The portrayal of Jews in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta

Linda Misiura, ‘07

Christopher Marlowe wrote his play The Jew of Malta in 1594, just prior to the turn of the 17th century at a time when Jews were exiled from English society. This was nothing new, as Jews had been expelled from the country since the Middle Ages. William Shakespeare’s play followed soon after in 1596, causing many critics to think that the great playwright wrote The Merchant of Venice in order to capitalize on the success that Marlowe had found with his play about a Jew named Barabas. While the plots of the plays are not similar at all, the setting, themes, and the characters lend themselves to further comparison in order to discover whether Shakespeare was trying to refute Marlowe’s undeniably anti-Semitic play or simply write a play that would sell.

Research on this topic spreads wide, with critics arguing for both sides of the argument. Many dispute whether it is Shakespeare’s play or Marlowe’s that holds the anti-semitic tones. Other controversies arise when looking at how the Jew is used within the play—as someone to look down upon or as a balance to the hypocritical Christians in Italy. Evidence is in wide abundance for each side of the spectrum.

Both The Merchant of Venice and The Jew of Malta are set in Italy, as noted in their respective titles. It’s late in the 16th century and Jews are looked upon as money hoarders who will end up in hell because they do not believe that Christ is the Messiah. The Jews, in turn, view the Christians as hypocrites, which leads to Shylock’s speech in act 3, scene 1:

He hath disgrace me and rendered me half
A million, laughed at my losses, mocked my gains,
Scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my
Friends, heated mine enemies—and what’s his reason? I

Am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes, hath not a Jew hands…? (44-48)

If you prick us, do we not bleed? (53)

This speech allows the viewer to sympathize with the treatment of Shylock in society, though this pity is later lost when Shylock demands his pound of flesh from Antonio.

In each of the plays, one of the central characters is a Jew who has a beautiful daughter. In The Merchant of Venice it is Shylock and his daughter Jessica and in The Jew of Malta it is Barabas and his daughter Abigail. The two Jewish men are similar as they both deal with money, Shylock as a lender and Barabas as a merchant. They both reside in Italy and have stakes in ships that are at sea, Shylock through the money he has lent to Bassanio and Barabas through his own stock on ships.

Jo McMurty determined that Shylock and Barabas must have been derived from the same closed-minded stereotypes of Jews that existed at the time, which might explain the similarities between the two Jewish characters: “They arranged loans at high interest and exhorted payments from helpless victims. [Each also] had a beautiful Jewish daughter who wanted nothing more than to be rescued from her cultural fate by a handsome Christian” (147). Wilbur Sanders, in his book “Barabas and the Historical  Jew in Europe,” agrees with McMurty saying that the Jews in each of the plays were based on popular myths of Jews at the time that said Jews “were in the habit of stealing Christian children, crucifying them, and using their blood in the Passover ritual” (344). Both authors came to this conclusion because of the fact that Jews hadn’t been allowed in England for centuries, so stereotypes were the only thing the Marlowe and Shakespeare had to base their characters on. Because Shakespeare’s Shylock is so similar to Marlowe’s Barabas, it is conceivable that Shakespeare’s inspiration for the character came not from these stereotypes but from Marlowe’s work. Critics argue both ways.

Both men love their money more than anything, even their own daughters. When Jessica runs away with the Christian boy Lorenzo, Shylock is more worried and upset about his fortunes that she has taken than with the fact that he has lost a daughter. When he discovers that Jessica took some of his wealth with her, Shylock cries in act 3, scene 1:

Thousand ducats in that, and other precious, precious
Jewels. I would my daughter were dead at my foot and the
Jewels in her ear! Would she were hearsed at my foot and
The ducats in her coffin! (73-77)

Barabas too cares more for his money than for his daughter, forcing her to become a nun in order to retrieve some of his fortune from his old house. He is ecstatic when his daughter returns with his money in act 2, scene 1, and cries “O girl, O gold, O beauty, O bliss!” (54). Though he is excited to see his daughter, his gold seems to be more important than her. “O beauty, O bliss,” could refer to either his love of his daughter or his money, though the latter seems more fitting for his character. Barabas sacrifices Jessica a second time when he uses her beauty to play two men into killing each other to exact revenge on Ferneze who made him hand over his money and his house.

The theme of Judaism versus Christianity exists in each of the plays. In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock is shown as a grisly selfish Jew who refuses to take even double the money owed to him, instead demanding the flesh. He only becomes human when his own life is threatened, and even gives in and converts to Christianity to save his life, but only as a last resort. Shylock uses his religion prior to his conversion as a justification for asking for the flesh. In act 4, scene 1, Shylock rationalizes his asking for Antonio’s pound of flesh saying:

I have possessed your grace of what I purpose,
And by our holy Sabbath have I sworn
To have the due and forfeit of my bond (lines 35-37).


An oath, an oath, I have an oath in heaven.
Shall I lay perjury upon my soul?
No, not for Venice (lines 225-227).

But in comparison to Barabas’ murderous spree, Shylock’s demand for what is rightfully his by law seems relatively human (Rosenberg 21). Cary M. Mazer writes “Shylock is almost angelic compared to Barabas, the nun-poisoning title character of The Jew of Malta” (1). Shylock’s daughter runs away with a Christian man, another play between the religions, and Jessica never looks back. In The Jew of Malta, Barabas’ daughter also loves a Christian man, only her father tricks him and another into deuling each other to death. Barabas does not convert to Christianity as Shylock does, but he pretends to in order to distract the priests from his murderous doings. 

Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta is a play about a Jew and his daughter and the quest for greed. “Before Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice Christopher Marlowe had written a barbaric, anti-Semitic play called The Jew of Malta. It appealed to savagery and cruelty in a kind of bear-baiting way,” in the way that most people could at least partially justify some of Barabas’ murders by means of empathy (Nunn 1). The play focuses on Barabas as the main character, where one could argue that Portia, Antonio, or Bassanio are more who The Merchant of Venice revolves around. In this way, the story of the Jew who is forced to give up everything because he is a Jew is anti-semitic, while Shakespeare’s play can be viewed as a response to the hate of Jews. “This Jew of Malta is a deep-dyed bloody villain who gloats over gold” (Busak 1). We never feel too badly for the murderous Barabas who poisons nuns and murders priests, but there are some humanistic qualities that we see in Shylock at unexpected moments that make our hearts ache for him. At first the audience is compelled to hate the man who refuses to accept even double or triple the money owed to him in exchange for the pound of Antonio’s flesh. But when he is given nothing, his vulnerable side comes out and the fact that he is human, not that he is a Jew, is what matters. We are then able to feel sorry for a man who has lost everything--his money, his house, his daughter, his religion.

There is evidence that Shakespeare wrote the play simply because “Marlowe's play was a wild success, and its popularity may have been the reason why Shakespeare decided to write his own version of the tale” (Humphreys 1). The similar characters, setting, and plot all suggest that Shakespeare knew what would sell and produced something that would bring him money. Though there is certainly no shame in this, Shakespeare, the greatest playwright of all time, is not usually looked upon in this manner. Fortunately, the evidence is inconclusive because there are also many arguments for the other side, one being that Shakespeare was the greatest playwright of all time, a man who wrote great plays for enjoyment and because he had talent, with enough creativity mixed in to write play after play. It is feasible through his more likeable character of Shylock and the way that Shylock is portrayed more as a human and less as a Jew that Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice in response to The Jew of Malta as a kind of social justice to refute the blatant anti-semitism of Marlowe’s play.

Works Cited

An interview with Trevor Nunn. PBS. (1 November 2005).

Humphreys, Arthur.  "The Jew of Malta: The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice: Two Readings of Life." Drama for Students. Ed. Marie Rose Napierkowski. Vol. 13. Detroit: Gale, 1998. October 2003. 1 November 2005.

Marlowe, Christopher. “The Jew of Malta.” Ed. Richard W. Van Fossen. Lincoln, NE: Univeristy of Nebraska Press, 1964.

Mazer, Cary M. My Problem with Shylock. Penn Arts & Sciences: Department of English. 14 October, 2005.  (14, October, 2005).

McMurty, Jo. “Religious, Occupational, and Regional Stereotypes.” Understanding Shakespeare’s England: A Companion for the American Reader. Hamden, CT: Shoe String, 1989.  146-148.

Rosenberg, Edgar. “The Jew in Western Drama: An Essay and a Checklist.” New York: KTAV, 1970. 1-50.

Sanders, Wilbur. “Barabas and the Historical Jew in Europe.” The Dramatist and the Received Idea: Studies in the Plays of Marlowe and Shakespeare. New York: Cambridge UP, 1968. 339-51.

Shakespeare, William. “The Merchant of Venice.” The Necessary Shakespeare. Ed. David Bevington. New York: Pearson Longman, 2005. 74-112.

Von Busak, Richard. “The Quality of Mercy.” 2002. 1 November 2005.