Second speech of third scene (Act 2 Scene 1):
ABIGAIL: Now have I happily espied a time
To search the plank my father did appoint;
And here, behold, unseen, where I have found
The gold, the pearls, and jewels, which he hid.
I just loved this. Barabbas, the Jew of the title, is screwed out of his substantial property by the Christian rulers of Malta, and exacts revenge upon his enemies – at great personal cost, in particular as regards his own beautiful daughter Abigail. I paused after reading the first act, rather hoping that Barabbas would find some way of delivering his Christian oppressors into the hands of the Turks; well, without undue spoilers, I was more than satisfied by the way it ended.
Despite the grim subject matter (large numbers of violent deaths on and off the stage) there’s also a deadpan humour about it, and I felt Marlowe was satirising both the cliches of bloody revenge (which I think are accepted rather less sceptically in Tamburlaine) and the unquestioning anti-Semitism of his times – Barabbas does end up as a villain, sure, but it is very clearly the Christians who have pushed him into it through state-sanctioned theft and humiliation – and if any religious group is subjected to cliche, it is the monks and nuns who were of course a focus of fear and disgust in Marlowe’s England. Machiavelli introduces the play by saying, “I count religion but a childish toy”, and I don’t think that Marlowe is necessarily agreeing with him but I do think he is stressing that Christians can be every bit as evil as non-Christians (Machiavelli was also of course a tremendously loaded figure in Marlowe’s England).
I found Barabbas a better rounded character than Shylock, to whom he clearly is closely related. Of course the Merchant of Venice is probably better in the end – the plot is less linear and more interesting, the other characters apart from the lead better rounded out – but the dialogue between the two plays is more equal than I had realised. And Barabbas gets one of the best lines in the whole of Marlowe, brought up before a tribunal of Christian clerics and accused of all manner of sins:
FRIAR BARNARDINE. Thou hast committed–
BARABBAS. Fornication: but that was in another country;
And besides, the wench is dead.
I’d really love to see this, more perhaps than any other of Marlowe’s plays. I think the resonances with our own time could be played out in a way that would make an audience of today justifiably uncomfortable.