“The Jew of Malta”: Asides and Machiavels (Harry Newman)

The entrance of Machiavel to deliver the prologue at the start of The Jew of Malta signals that Marlowe’s tragedy will be driven by Machiavellian characters, from the ruthless and cunning jew Barabas, who ‘favours’ or resembles Machiavel (Prologue.35), to the outwardly pious but equally shifty Governor Ferneze. Something that struck me during our reading is the importance of the aside to the Machiavellian spirit of the play and especially the construction of Barabas’ devilish yet strangely likable charaPaper Stage photo 1cter. Time and again Barabas speaks out of the hearing of other characters on stage, so that only the audience (and any other character he is scheming with) can hear what he’s really up to. ‘Please you to dine with me, sir,’ he says to the knavish Pilia-Borza, before adding ‘and you shall be most heartily poisoned’ (IV.iii.29-30). We’re privy to the inmost thoughts of the utmost villain, and yet it’s somehow satisfying to hear a character doing what we all do on a daily basis: supplement civilised public speech with private judgements and secret wishes that are better kept to ourselves (surely this isn’t just me). It’s difficult not to share in the pleasure Barabas takes from his plotting when he addresses us directly, privileging us over his unhearing victims: ‘Now tell me, worldlings, underneath the sun, / If greater falsehood ever has been done’ (V.v.50-1). Yes, Barabas, this worldling wants in (at least until you fall into that boiling cauldron).

Marlowe was crucial to the development of the aside (he influenced Shakespeare’s creation of double-tongued villains such as Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus and Iago in Othello), and it’s even been argued that performances of The Jew of Malta in the early 1590s ‘liberated’ the aside by energetically experimenting with its versatility as a theatrical technique.[1] In performance, the aside can be thing of beauty, and the skilful combination of gesture, timing, tone and volume is an art whose mastery has made the career of many a Shakespearean actor (it’s no coincidence that just before taking on the role of Frank Underwood in House of Cards, a tv drama with asides aplenty, Kevin Spacey starred on stage as Richard III). No doubt the aside was also essential to the success of Edward Alleyn, the actor who originally played Barabas and was famed for his Protean qualities of body and voice. A few months ago in Canterbury at the Marlowe Theatre, Fourth Monkey’s production of The Jew of Malta demonstrated how the humour of the aside can largely be achieved through creative physicality.

But how do you deliver an aside on the Paper Stage, where physical movement is limited, if not altogether unseen because readers/auditors have their eyes fixed on their text? Harry Heath’s touPaper Stage photo 4r de force as Barabas taught us how, and other readers followed suit, exploring ways in which vocal shifts could make up for a lack of visuals and movement. The scene in which Barabas outwardly rejects his daughter Abigail for joining a nunnery while secretly telling her where to look for their hidden jewels (I.ii.358-75) got some great laughs, with Harry speaking an exhausting 5 asides in 18 lines (better him than me). Readers of early publications of Renaissance plays wouldn’t necessarily have had been told which lines were spoken aside, making things even more difficult, although the first publication of The Jew of Malta in 1633 was unusual for including directions such as ‘aside to her’ and ‘Whispers to her’. Modern editors add handy instructions [usually in squarePaper Stage photo 2 brackets], although of course there are often debates as to what’s spoken aside and what’s not.

Ultimately I felt our play-reading revealed something about asides more emphatically than silent reading or stage performance ever could. It demonstrated how effectively the speaking voice can be manipulated to nuance character and open up new linguistic spaces which draw audiences into the action. I for one am keen to see how our readers tackle and respond to asides at future Paper Stage events, and to learn how different dramatists use them to achieve specific dramatic effects within and across different genres. We’ll soon be posting the details of our next reading, so keep an eye out: The Paper Stage will be back (with a vengeance!).

[1] Ruth Lunney, “Speaking to the Audience: Direct Address in the Plays of Marlowe and His Contemporaries”, Christopher Marlowe the Craftsman: Lives, Stage, and Page, ed. Sarah K. Scott and M. L. Stapleton (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010), pp. 117-122.


Marlowe and More? (Jordan Cook)

During the Paper Stage reading of Christopher Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, I discovered that reading along with a voice other than your own can open one’s eyes to concepts and ideas that might have been missed otherwise. I read Jew of Malta for one of my modules this year, and actually saw a performance of the play as well at the Marlowe theatre; however, it was at the Paper Stage reading where I think I got the most out of the play in one sitting.

The Machiavellian presence in the play is undeniable, and during my first reading of the play that was the concept I focused on when it came to political ideologies. Nonetheless, there is a particular sentence in the play that I had previously missed, and was just as easy to miss whilst passively observing the play. However, whilst both listening and reading during the Paper Stage I finally took notice.

BARABAS Tush, take not from me then,
For that is theft; and, if you rob me thus,
I must be forced to steal and compass more. (Jew of Malta, I. II.)

Upon noticing this phrase during the reading, I could not help but dwell on it: it brought to mind the ideologies of Thomas More in Book One to his Utopia. Barabas’ words echo those of Raphael Hythloday when he argues that the government punishes thieves too severely, and instead of helping the situation, they are in fact just forcing the criminals into no choice but to commit more crime.

For if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make thieves and then punish them. (Utopia, Thomas More)

Barabas’ words are just a few lines among many that illustrate how politically literate the play, and of course Christopher Marlowe himself, was at the time of composition. This particular example also demonstrates how cleverly Marlowe can subtly intertwine these political ideas within the plot, whilst simultaneously making the Machiavellian aspect so apparent through the prologue’s personification.

“The Jew of Malta”: Crimes, Courtesans and Confidence (Neelam Saredia)

For this month’s Paper Stage, we were reading Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, a play which heavily influenced Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. We read the latter when Paper Stage was a smaller, student-based group, and when we read Marlowe’s play, I remembered thinking, ‘Haven’t we done this before?’

The similarities are uncanny. For example, both plays were written in the 16th Century, and both the main characters are Jews (Barabas in Malta and Shylock in Venice) with treasured daughters- who eventually disobey them and turn to Christianity. The plays also share a fundamental anti-Semitism. The Jewish men are presented as stereotypically greedy and dislikeable characters that value wealth more than their families. They are always at odds with the morality of Christianity.

It makes you think, doesn’t it? The mentality of this particular slice of time; the superiority of Christianity over Judaism in these plays. As contemporary readers, could we perhaps see the justification in Barabas’ actions, instead of simply labelling his behaviour as ‘typical Jew’? He did have all his wealth unfairly stripped off him, to be fair. Perhaps he had been racially terrorised all his life, and this was the breaking point? Furthermore, his thirst for revenge leaves him blind, and he uses his daughter’s beauty to indirectly murder two people. However, he then directly murders a string of other people, and even poisons his daughter. Whilst completely unjustifiable, could these actions be understandable?

In Shakespeare’s Merchant, Shylock actually comments on this racist treatment with his famous ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ speech, where he brings up the hypocrisy of Christian revenge. He suggests that we are all human and all have the capacity to feel and for action. However, this is not as positive as it sounds, and he goes on to say that just as the Christian characters have behaved badly to him, he will follow suit.

Whilst portraying Shylock as another Jewish ‘moneylender’ stereotype, Shakespeare at least shows why Shylock hates the characters (such as Antonio); his hate is born from constant criticism and mockery. At the end of the play, he is forced to pay a fine and convert to Christianity.

These are the sorts of discussions that we’re left with at the end of a Paper Stage reading, and as an English student not studying Renaissance literature, I’ve found them to be invaluable. I believe Shakespeare was one of the most influential writers, and it’s interesting to see who and what inspired him.

I found I have learnt a lot about early modern play-writing by not just reading the plays in a single sitting, but by vocally performing them, as it was intended. In a reading I am often both male and female characters so it means I have to differentiate between the two by adapting my voice. It’s a little nerve-wracking at first, especially as for this week I was both the Governor’s son Don Lodowick, and the courtesan/whore Bellamira. Cue sultry voice change!

When I first started Paper Stage, I was very nervous to read out loud. I used to hold the tongues of my converse shoes and stutter over the words. Over the months, I’ve become more eager to read bigger parts, and I look forward to being able to project my voice. It has also made me more confident to read my poetry. This year I have come to identify myself as a spoken word poet, competed in the Gubenkian slam and hosted and performed in an open mic night/talent show.

I highly recommend everyone to come along and put themselves forward to read a part. I have never regretted reading, and I’d say it widens your understanding of a character. For a few hours, you have to become them. And remember, it’s okay to make mistakes; I said ‘purr-chase’ instead of ‘purchase’ in an Indian accent… twice!

No regrets!