The Irony of Identity: Self and Imagination in the Drama of Christopher Marlowe

By Ian McAdam | Go to book overview

5
The Jew of Malta: The Failure of Carnal
Identity

As M. M. MAHOOD STATED OVER FORTY YEARS AGO, THE JEW OF Malta depicts a world which has cut itself off entirely from the transcendent,”1 yet the play contains a great density of biblical allusions. We can account for this discrepancy by accepting G. K. Hunter’s assessment that The Jew of Malta is, “apart from Faustus, the greatest ironic structure in Marlowe’s work.”2 However, as in Faustus, biblical parody in The Jew of Malta fails to reinforce orthodox Christian morality: the play does not expose the folly of attempting to establish a “carnal” rather than a “spiritual” identity so much as it explores the tragic failure to establish a very necessary “carnal” identity. Like Tamburlaine and Faustus, The Jew of Malta presents a case of distorted self-assertion. Barabas’s symbolic role as Antichrist does not pit him against a true Christian or Christ-like counterpart (an ideal that few characters in the play come close to embodying) but rather against those characters, most importantly Ferneze, who successfully operate within the limits of their natural and social selves. Barabas fails to establish a stable human identity for two reasons: in true Marlovian fashion he displays marked narcissistic behavior and therefore cannot accept the responsibility that is a concomitant of increased personal power, and, as an outsider, he is not supported in his selffashioning by society’s traditional values and beliefs. The Jew of Malta is, in fact, the first of Marlowe’s plays to explore in detail the problems of self-fashioning in a social context.

The meaning of the play is largely dependent on the text’s web of biblical allusions, which has been explored most recently by Sara Munson Deats in her article “Biblical Parody in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta: A Re-Examination.” More than previous commentators, Deats recognizes the problematic nature of many of these allusions, yet insists, sometimes it seems in opposition to the implications of her own examples, on ultimately orthodox

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