Theatre: The shock of the Jew

Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta was a palpable Elizabethan hit, but the Almeida's revival is something of a rarity. Is this barn- storming play amoral, a discomforting thriller or just downright anti- Semitic? By Carl Miller

It's no good coming second. Christopher Marlowe did, twice, and never recovered. In 1593 he had a fight with a man called Ingram Frizer, apparently over a bar bill. He lost, was stabbed in the head, and died in a Deptford back street at the age of 29. But fatal to his reputation is another reckoning. At almost any other point in history, Marlowe's early achievement as a playwright would have been second to none. As it is, he was rapidly eclipsed by a Stratford contemporary and has, ever since, been the second most important dramatist to be born in England in 1564.

The legacy of Shakespeare's victory over Marlowe is clear when considering the reputations of their most similar plays. Gold medallist Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice, first performance some time around 1597. A set text, performed worldwide, its characters and key speeches have become part of the cultural furniture. Silver medallist Marlowe wrote The Jew of Malta seven or eight years earlier. It was a hit in its first season and in many subsequent ones before it fell out of fashion. For four centuries hardly anyone read or saw the play. This week's revival at the Almeida dusts off a drama much maligned in comparison with its more famous successor.

Shakespeare certainly knew The Jew of Malta. Both plays feature a Jewish businessman who is a leading figure in a small Mediterranean community. His actions lead him into conflict with Christian authorities who punish him. Both Shylock and Marlowe's Barabas have young daughters who fall in love with Christian men and eventually run away, renouncing their faith.

Comparison between the two has always been at Marlowe's expense. He has been dismissed for caricature and crowd-pleasing hackwork, beside which Shakespeare's play shines. Since Auschwitz, critical comment has used Marlowe's play to defend Shakespeare against charges of anti-Semitism. Understandable anxiety that the Bard of Avon could have penned a play so much appreciated by the Nazis has led to many pages explaining exactly why Shakespeare could not have shared the prejudices of the society that he depicts. Shakespeare's philo-Semitism is supposed to become clear when you compare Shylock with Barabas. Marlowe's broad-brush portrait of a Jewish villain is said simply to reflect the crude prejudices of the rabble, while Shakespeare's delicate artistry transcends conventional attitudes to create a complex Jewish individual.

This is pretty much nonsense, but comforting to those who prefer their enjoyment of The Merchant untainted by queasy feelings that a play in which a Jew ends up humiliated and forcibly converted is perhaps not the promised "Comical History". Marlowe's play, meanwhile, in which Barabas ends up murdered by a device of his own making is, despite many laughs, rightly called a "Tragedy".

Few plays before Marlowe's feature Jewish characters, and no surviving play gives one such a central role. But his play dispenses with the more lurid myths about Jews circulating in Elizabethan England. Most were broadly abusive ideas from the stock repertoire of racism: that all Jewish men smelled, were effeminate and lascivious. Some argued the Scots were descended from Jews expelled from England. Even more fantastic notions went about: that Jews had tails and that adult males breast-fed and menstruated.

Barabas (and later Shylock) display none of these devilish attributes. But their portrayal is influenced by equally preposterous ideas of Jewish criminality. The conviction that Jews were driven to commit ritual murder survives in medieval tales of Hugh of Lincoln and William of Norwich. Local Jews were blamed for each boy's murder, and their story continued to be used for hundreds of years as justification for East Anglian pogroms.

Plays offered the only feasible public presentation of practising Jews in 16th century England. Discretion was essential for those Jews who did live there, given that their faith was illegal. The only ones who were likely to come to the notice of Marlowe's original audience were those who gained accidental notoriety. James Shapiro's book Shakespeare and the Jews presents examples like the Venetian, Marco Raphael who came to advise Henry VIII on Jewish divorce law while the King was considering his marital upheavals. A foreign ambassador sniped that Raphael "pretends to have been baptised some time ago".

A more pious spectacle than a play about a Jew was a public conversion. Shapiro quotes the case of Yehuda Menda, a Jewish Londoner who changed his name to Nathaniel and became a Christian at a baptism in 1577. John Foxe preached a sermon on that occasion in which he described Jews as having "intolerable scorpion-like savageness, so furiously boiling against the innocent infants of the Christian gentiles". Beside that, Shakespeare and Marlowe seem pretty easy going.

Best known of all London's 16th century Jews was Roderigo Lopez who lived there from 1559 having escaped the Portuguese Inquisition. Publicly committed to Christianity, he suffered the same suspicions as other converts, but became Queen Elizabeth's personal physician. The year after Marlowe's death, Lopez was implicated in a plot to murder the Queen and executed. Guilty or no, his Jewish background was used against him to support the charges of treason.

Much discussion went on about whether Jews were better or worse than Catholics, Muslims, or even Puritans whom anti-Catholic propagandists often vituperatively compared to Jews. Marlowe's Malta is run by the Knights of St John, a wealthy international order loyal to the Pope and here given to piracy, slave-trading and extortion. The island is full of monks and nuns who are targets for anti-Catholic abuse and are spared no insult in the play. These live alongside familiar underworld figures such as prostitutes, cut-throats, pickpockets and gullible apprentices.

There is no morality in Marlowe's Malta. Almost everyone subscribes to Barabas's philosophy of self-preservation: "For so I live, perish may all the world." Scheming, robbery and murder are undertaken by those of all faiths. Muslim, Jew and Christian are all comically repulsive. To stop his daughter giving away his secrets when she converts to Christianity and becomes a nun, Barabas poisons the entire nunnery with a pot of poisoned rice porridge. (Among the more zestful features of the play are its variations on the mechanics of mass murder.) As she perishes, the girl appeals to a passing friar and begs him to witness that she dies a Christian. The monk laments "and a virgin too" over her corpse, a missed opportunity which disappoints him greatly.

In The Jew of Malta and his other plays, Marlowe exploits the trappings of previous popular drama. Barabas is a version of the morality plays' "Vice" character, a personification of evil who lures mankind astray. Other sophistications of that archetype include Mephistopheles and Iago. Yet Mephistopheles has his Faustus and Iago his Othello, to tempt. Barabas seems to have no one.

Yet the clue to The Jew of Malta comes near the end when Barabas turns to the audience, as he has done throughout, for the last time, drawing them into his entirely material universe. What's on offer at the Almeida is funny, disturbing theatre of complicity. You must decide how much you are implicated. It's risky, but Marlowe never played safe.

From tomorrow at the Almeida, London N1 to 6 Nov, 0171-359 4404

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