. . .

The Terrorist of Malta, Part I

(Also at The Valve, with comments)

"Another Country: Marlowe and the Go-Between" by Richard Wilson,
Renaissance Go-Betweens: Cultural Exchange in Early Modern Europe,
ed. Andreas Höfele & Werner von Koppenfels

I first read The Jew of Malta as shallow trash at about the level of The Abominable Dr. Phibes, with hand-waving taken care of by anti-Semitism in lieu of horror conventions.

Richard Wilson read it as a torn-from-tomorrow's-broadsides thriller, fueled by insider knowledge of London's hottest political and economic issues.

In my reading, Marlowe's Malta was as flat a backdrop as Shakespeare's Verona, the temporary alliance of "Christian" and "Turk" was pure plot convenience, and the long-winded wheeling-dealing of Barabas made a poor verbal substitute for the wallows and dives of Uncle Scrooge's vault.

In Wilson's reading, these desiccated passages reincarnadine.

* * *

The play's first scene describes an economic revolution. Shifting the plunder of the New World eastward had become immensely more profitable than the traditional markets for European goods. Between English ships and that Mediterranean trade stood the island of Malta.

Maltese affairs were subject to intense speculation in the City, with proposals for a conglomerate combining the Venice and Turkey merchants into one consolidated Levant Company. In effect a takeover by the Turkey Company, this merger laid the foundation for the mighty East India combination of 1599.... When launched in January 1592 [a month before The Jew of Malta's first known performance], the Levant Company remained, Brenner notes, 'a highly ramified network of interlocking families,' dominated by Walsingham, who together 'drove a trade worth more than £100,000 a year,' a colossal return.
- Richard Wilson, "Another Country"

Members of the Marrano intelligence network and David Passi, a Jewish-Italian quintuple agent, played key roles in Anglo-Turkish conspiracies against Malta's Catholic rulers.

... the great game hinged, as Edward Barton, the Turkey Company agent, wrote from Istanbul in 1589, on bribes: 'It would cost no more than the setting forth of three of Her Majesty's ships, for all are well-affectioned here and could easily be bought. The sum need not be so great nor so openly spent as to allow the Papists to accuse Her Majesty of hiring the Turk to endamage Christendom.' The state papers covering this Anglo-Ottoman conspiracy were only fully published in 2000; but they reveal the cash nexus connecting the Turkish military, via 'the very knave' Passi, with ministers in London. ... With £20000, which he would 'distribute so secretly no suspicion would be aroused,' he promised to 'do Her Majesty more good and Spain more harm than she could with infinite expense, and save many an English life.' No wonder the Turkish generals complained that 'this expedition, to send the monks of Malta to the Seraglio, is calculated more by a merchant than by a prince.'
- "Another Country"

As Barton worried, lucrative or not, this wouldn't make good propaganda. At the same time that religion was providing a pretext for a Dutch alliance and the Anglo-Spanish War, English policy-and-profit makers were going after the Ottoman market so furiously that the Sultan is reported to have said they "wanted only circumcision to make themselves Muslims."

Elizabeth's spymaster, Francis Walsingham, took the moral low ground: "If any man take exception against our new trade with Turks and misbelievers, he shall show himself a man of small experience in old and new histories." A weak argument, especially given the extent to which this "new trade" was devoted to arming the infidel, exchanging munitions (and their raw materials) "for their weight in gold."

* * *

I've seen critical "appreciations" of The Jew of Malta run the gamut from half-hearted to disingenuous. Seemingly motivated more by Marlowe's canonicity than by the play itself, they discard the text in favor of unprovable but more savory subtexts.

The tradition continues in this assured online piece by Lisa Hopkins. The play's "often been accused of being anti-semitic. Surely, though, the point is that everything Barabas does is either learned from Christians or Turks in the first place, or promptly imitated by them."

Well, no. Barabas himself describes his people as cunning, canine, and miserly by nature.

And no. Christian leader Ferneze and Turkish leader Calymath didn't poison wells, slaughter the sick, murder their only child, or blow up a monastery. Since greed, hypocrisy, and slave-trading are practiced and suffered in common between Christian, Turk, and Jew, only such super-villainy could justify the denouement about which Hopkins asserts "there is no real suggestion that this is divine retribution."

In fact, the script's last words are "let due praise be given / Neither to Fate nor Fortune, but to Heaven." Hopkins's reasonable-sounding (and, as I say, not at all eccentric) interpretation doesn't even recognize the bulk of the play and the closing lines as suggestive.

If Marlowe was counting on such X-ray insight from listeners and readers, I'm afraid his ghost suffered centuries of disappointment. Ernst Stavro Blofeld is admirably resourceful, James Bond is vicious and hedonistic, but audiences don't do a lot of soul-searching over the fineness of the distinction.

* * *

One difference between these readings is what's been read. Traditional critics and the younger me restricted ourselves to the canonically literary, whereas Wilson read other things too.

Another difference is that one reading is thin and dull while the other is richly convincing.

... to be continued ...

. . .

The Terrorist of Malta, Part II

(Also at The Valve)

And so if I knew someone who was going to read The Jew of Malta or make other people read it, I would recommend "Another Country" to them. (Or more likely give them a copy.)

Without wanting to denigrate (or re-trace) Wilson's hard work in the archives, I would also mention a few problems.

The essay's chronology is hodge-podged, sometimes to the point of incoherence: it uses the single name "Walsingham" to refer to Francis Walsingham (who wrote the position paper quoted above, and who died in 1590), to a chief investor in the Levant Company (formed in 1592), and to Thomas Walsingham (a younger relative, and Marlowe's patron). Also, unnecessary stress is put on an uncertainly placed line. 1

Well, that second issue is trivial, and the first is minor enough.

Oddly, though, Wilson shares with his art-for-author's-sake precursors a compulsion to deny the play's explicit attacks on Judaism. The Chewbacca Defense is employed.

All of these points are interesting, and they all seem enticingly germane. But none of them deal with the actual evidence of the play.

They don't eliminate or excuse Marlowe's utilization of prejudice. Instead, they emphasize its hypocrisy. Wilson's defense has taken a regrettable matter of fact which only needed brief acknowledgment and made it a problem to be solved.

1 Wilson assumes that the "lofty turrets that command the town" were demolished in the Turkish attack on Malta. There's plenty of reason to suspect what we nowadays call a cut-and-paste error in in the Quarto at line 10:

Thus have we view'd the city, seen the sack,
And caus'd the ruins to be new-repair'd,
Which with our bombards' shot and basilisk
We rent in sunder at our entry:
And, now I see the situation,
And how secure this conquer'd island stands,
Environ'd with the Mediterranean sea,
Strong-countermin'd with other petty isles,
And, toward Calabria, back'd by Sicily,
Two lofty turrets that command the town.
When Syracusian Dionysius reign'd;
I wonder how it could be conquer'd thus.

But its most recent transplantation to line 5 seems just as awkward and not very sensible. Having taken the city by strategem, the new owner would have more reason to maintain its towers than to destroy them.

... to be continued ...

. . .

The Terrorist of Malta, Part III

(Also at The Valve, with long comments)

No government which executed so many citizens could be called "limited," but Elizabethan England was certainly privatized: Constantinople's "British ambassadors" were directly employed by the Levant Company. Government's role was to coordinate espionage networks, corporal punishment, military action, proclamations of religious intent, spectacular patronage, and highly profitable monopolies by and for the benefit of the powerful few. Delivering arms to yesterday's or tomorrow's enemy helped finance the looting of today's. Power was centralized and capricious, the middle class kept in line by a mix of fear and feverish speculation. Life was spent in display and exited in debt. Expressions of charity, unlike professions of faith, were left strictly to the individual conscience; long-lived consciences learned to be flexible in their professions.

Marlowe's play fantastically alters a siege that took place the year after his birth. Obviously, some alterations were part of his job as a playwright with a scene-chewer to feed. Speculatively, some were due to religious-economic war with Catholic empires and Anglo-Turkish conspiracies against Malta.

Given these backgrounds, what strikes me about the play isn't its cynicism, or its plea for tolerance, delivered by neo-con Machiavelli himself:

I crave but this,— grace him as he deserves,
And let him not be entertain'd the worse
Because he favours me.

What strikes me is who's been added and who are missing.

The addition, of course, is Barabas.

In Marlowe's alternative history, Barabas gives the Maltese governor the trifecta of his dreams: Barabas provides an excuse for the governor to steal all his possessions, purportedly to pay off an urgent debt which is then reneged on; Barabas blocks an embarrassing interfaith marriage between the two families; Barabas delivers a valuable hostage into the governor's hands and is then neatly deposited down his own trapdoor.

In Marlowe's real history, there existed Jewish (or quasi-Jewish) agents who played all sides against each other. But it was a thoroughly British relative of Marlowe's own Lord Strange who engineered the time's most Barabas-worthy betrayal. And the English (like the Maltese) managed to eke out some profit through these wicked middlemen before discarding or slaughtering them.

Who're missing are the English.

Absent Protestant characters, the play's taken-for-granted pro-Christianity and its boisterous anti-Catholicism clash scene by scene. On the one hand, the Jew's daughter assuredly gains redemption by joining a convent and the Maltese victory is thanks "to Heaven"; on the other, the monks are money-grubbers and the nuns are whores. In Wilson's formula, Barabas somehow stands for the English point of view and yet the governor of Malta is clearly meant to be cheered by the English audience and yet the Catholic Maltese were (in Wilson's theory) Marlowe's patrons' chief targets.

Such awkwardness has its uses.

Since the Christian governor cheats Turk and Jew twice over, when Barabas advances arguments like:

Thus, loving neither, will I live with both,
Making a profit of my policy;
And he from whom my most advantage comes,
Shall be my friend.
This is the life we Jews are us'd to lead;
And reason too, for Christians do the like.


It's no sin to deceive a Christian;
For they themselves hold it a principle,
Faith is not to be held with heretics:
But all are heretics that are not Jews....

No one disputes his points. Instead, they bring up less ambiguous issues, such as his people having been cursed by God, or his having poisoned a nunnery. In doing so, they've been relieved of the responsibility of making his arguments themselves. They reap the benefits of tacit agreement while avoiding the danger of overt advocacy.

By having the Jewish villain espouse doing business with heretics, Marlowe avoids the propaganda problem that worried Edward Barton. By having the Jewish villain commit such horrendous crimes, Marlowe insinuates by contrast that doing business with heretics isn't so heinous.

These "love the sin but hate the sinner" narratives are familiar enough. We're titillated; we condemn; all's well.

Sometimes such narratives smuggle out otherwise uncommunicable signals. It's Snowflake's Choice: a narrative which dehumanizes or no narrative at all. The envelope cuts both the sender and the recipient; the envelope may even be poisoned; still, the urge to communicate finds outlet.

But Marlowe apologists should limit their liberatory claims. No gaybasher was ever stricken by remorse at the memory of the insane killer in Laura. And Marlowe's choice of a Jewish scapegoat for capitalist sins doesn't undo medieval anti-Semitism or Counter-Reformation anti-Semitism so much as anticipate nineteenth and twentieth century anti-Semitism.

Similarly, the play's Christian-and/or-Catholic awkwardness reminds me of the awkwardness a later generation of privatizing profiteers faced while constructing a "Judeo-Christian" pseudo-identity which permitted relations with "good" (that is, profitable) non-Judeo-Christians, at least until such heretics could be cut out of the picture....

And the play's solution isn't far from theirs: Justify a war for profit as a war on terror.

* * *

I began this essay in an approved New Critical monogamous literary relationship: individual reader and individual work, in bed alone with the covers drawn up. Maybe spiced a bit mendaciously by fantasies about the author. All very legitimate and, in this instance, very unsatisfying.

By opening our sheets to encompass the work's political and economic context, vague background texture snapped into vibrant focus. The relationship became intriguing.

And problematic.

Well, that's my problem, not Marlowe's. And so to solve it I had to broaden the scope again, to my own to the reader's political and economic context.

In doing so, although I strayed from what might be called "appreciation", I don't think I dragged in arbitrary matter. The extent to which The Jew of Malta is depiction, indirection, prediction, or coincidence is unascertainable, but Marlowe himself opened this purse of worms. His play becomes more interesting when politically contextualized because his play was to some unknown degree a political act not only a depiction of Realpolitik but an example of it.

* * *

Some time ago CultRev requested "brief statements about what we think the role of politics in the study of literature might be." This one wasn't very brief, I'm afraid. Particulars are my statement, and particulars take a while.

Thanks to some gruesome reaction of genetics and environment, I'm an unapologetic aesthete. (OK, I apologize sometimes, but it doesn't do much good.) Art is central to my metaphysics, ethics, and even (shamefully) my politics. It's the lightbulb the world revolves around.

However, I revolve with the world. To an absurd extent, my essay on Lubitsch's final movie and my edition of The Witlings were prompted by last autumn's American elections. In the case at hand, if I'd wanted to write about shallow trash on purely aesthetic grounds, I would've chosen John Marston, the English Renaissance Trey Parker.

And the light's not confined to the bulb. "Politics" can clarify what would otherwise remain obscure, solve puzzles or remove the blinders of arrogance. If we ask readers to imaginatively ally themselves with those heroic canonical authors, why not promote imaginative alliances with their circumstances? If it's not cheating "literary value" when we explain The Jew of Malta's vocabulary or the conventions of blank verse, or when we treat a haphazardly published assortment of poems and commercial scripts as evidence from which to deduce a fascinatingly singular Marlovian mind, how could anyone protest when we explore the political and economic conflicts at the dirty heart and fingertips of the play? If students bitch about Jane Austen's lack of interest in colonial injustice, we might remind them of their baggy jeans' provenance. If they snub Thomas Jefferson, we might point out the profitability of their state's prison system.

There are other roles for "politics", I know maybe I've been displaying them myself; you tell me bulking up one's blinders, deploying righteousness as an ornamental shield for ignorance....

I just don't think they're as useful in the study of literature.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.