marloweIsabel Gortazar at her desk in Spain.



Marlowe's real views on religion:




Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta has often been considered as an anti-Semitic play. However, the text of the Prologue narrated by Machevill, is as unambiguous a declaration of religious scepticism as we can find anywhere, and I would say that, almost by definition, someone who considers religion (in general) to be a childish toy cannot be anti-Semitic; cannot be anti-any specific religious creed in fact. According to Marlowe/Machevill, ignorance is the only sin in his book. That being the case, he would have abhorred anti-Semitism and any other form of blinkered fanaticism. This does not make him an atheist necessarily; if I may state the obvious, his argument in The Jew is clearly not against God, but against the hypocrisy of organized religions of all kinds.

This is what I will try to prove here and, while I am about it, I will also try to prove that Shake-speare’s Merchant of Venice, written several years later, contains basically the same message. But while Shylock’s bitter speeches have made audiences wriggle uncomfortably (perhaps guiltily) in their seats for generations, Marlowe was perhaps too young to convey the same subtle mixture of horror and pity when he created Barabas; he managed the horror, but not quite the pity. Nevertheless, his intention seems clear to me: The farcical atrocities committed by Barabas, the Jew, and Ithamore, the Moor, are a thin screen for the politically accepted atrocities committed by their Christian rulers. Though imperfect as the work of a young dramatist, Marlowe’s Jew of Malta presents, in my opinion, a surprisingly modern view of the moral and social issues it deals with, and it sheds new light on The Merchant of Venice and even Othello.

The Historical Background


I will begin by going over the historical background in The Jew, which, by the way, is very similar to the historical background in Othello; although some academics have suggested 1571 for the action in Othello,1 I believe we can place the action of both, Othello and The Jew within a maximum six years’ span, between the Great Siege of Malta in 1565 and the battle of Lepanto, in October 1571. In any case, Don Bosco’s speech (below) implies a date after Philip II’s accession to the throne of Spain in 1556.


In the 16th Century, Malta was a possession of the Spanish Hapsburgs, and so the Knights of St John of Jerusalem were there with their permission. In 1522 the Knights became homeless having lost Rhodes to the Turks. In 1530 the Emperor Charles V, who had inherited Spain, Naples, Sicily and Malta from his own grandparents Ferdinand and Isabella, was having great trouble keeping the Turks at bay in the Mediterranean, so he invited the Order of the Knights to settle down in Malta to help protect the area. The Knights were granted sovereignty over the island in exchange, apparently, for the token tribute of one falcon a year.2 So, in theory, the Knights’ right to be in the island was subject to a condition, even if a token one, and therefore an emissary from Philip II would have probably had the right to say, as D. Martin del Bosco does in The Jew, (Act II line 104):



My lord and king hath title to this isle
And he means quickly to expel you hence;
Therefore be ruled by me, and keep the gold;
I’ll write unto his majesty for aid,
And not depart until I see you free.3


Marlowe may have used this historical fact of a token tribute due by Malta to the Kings of Spain and Sicily, and changed it to a substantial money tribute due to the Turks, thus triggering off the action in The Jew. Whether or not Philip was intending to expel them at any time, the Knights stayed on, and Malta eventually became an independent state. But what the play is telling us, even if modern audiences do not perceive it, is that the Governor Ferneze and his officials were not just any Christians, but the Catholic Knights known to this day as the Knights of Malta. And this is one of the significant things about The Jew and the two Venetian plays by Shake-speare: that the Christians in all three plays are Roman Catholics, not Protestants, because Venice and Malta were Catholic states. Given the rejection of Catholicism in Elizabeth’s England, I don’t think we can overlook this fact when discussing the religious significance of these plays.

As for the last two lines in Don Bosco’s speech: in May 1571 Philip II decided to join the Holy League proposed by the Vatican and Venice, to put an end to the Turkish supremacy in the Mediterranean, and Don Bosco may be here promising help for Malta in the wake of such decision. A great Catholic Fleet was finally assembled in Messina, in September of that year. On 7th October 157144 the Battle of Lepanto ended with the destruction of the Turkish Fleet55. The leader of the Catholic Forces was Don Juan of Austria, bastard brother to King Philip II.66 One of the Catholic Commanders who distinguished himself in Lepanto was Alessandro Farnese (1545-1592), later Duke of Parma, and grandson to the Emperor Charles V. The name of Ferneze in The Jew is obviously a reference to Farnese, who in 1578 was to succeed Don Juan of Austria as Governor General of the Netherlands, where he nearly managed to put an end to the Protestant rebellion in 1585. As Queen Elizabeth was supporting the Flemish Protestants from the start of the rebellion, any Englishman even remotely interested in politics, would have known well the name of Farnese.

So Marlowe presents us with a man called Ferneze as Governor of a Spanish territory (Malta) that is at war with infidels (Muslims), to match the real Farnese, a Governor of another Spanish territory (The Netherlands/Flanders), also at war with infidels of another kind (Protestants). Moreover, Farnese, Duke of Parma, was the man supposed to invade England by land in 1588, at the head of the Spanish Army known as the Tercios de Flandes, while the Armada invaded by sea. Marlowe’s Dr Faustus in fact proposes to chase the Prince of Parma from our land, (Scene 1, 121). By giving the name of Ferneze to the Catholic Governor of Malta, Marlowe turns upside down the apparently, anti-Semitic message of The Jew. When The Jew of Malta was written probably in 1591-2, the name of Farnese would have been well known to any informed Englishman, let alone to a secret agent spying on Catholics, as it seems Marlowe had been doing since 1587.

Henslowe’s Diary7 presents The Jewe of Malltuse for the first time on 26 February 1591 Old Style. In the Gregorian Calendar Year, this would mean ten days later (7/8 Mars), 1592. It is also interesting to note that, at about this time, Lord Burghley was negotiating with Farnese the marriage of Arbella Stuart, presumptive heiress to the English throne, to Ranutio Farnese, eldest son of Alessandro. A similar marriage is being contemplated in the play. Alessandro Farnese died in December 1592 and the marriage negotiotiations ceased. But The Jew is not the only play in which Marlowe shows his concern about religion used as a tool in Power Politics, (Massacre at Paris is another clear case, in which, by the way, he unambiguously shows his opinion of fanatic Catholics).  In The Jew, Marlowe describes the distribution of power in the Mediterranean area, up to 1571, thus: the political power was controlled by the Catholics, the military (maritime) power was controlled by the Muslim Turks, and the money was in the hands of the Jews, (although, in fact, there would have been no Jews in Malta at this time, except as prisoners for ransom). In Othello (a Muslim by birth, though later converted), and The Merchant of Venice, we have exactly the same distribution of relative power, based on specific ability, described however by means of two different plays.

Apart from other parallelisms, we perceive that the Christian/Catholics in all three plays, The Jew, The Merchant and Othello, take for granted that all resources of Jews and Muslims should be at their, the Catholics’, disposal. So, when the Turks threaten Malta, the despised community of Jews is expected to give up their money to save the day; when Antonio needs money to please his young friend Bassanio, he has no scruples to borrow it from Shylock, a man he despises to the extreme of spitting on his face in public; and when the Isle of Cyprus is threatened by the Turks, Othello the Moor, a social outcast because he is black, is expected to put his military skills at the service of the Venetian Republic, rushing off to defend the island on his wedding night.

Both in The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice, the precarious balance in this triangle of power is upset by the Catholics’ arrogant improvidence and/or abuse of political supremacy. In both cases we are confronted with the tragedy of a Jew, brought about by a situation of palpable social injustice, in which two intelligent and greedy Jews, try to rebel and retaliate, but are unable to do so. Criminal madness ensues, and the Christian/Catholics are then justified in destroying them utterly.

What’s In A Name?

The names of the characters often give us important clues, both in Marlowe’s plays and in Shake-speare’s. The Biblical Barabas will always be a criminal for Christians: we don’t really know what were his crimes – the Gospels do not specify – but by using his name for a fictional character we are being sent a subliminal message to the effect that we may prejudge his moral standards even before he opens his mouth; by this simple trick Marlowe is cleverly confusing his audience (and the Censorship?). But so is Ithamore’s name significant (I’th-a-moor), and so is Ferneze’s, even if its historical significance has got blurred with time. The name of Alessandro Farnese, the Catholic Habsburg and officially England’s enemy, is the vital clue to Marlowe’s religious neutrality in the play.

I will not go into the names in Othello, as that would require a long article; I will only say here that the name Desdemona, or dis-daemonie means approximately out of her wits, an appropriate name for a “virtuous Venetian lady” who takes it into her head to marry a Moor. Giraldi Cinthio8 , the author of the source tale, blames Desdemona’s father for giving her such an un-auspicious name, thus leaving us in no doubt that the name had been chosen for its meaning. The source story does not give any names for the male characters, so it would be foolish to assume that Shake-spear took the trouble of inventing meaningless names for them; for example, Iago is the Spanish name for James and Saint Iago the Moorkiller is the Patron Saint of that Country, so I cannot believe that Iago could have been the name of the villain in The Moor of Venice, when it was presented at the Court of King James in November 1604, the year when the Peace Treaty was signed with Spain and James’ Court was full of Spaniards. 9

In The Merchant we have a few intriguing names, and there may be meaning I have not found so far, probable hidden in the name of Shylocke.  The name of Bassanio (basanite?) means touchstone10, appropriately for the man who will be able to choose the right metal casket. None of the known sources for The Merchant uses the name of Bassanio, the name is clearly Shake-speare’s invention; it does however require an author with a good knowledge of Greek.11

And, while we are looking at the use that Shake-spear made of Cinthio’s Hecatommithi, another of the tales, Epitia, was used as source for the plot of Measure for Measure, which was performed, as far as we know for the first time, on 26th December, also in 1604. So, while it is generally accepted that the two plays based on Cinthio belong to a relatively late period, the fact is that Shake-speare must have known Cinthio’s work well before that12 because, in Epitia’s tale, the heroine’s appeal to the Emperor Maximilian, pleading for mercy for her faithless husband –the Angelo in Measure for Measure- is obviously used by Shake-speare for Portia’s most famous speech on The Merchant, Act IV, 1, 181-202. This is Epitia’s speech:

It is, most sacred Majesty, no less praise for him who holds the government of the world as now your Majesty most worthily holds it, to exercise Clemency as to show Justice.  For whereas Justice shows that Vices are hateful and punishes them accordingly, Clemency makes a monarch most like to the immortal Gods."13 No English version of this story appeared before the eighteenth century, so Shake-speare would have had to read it in Italian or French. Nor was there an English translation of Sir Giovanni Fiorentino’s tale Il Pecorone (1558), another obvious source for The Merchant.

The Tragedy of Two Jews

So here is the anti-Semitic plot that Marlowe is supposed to have written a few years after the Spanish Armada: A particularly successful Jewish merchant in Malta is ruthlessly robbed of all his possessions, including his home, by the high-handed orders of a Catholic Governor bearing the name of Philip II’s cousin, a famous General and enemy of Elizabeth’s England. The Jew goes mad and is cruelly, if farcically, destroyed. A nameless Moor (I’th-a-more) is sold in slavery; another Moor, Calymath, is cheated and his crew massacred by that same Catholic Governor. Ferneze gets the money and triumphs over his hapless enemies with the help of a Spanish Vice Admiral. Well, if this plot, written by an Englishman around 1591/2, is anti-Semitic, I will have to eat my hat.

And now let’s look at The Merchant of Venice: Although, from the point of view of the audience, Antonio says all the right things and Shylock all the wrong ones, when we strip the plot to its bare essentials we get a bigoted Catholic who spits at Jews in public, never putting in question whether that is a Christian thing to do, or perhaps not quite. Despite his self-righteousness, Antonio’s obvious infatuation with young Bassanio clouds his judgement to the extent of asking Shylock for a loan. The fact that there would not be any lenders if there were no borrowers doesn’t seem to cross his mind, rather like those men who pay for sex while despising the whores. This is not an example of how a man may have to forsake his principles in extreme circumstances; there is nothing extreme about Antonio’s need for money, and it is tempting to argue that Antonio knew at the bottom of his heart that he was safe signing the bond, because, whatever happened, the Catholic rulers of Venice would close ranks with him, if needs be, finding a way to protect him, as they do, against an obnoxious Jew. The Roman name of Portia may be a clue to her role in the conspiracy. That Shylock had become murderous is certainly a justification for Portia and the Judges to find a means to stop him, but Antonio’s revenge shows him to be just as murderous as Shylock. It is particularly interesting that, at the end of play, having utterly destroyed his enemy, Antonio has not a shadow of doubt that he is in the right; in fact, he has learnt nothing, he regrets nothing. It is cleverly managed. In The Jew, for all its naiveté, it was also cleverly managed; both plays are masterpieces of equivocation.

As Machevill says in his Prologue to The Jew of Malta (lines 28-30):


(…) I come not, I,
To read a lecture here in Britain,
But to present the tragedy of a Jew, etc.

The tragedy of a Jew; that is what both plays are about. The parallels between The Jew and The Merchant are so striking that, in different circumstances, the identical authorship would be taken for granted allowing for the natural development of genius.14

It seems rather obvious, for example, that there is a wider literary gulf between Aaron the Moor (in Titus Andronicus) and Iago, than between Barabas and Aaron the Moor, while Aaron the Moor is the same character as Eleazar, Marlowe’s villain in The Lascivious Queen.1515 (also known as Lust’s Dominion). But Shake-speare’s “ borrowings” (as they have been described) from Marlowe, cover a wide range, as for example these lines in Romeo and Juliet:

But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east and Juliet is the sun!


But stay! What star shines yonder in the east?

The loadstar of my life, if Abigail.

(Really, Mr Shake-speare!)


While it appears that Shake-speare only “borrowed” from Marlowe, he did do that shamelessly and all the time. In Henry IV Part 1, for example, Act II, scene 4, line 109, (FF and 1Q) Prince Hal, at the end of a long speech, exclaims:



Rivo! says the drunkard.


This is a reference to Marlowe’s Jew, Act IV, in the scene where Ithamore, in the company of Bellamira and Pilia Borza is now drunk and shouts for more wine:



Hey, “Rivo Castiliano!”A man’s a man.16


Iago’s debt to Barabas as a character is so obvious that it needn’t be discussed; even Stratfordian critics, such as Harold Bloom,17 have accepted it, if dismissively. As for similarities in the secondary characters, Abigail and Jessica have similar roles, and Calymath, like Othello, seems a honourable Moor naively taken in by the perfidy of the others who, in both cases, happen to be Catholics.

Nevertheless, there is no denying that both in The Jew and The Merchant, we are introduced to two unlovely characters whose passion for riches and money overcomes all other affections. Their life seems to be dominated by their greed. Both Barabas and Shylock live with their daughters, who fall in love with Christians to the dismay of their fathers, who feel betrayed. These fathers, however, show us that they love their money more than they love their daughters:



My daughter! O my ducats! My daughter!
Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!
Justice, the law! My ducats and my daughter!    (Merchant, Act II-8-15/17)


O my girl,
My gold, my fortune, my felicity: (Jew, 688-689)

But Barabas’s conditional feelings for his daughter are made quite explicit by his reference to Iphigen:    


But one sole daughter, whom I hold as dear
As Agamemnon did his Iphigen; (Jew, 175-176)


From this moment we realize that Abigail -like Iphigen- will be sacrificed by her father.

But, however unattractive this overruling passion for money may appear to us, the proverbially Jewish characteristic of being very fond of, and clever with, money, does in no way signify that either Barabas or Shylock had come by their gains unlawfully. Money lending was legal for Jews, and despised by Christians, who nevertheless had no qualms about borrowing or claiming Jewish money when they needed it (in the case of The Merchant, for an obviously frivolous reason). For his part, Shylock clearly states in Act I, 3, line 87 that thrift is blessing if men steal it not. (By the way, after he has decided not to pay the tribute to Calymath, does Ferneze return the Jews' money?)

So Barabas, like Shylock, is a clever businessman, who dreams of infinite riches in a little room18: minimum storage-space combined with maximum possible assets. But, in the Prologue we are told not to mistake this cleverness for villainy. All these considerations are in no way meant to excuse Barabas who, after Act I, becomes a truly loathsome character. The use he makes of Abigail to trick the two young men into killing each other is performed in true Iago-like style. But he is not the only loathsome character in the play, and his sins, though more obvious, are not greater than the sins of others.

Although Barabas describes himself to Ithamore as an old-time villain one might argue that the Jew has gone mad and become a criminal out of rage and powerlessness. Bloom19 has suggested that Iago goes mad out of frustrated ambition when he is passed over for promotion. Barabas’ confession to Ithamore of terrible misdeeds is also a sign of his present madness. (His boast of having poisoned wells was Marlowe’s dart directed against the spy Richard Baines – a boutade for which he was to pay dearly). The scene (Act II, 298-349) where Barabas and Ithamore, boast to each other of past crimes due to their hatred to Christians, is a masterpiece described by T S Eliot as savage comic humour.20


Why, this is something: make account of me
As of thy fellow; we are villains both;
Both circumcised, we hate Christians both…


All the main characters in The Jew of Malta behave criminally. Barabas betrays and rails against both the Christians and the Muslims, and the Christians betray and rail against both the Muslims and the Jews. The explicit justification for that, in the play, is simply that they are, to each other, infidels. Most of the characters are corrupt in their different ways. Ferneze, Pilia Borza and Bellamira, who are Christians, are as bad as Barabas and Ithamore, who are not. They are as greedy and dishonest as are the Friars who try to secure Abigail’s dowry for the Church at any cost. The last scenes of The Jew are like a game of poker, with Ferneze keeping his wits and Barabas having lost his. Neither of them has the slightest qualm about murdering the entire Turkish crew, having invited them to dinner.21

Although all that is quite obvious throughout the play, the discrediting campaign against non-Christians had by now taken such root that perhaps nobody in the audience questioned the right of Ferneze first to confiscate the Jews’ possessions, then to cheat the Turks, and finally to keep the money and destroy both Barabas and the Turks. A truly Machiavellian achievement! In those days such procedure was expected in the world of Power Politics, and what is astonishing is the modernity of Marlowe’s obviously sarcastic view of it, using his superior knowledge of Catholic leaders’ names, such as Farnese, to hide his real message.

 Shake-speare creates a similar –if more subtle- situation in which audiences, to this day, do not question Antonio’s right to spit at Shylock’s face and then raise a loan from him. Nor is anybody shocked by the legal quibble by which he is cheated out of his, admittedly, criminal attempt, and then deprived of all his goods, as well as his livelihood and condemned to live in poverty and isolation for the rest of his life. Audiences hate Shylock because he is revengeful to the point of murder; in other words because he doesn’t “turn the other cheek” at Antonio’s insults. But the doctrine of turning the other cheek is a Christian doctrine, and it means nothing to Shylock, the Jew. On the other hand, none of the Catholics in either play turns the other cheek; Ferneze’s revenge on Barabas is ferocious; Antonio takes the trouble to appear merciful, but in fact his destruction of Shylock is just as complete as if he had sent him hurling down into a burning cauldron.

At the risk of digressing, I would like to point out a minor, but baffling, detail by which the confusing time-schedule so conspicuous in Othello (in which the Moor murders his bride for adultery within the first forty-eight hours of their marriage) occurs also in The Jew. In Act 2, lines 156-158, we are made to realize that Lodowick has not met Abigail yet.


I’ll seek him out and so insinuate,
That I may have a sight of Abigail,
For Don Mathias tells me she is fair.22

However, one month later, still in Act 2, (we know it is one month because of the truce period granted by the Turks), he is saying he has been in love with her for a long time: (Act II, lines 420-421)


Barabas, thou know’st I have loved thy daughter long.

And she has done you, even from a child.

We know Barabas is lying, so Lodowick’s line must be an error, or else, he is also lying as shamelessly as Barabas, in which case they both know the other one is lying (and they both know that the other one knows they know); if this were the case, this dialogue would be a cynical exchange of falsehoods, paving the way for their individual goals.

If this oddity in The Jew was perhaps carelessness on the part of Marlowe, the inconsistencies in the time-schedule of Othello cannot be due to carelessness, because Shake-spear had to introduce important alterations to the source story23 in order to create a time confusion that was not in this source. So, Marlowe may just have been careless, or he may have been showing that the Catholic Lodowick is as much a liar as Barabas, or he may have been doing a Shakespeare, using errors to create a time-warp for reasons that need to be explored.

Marlowe and Religion

In The Jew of Malta, we find a Prologue spoken by somebody calling himself Machevill. The mention of De Guise’s death precludes the possibility that Marlowe may be putting these words in the mouth of the historical Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), a Florentine, well known for his treatises on Power Politics. The Catholic French Duke De Guise was the arch-villain in Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris, a disgraceful event that occurred on 23rd August 1572. De Guise was murdered in 1588, so sixty-one years after Machiavelli’s death.


Albeit the world thinks Machiavel is dead,
Yet was his soul but flown beyond the Alps;
And now De Guise is dead has come from France,
To view this land, and frolic with his friends.

The Jew was probably written around 1591-2, so several years after the death of De Guise, an assassination that may have appeared justified to the author of The Massacre at Paris. However, I believe the Prologue must have been written shortly after February 1604, as it tells us clearly that this land where the narrator has come from France (meaning the Continent?) to frolic with his friends and to read a lecture is Britain, and one fails to understand in what way the death of the Duke De Guise could affect Machevill’s (whoever he is) chances of visiting England, one way or another. 

Therefore, since the author cannot be referring either to the real De Guise or to Machiavelli, I think this speech must be understood as a metaphor, a transparent reference to someone that everybody believes dead, but is alive and has come back from the Continent, to Britain. Which must mean that an English De Guise, whose presence prevented Machevill from visiting that country, had recently died. As the author of The Jew is Christopher Marlowe, the obvious candidate for this English De Guise is the fanatic Archbishop Whitgift who had persecuted him, so that, while Whitgift was still alive, it would have been impossible for Marlowe to visit Britain.

The author of the Prologue, Machevill- Marlowe, is therefore, making an explicit statement that he did not die in Deptford, that he lived somewhere in the Continent, and that after Whitgift died in 1604, he had returned to Britain.24 The Prologue is so explicit that it may be the reason why The Jew of Malta was not published until 1633. Lord Macaulay’s much quoted description of the Archbishop as a narrow, mean, tyrannical priest, who gained power by servility and adulation25, certainly makes him sound as awful as De Guise.

As I have said above, reading the Prologue of The Jew, even without the Ferneze clue, it is difficult to buy the widely accepted view that Marlowe was a prejudiced anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim reactionary. And yet, from the text of The Jew of Malta, someone as intelligent as Dame Frances Yates could extract the conclusion that he belongs to the contemporary mood of rigidity and reaction that was sweeping Europe.26 It seems Yates had never heard of Alessandro Farnese. My opinion, (pace Dame Frances), is that, on the contrary, Machevill is clearly telling us the author’s own views on Power Politics, based on the manipulation of people through religion:



I count religion but a childish toy,
And hold there is no sin but ignorance.

This is a Machiavellian view of religion as the plaything – the childish toy – given to the ignorant to ensure their obedience. Usually it is those in power who declare which is the true religion for the people under their jurisdiction. Individual religion, moreover, is generally determined by cultural background; consequently, the choice of one creed over another is, more often than not, devoid of real spiritual significance. In the two plays we are examining, this fact is stressed by the inconsistency with which the characters of different creeds abuse each other with identical arguments:


What! Bring you Scripture to confirm your wrongs? (Jew I-308)


The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. (Merchant, I-3-95)


So what is the message in The Jew and The Merchant? On and off during the Middle Ages, the three great cultures had coexisted amicably in different corners of Europe. From time to time bouts of fanatic feeling served as excuse a) for Muslims to invade Christian lands, b) for Christians to invade Muslim lands, c) for Christians to expel the Jews and/or Muslims from their lands, while considering themselves entitled to confiscate their goods.

England, for example, had expelled its Jews at the time of Edward I, and they were still banned at the time of Elizabeth with few exceptions; the horror story of the probably innocent Doctor Lopez is revealing enough..27 Spain had expelled all non-Christians in 1492.  And as for Italy, Shake-speare has left us ample evidence of the situation of Jews and Moors in Venice in the 16th/17th Centuries. Actually, in most European countries, all non-Christians, even when not actively persecuted, were often political scapegoats subject to unlimited taxation as well as unpunished vexations and insults. (Luther’s anti-Semitic diatribes, for example, are truly shocking.) 

Specifically in the Spanish territories of Malta and Sicily, the decree of expulsion was signed in Palermo in June 1492 by order of the Catholic King, Ferdinand of Aragon. The Jews had three months to leave the islands or else convert to Christianity and lose 45% of their possessions. One cannot but wonder whether the one half of their estates that Marlowe’s Jews in Malta are to hand over to Ferneze was a coincidence, or else the Author knew of the terms imposed on those Jews who remained in Spanish territories after 1492.28


First, the tribute-money of the Turks shall all be levied amongst the Jews, and each of them to pay one half of his estate. (Jew, Act 1, 265)/ Secondly, he that denies to pay shall straight become a Christian. (Jew, Act 1, 270)

In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock is spared his life on condition that he loses half of his goods to the State and the other half to Antonio until his, Shylock’s, death, and:


That for this favour,
He presently becomes a Christian. (Merchant, Act IV-1-387)

The result of this favour is not immediately obvious, but it corresponds to a dreadful reality; by becoming a Christian, and under Christian law, Shylock will no longer be allowed to lend money or continue with his usual line of business. He will also be expelled from the Jewish ghetto and obliged to live alone, rejected by Christians and Jews alike. Antonio’s revenge is tantamount to death. Shylock recognizes this, even if the audience doesn’t.


Nay, take my life and all! Pardon not that!
You take my house when you do take the prop
That doth sustain my house. You take my life
When you do take the means whereby I live. (Merchant, Act IV, 1, 371-374

The text of The Jew apparently pays lip service to the anti-infidel views that anyone would have been expected to support in Whitgift’s England. But the explicit Prologue pulls the plug on any such notion.  As in The Merchant later, The Jew depicts a reality in which Justice is contemplated only from the point of view of those in power. The budding genius of Kit Marlowe was already creating a series of stage-mirages, using the ignorance of prejudiced audiences to expose unpalatable truths. Shakes-peare was more experienced.

The message that I read in these two plays is a denunciation of a well-proven fact, to wit, that all crimes committed by the winners in any conflict, whether individual or social, are historically justified as proof of divine approval, while all crimes comitted by the losers, even in self-defence, are established as proof of villainy and divine dis-approval. The behaviour and ultimate fate of the different characters in The Jew and The Merchant seem to support the doctrine of Predestination, symbolized by victory due to divine support. The final, triumphant lines of Ferneze are very revealing:

So, march away; and let due praise be given
Neither to Fate nor Fortune, but to Heaven.

Here is praise for a manifestly unjust Heaven that has granted complete victory to a liar, a thief and a cheat. Ferneze is stressing the fact that his actions, having been sanctioned by Heaven, must have been right. In other words; you do not expect to be rewarded because you have behaved well; but you know you have behaved well when you find yourself being rewarded.29 Now let’s compare this with Henry V’s reaction after the victory in Agincourt:

King Henry V:

Come, go we in procession to the village.

And be it death proclaimed through our host

To boast of this or take the praise from God

Which is his only. (Act IV, 8, lines 112-116)


And here is praise to God for granting complete victory to an unprovoked invader who is moreover usurping the Crown he wears on his head. On the eve of the battle, King Henry is not praying for a just outcome, which he acknowledges he does not deserve:

King Henry V:

Not to-day, O Lord,

O, not to-day, think not upon the fault

My father made in compassing the crown Etc. (Act IV 1, lines 285-287)


He is praying for luck. And having had the luck to win the battle against all odds, King Hal squarely places on God both the merit and the responsibility for the outcome. His success is proof of his innocence. He was right to invade France after all, just as his father was right to usurp the Crown, otherwise God would not have allowed them to be successful. Shake-spear, like Marlowe, was well aware of this peculiar way of understanding Christianity.


© Isabel Gortázar. Spain. First version: September 2005. Revised and augmented, August 2012 



1 G. Bullough has argued that the action in Othello takes place in 1571, but that is unlikely. By 1571 the capital of Cyprus had already been taken by the Turks, and the rest of the island was under siege. Othello and Desdemona would have had to reach Famagusta crossing enemy lines. (Geoffrey Bullough, ed. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, London and New York 1957)


2 This gave way to the legend of the Maltese Falcon, according to which in 1539 the Knights sent their tribute in the form of a Golden Falcon encrusted with jewels. The ship carrying the precious Falcon was taken by pirates and lost.


3 Two different dates could have been meant for the action of The Jew, in which a Spanish Vice-Admiral might have tried to persuade the Spanish King to come in aid of Malta: a) In 1565, during the Great Siege, and b) After Cyprus had surrendered to the Ottomans in August 1571 and just before the Catholic Fleet assembled at Messina, in September.


4 As coinciences go, the 1Q Othello was entered on the SR on the previous day, 6th October 1621. On October 5th, Ben Jonson had been appointed Deputy Master of the Revels.


5 It was in this Battle that Miguel de Cervantes lost one arm.


6 A bell rings here reminding us of Much Ado About Nothing, a play that takes place in Messina, after a successful battle, with a D. Pedro de Aragon – the Kingdom to which Sicily and Malta were attached- and his bastard brother, John.


7 Philip Henslowe, owner of the Rose Theatre in London, where the Admiral's Men (later Nottinghams') performed their plays. Henslowe's son-in-law, Edward Alleyn, had a great success playing Barabas.


8 Giovanni Batista Giraldi, also known as Giraldi Cinthio, was the author of Hecatommithi, or The Hundred Tales, from which Shake-speare took the initial plot for The Moor of Venice and Othello which I believe to be two different plays based on the same story. In Cinthio’s tale the male characters have no names.


9 The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice was entered into the Stationer’s Register on October 6th 1621, five years after the death of William Shakespeare, and published for the first time in 1622, one year before the publication of the First Folio. No other new plays by William Shakespeare had been published between 1609 and 1622.


10 The touchstone is the stone that identifies gold from other, baser, metals.


11 Basanos (as defined in G. Liddell and R. Scott in A Greek-English Lexicon): 1. the touch-stone, Lat. Lapis Lydius, a dark-coloured stone on which pure gold, when rubbed, leaves a peculiar mark. 2. generally, a test, trial whether a thing be genuine or real.


12 As we know, a copy of Hecatommithi was found in the Coffre de Mr Le Doux, according to the Bacon Papers in the Lambeth Palace Archives. Therefore, the mysterious Mr le Doux, apparently an Agent to the Earl of Essex, might have had access to Cinthio’s work as early as 1595/6. (A.D. Wraight with the aid of Peter Farey's research): Shakespeare:New Evidence. Adam Hart Publishers, 1996). See the book and two essays concerning the discovery of these papers, one Peter Farey's the other mine, here:

Shakespeare New Evidence.


13 From Epitia, Decade 8, Tale 5 of G.B. Geraldi Cinthio’s Hecatommithi (1565), of which a French translation was made by Gabriel Chappuy (1584).


14 The Merchant of Venice was first entered into the Stationer’s Register on July 22nd, 1598; then again on October 28, 1600, by J Roberts who printed it that year, but there are scholars who argue that the play was finished before the summer of 1596, which would tally with the period when Mr Le Doux may have been reading Gli Hecatommithi; see note 9 above. I am indebted to Michael Frohnsdorff for the information on the possible date of composition of The Merchant.

15 The authorship of Lust’s Dominion has been contested because it contains a scene describing the death of Philip II, in 1598. However the play was eventually published with Marlowe’s name as author, and the style, generally, is unmistakeably his, if not in that particular scene. A play called The Spanish Moor’s Tragedy appears in Henslowe’s Diary on 13th February 1599/1600, therefore after King Philip’s death in 1598. Henslowe paid some money for (revising?) this play to Thomas Dekker and two others. I am indebted to Michael Frohnsdorff for bringing the play and its circumstances to my attention.


16 Rivo is probably a reference to a famous white wine of the town of Ribadavia, in the south of Galicia in Castille. Cervantes was also fond of Ribadavia wines. The word riva, from the Latin ripa, means riverside: French rive; Italian and Catalan riva; Spanish ribera.


17 Harold Bloom, The Invention of the Human, Riverhead Books, New York 1998

18 One of the acknowledged sources for The Merchant of Venice, The Three Ladies of London, assigned to Robert Wilson -1584-, contains the expression great rents upon little room which means Wilson’s play was probably also a source for The Jew.


19 Harold Bloom, op cit.


20 T S Eliot: Selected Essays, London 1951

21 We may compare this behaviour to Pompey’s, in Anthony and Cleopatra, when Menas proposes they should kill their adversaries while they are having dinner as guests in Pompey’s vessel. (Act II, 7, lines 70-3)


22 I wonder whether this may be a reference to the fact that Ranutio Farnese demanded a portrait of Arbella, (that I may have a sight of Abigail). The portrait was painted by Hilliard and paid for by Bess of Hardwick, Arbella’s grandmother, in the sumer of 1592,

23 Geraldo Cinthio: Gli Hecatommithi, Venice 1565


24 I personally believe he returned to England in the spring of 1603, at the time of the Queen’s death, but remained in hiding until after February, when the Archbishop died.


25 Lord Macaulay: Essay on Francis Bacon.


26 Frances Yates: The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age. Routledge Classics. London & New York. 2001.

27 Roderigo Lopez, a Portuguese Jew, was Queen Elizabeth’s trusted physician. In 1594, the Earl of Essex became convinced that Lopez was trying to poison the Queen by order of Philip II. Essex became paranoid on the matter, with no real evidence, and not even the Queen managed to spare Lopez who was hung, drawn and quartered, convicted of high treason. This is one of the darkest episodes in Essex’ life, and it is my impression that Marlowe was greatly upset by it. There are echoes of this tragedy of a Jew, in The Merchant, but also, I believe in Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Part One. Chapter 25. The tragedy of Lopez would have been known in Spain.


28 There are enough Spanish words and expressions in The Jew to persuade us that Marlowe had visited Spain before he wrote the play.


29 Giordano Bruno, the Italian philosopher whom Marlowe seems to have admired, insisted that the doctrine of Predestination was unacceptable because it frees the individual from responsibility for his actions. Bruno was interrogated by the Italian Inquisition on 30 May 1592, one year before Marlowe’s “death,” and burnt at the stake in 1600. Inevitably, rumour has it that someone else was burned in his stead, but there is no evidence of that, as far as I know. 




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