“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!

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