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Marlowe’s Machiavels and Malta’s Broken Markets

It is hard to think of a theorist more straw manned and vilified than Niccolò Machiavelli, though Adam Smith and Karl Marx might give him a run for his money. Machiavelli’s writings, published in 1532 Italy, quickly became the stuff of legend rather than legitimate political theory, spawning the great “stage machiavel,” in Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta.
Ironically, part of the reason Machiavelli’s writings make such good theater is his intentionally general approach to statecraft, designed as a practical guide to instruct politicians, not to intellectualize politics. Instead of over analyzing and “correct[ing], Machiavelli exhorts and adumbrates, oversimplifying, distorting even, to dramatize his points” (Raab 4). When further flattened, Machiavelli’s simplified political advice makes for easy theatrical fodder, generating dynamic villains whose singular drive for domination captivated audiences seeking bloodshed and terror. 
We could conceivably dismiss Marlowe’s machiavels as mere pandering to a bloodthirsty audience but his grim portrayal of self-interest as an inherent threat to the public sphere is harder to brush aside. Marlowe’s cynicism either speaks to his conservatism or a deep skepticism of humanity’s ability to cooperate and solve problems without authoritarian oversight. Although Marlowe’s Jew of Malta may have birthed the stage machiavel, it is difficult to find a single character who emulates the calculated pragmatism enshrined in Machiavelli’s writings. Instead, Marlowe’s characters, including Governor Ferneze, all pursue their own interests at the expense of the state, destabilizing Malta rather than maintaining political and social order. This misalignment of public and private interests, when coupled with Malta’s complete absence of legal process, renders social and economic exchange an impossibility in Marlowe’s Jew of Malta
Initially, Barabas’s inhuman violence throughout the play seems to validate Ben Jonson’s critique that Marlowe writes unnatural characters devoid of all humanity. To briefly summarize, Barabas’s crimes include: orchestrating his daughters’ suitors’ deaths; killing an entire convent including his own daughter with a pot of poisoned rice; strangling one Friar and framing the other for his murder (ensuring that both die); poisoning his corrupt slave Ithamore and his followers; faking his own death; and plotting the total destruction of Malta by aiding in the Turkish attack only to strike an agreement with Governor Ferneze to burn the Turks alive while Barabas hosts them for dinner. Malta is far from a stable society. Although Barabas's actions appear inhumane, when you peel away his violent theatrics, it’s obvious that his inhumanity derives from a profoundly human place – one of passion and abuse, not of logic.
Barabas’s passions are already present in Act 1, Scene 1 and need only be catalyzed by Governor Ferneze’s abuse in Scene 2. Barabas views himself as other from the beginning. In the first scene he immediately establishes an us and them dichotomy between the Christian majority and Jewish minority claiming “They say we are a scattered nation: / I cannot tell, but we have scambled up / More wealth by far than those that brag of faith . . . Ay, wealthier far than any Christian” King, who professes faith but exhibits none. (1.1.119-26). Lest we doubt Barabas’s portrayal of Christian politicians, Ferneze enters shortly after Barabas’s diatribe only to exhibit excessive pride and complete lack of justice. Having dodged taxes for ten years, Ferneze now has one month to find all the money and pay the Turks their political tribute. The governor’s solution is to steal from the Jews. Barabas questions the ethics and political wisdom of this decision, asking “Are strangers with your tribute to be taxed?” Barabas proposes that all citizens be taxed “equally” (1.2.59-62). Ferneze responds to Barabas’s earnest pursuit of just taxation with religious slander, retorting “No, Jew,” you will be taxed “like infidels. / For through our sufferance of your hateful lives, / Who stand accursèd in the sight of heaven, / These taxes and afflictions are befallen” (1.2.62-5). 
Unlike The Merchant of Venice where Shylock is consistently offered a choice between pursuing revenge or wealth (famously rejecting mercy and tying his own legal noose), Ferneze’s tyranny robs Barabas of any choice. When Barabas questions the ruling’s justice, Ferneze leaves no room for negotiation but tells Barabas to “Either pay that, or we shall seize on all” (1.2.90). Barabas quickly concedes and submits to the decree, telling Ferneze “stay, you shall have half, / Let me be used but as my brethren are” (1.2.91-2). The corrupt Ferneze responds “No Jew, thou hast denied the articles, / And now it cannot be recalled.” Barabas never denied Ferneze’s decree, but he doesn’t fight the Governor’s assessment and instead asks “Will you then steal my goods? / Is theft the grounds of your religion?” In a final plea, Barabas urges Ferneze to uphold the law by applying the tax according to the rules of his decree, by which all Jews must give half of their wealth, instead of stealing according to his whim. Barabas warns the Governor that should Ferneze “rob [him] thus, / [Barabas] must be forced to steal and compass more” (1.2.127-8). In response, the merciless governor turns Barabas’s house into a nunnery, depriving him of his “wealth, the labor of [his] life, / The comfort of [his] age, [his] children’s hope” and any shred of justice (1.2.150-2). 
Left with no legal means through which to pursue arbitration, Barabas works outside the law, enacting the only justice he sees possible in the form of unrestrained revenge. Unlike a true Machiavellian or profit-maximizer, Barabas spends most of the play – from 1.2 to 5.2 – acting against his own interests by inflicting violence in a way that is both unpolitical and unsustainable. The apparent irrationality of his actions is underscored by his knowledge, expressed in 1.1, that “nothing violent, / Oft have I heard tell, can be permanent” (1.1.131-2). Barabas says repeatedly in Act 1 that he only cares for “[him], [his] daughter, and [his] wealth” (1.1.152). Once stripped of these things, he loses his ability to pursue ends rationally. Faced with Ferneze’s lawlessness and robbed of his goods, his livelihood, and all legal recourse, his actions have no cost. 
Barabas’s extreme sense of loss catalyzes the reckless violence which dominates the play through Act 5. Though his actions make for dynamic drama, they bring little gain, generating neither personal nor public value. In The Jew of Malta, Marlowe creates a world where, instead of generating value, self-interest destroys welfare and erodes social stability. When we strip away the “enfant terrible” aspects of Marlowe’s showmanship, his plays betray a deep skepticism of society as an ecosystem of “mutual relationships and interdependencies” (Bawcutt 48). Trust and justice are the linchpins of a functioning society and economy. The ability to trust transactions arguably undergirds all human exchange whether social, economic, or political. Modern economists like Israel Kirzner have argued that the institutions “of a free and civilized society, in fact rely upon impersonal economic forces to transform a Hobbesian jungle into a stable and ordered system of law . . . These forces can only be relied upon provided a widely shared ethic already exists which firmly recognizes the ‘rightness’ of the property rights system and the corresponding ‘wrongness’ of theft and fraud” (Kirzner 392). In Malta, where the state is fraud, there can be no such recognized ethic. In Marlowe’s Hobbesian jungle with no shared morality, no law, and no empathy to restrain vice, selfless individuals are left vulnerable to attack. Indeed, Barabas’s one attempt to strike a deal with Ferneze turns fatal as the governor betrays him and boils him alive in a cauldron, ironically, built by Barabas himself. This is not a state that even Barabas wishes to be a part of. It speaks to Marlowe’s cynical view of man’s potential for cooperation, negotiation, and mutually beneficial exchange of any kind. 
SOURCES: Bawcutt, N.W. “Machiavelli and Marlowe’s ‘The Jew of Malta.’” Renaissance Drama, vol. 3, Jan. 1970, pp. 3-49. JSTOR Journals.

Kirzner, Israel Mayer. Reflections on Ethics, Freedom, Welfare Economics, Policy, and the Legacy of Austrian Economics. Edited by Peter Joseph Boettke and Frederic E. Sautet, Liberty Fund, 2018.

Marlowe, Christopher. The Jew of Malta. Doctor Faustus and Other Plays. Edited by David M. Bevington and Eric Rasmussen, Oxford University Press, 2008.

Raab, Felix. The English Face of Machiavelli: Studies in Political History. Routledge & K. Paul, 1964.