ideological or traditional enemy. Therefore, Ferneze ultimately unites the ideological and the mercantile in their support of English national identity by using the new language of mercantile interests as a standard of judgment to ensure ideological protection of English welfare.

    Marlowe’s drama has the definition of English identity at stake, and balances the competing mercantile and ideological concerns of its sixteenth-century English audience in its representation of Barabas’s simultaneous support and threat to national well-being. As a play, it effectively represents the emergence of the new cash economy that created the opportunity for its conception, and it subverts traditional standards of power protecting the English identity by acknowledging the new financial interests open to England, from which it establishes a new standard of power. Ferneze’s triumph as a merchant-savvy ruler nevertheless suggests that, ultimately, the surest way of securing a stable national identity is to use financial power to support and protect the ideological interests invested in that identity. Within the new structure of “profit-power,” it does not, therefore, leave behind the old concerns of English identity, but rather finds new ways of using mercantile interests to address and protect English well-being and national identity.

    1 According to Julia Lupton, Barabas’s description of himself in this scene matches traditional “generalized, anti-Jewish stereotypes” prevalent in Europe at this time (149).

    Works Cited

    • Burton, Jonathan. “Anglo-Ottoman Relations and the Image of the Turk in Tamburlaine.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 30:1 (2000): 125-156.
    • Hale, John. The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance. New York: Atheneum, 1994.
    • Lupton, Julia Reinhard. “The Jew of Malta.” The Cambridge Companion to Christopher Marlowe. Ed. Patrick Cheney. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 144-157.
    • Marlowe, Christopher. The Jew of Malta. Ed. David Bevington. New York: Manchester University Press, 1997.
    • Pye, Christopher. “The Theater, the Market, and the Subject of History.” ELH 61 (1994): 501-522.
    • Vitkus, Daniel. “Machiavellian Merchants: Italians, Jews, and Turks.” Turning Turk: English Theater and the Multicultural Mediterranean, 1570-1630. New York: Palgrave/MacMillan, 2003. 163-198.