Christopher Marlowe and Christian morality


Christopher Marlowe lived from 1564 to 1593.  Rather than examining his life, I’ll look at some of his literary output, which includes seven plays.

The plays

Dido, Queen of Carthage is based on Virgil’s Aeneid, Books I, II and IV.  Edward II, Tamburlaine Parts I and II and The Massacre at Paris are historically based.  Doctor Faustus is based on legends about a 16th century magician.  The Jew of Malta is loosely based on history – the Turks’ unsuccessful attempt to conquer the island in 1565.

None of these plays is a comedy.  The term “morality play” would fit most of them, insofar as they portray an ambitious, aspiring man, who achieves short-term goals but loses all and dies ignominiously in the end.

There are very few characters in these plays who evoke our sympathy: those who do include Queen Dido, Abigail (daughter of Barabas, the Jew of Malta), and Zenocrate (wife of Tamburlaine).  (All these ladies, moreover, die on stage.)

Some of the plays are seldom performed; but seeing the Royal Shakespeare’s 2015 production of The Jew of Malta has prompted me to put down some thoughts on issues raised by this play and two others by Marlowe.


For my reading, I have used: J B Steane’s Christopher Marlowe – The Complete Plays (Penguin, 1969), H J Oliver’s Dido Queen of Carthage and The Massacre at Paris (Revels Plays, 1968), and J R Siemen’s Jew of Malta (3rd edition, New Mermaids, 2009).


Marlowe has a keen eye for conflict between social groups, based purely on religious differences, where the more powerful group oppresses the less powerful one.

The Massacre at Paris

The play is set in late 16th century France, at the time of the wars of religion, in particular, the period from 1572 to 1589.  It portrays a series of incidents where Roman Catholics mercilessly slaughter Protestants (also called Huguenots).  The Catholics are led by members of the royal family, especially the prominent and ambitious Duke of Guise.

The Duke vows: “There shall not a Huguenot breathe in France”; and he proceeds to carry out this threat with alacrity.  He overreaches himself and is murdered, on the orders of King Henry III.  Finally, Henry himself is assassinated: with his dying breath he names Henry King of Navarre (a Protestant) as his successor.

The play may seem to favour Protestantism, but mainly it can be seen as an attack on religious fanaticism.

Tamburlaine Parts I and II

This pair of plays dramatises the battles and conquests of Tamburlaine (Timur Lenk), the usurping King of Persia, in the late 14th century.

In the subplot of Part II, Orcanes, Emperor of Natolia (Anatolia, Turkey), makes peace with Sigismund, King of Hungary, his enemy, in the context of the threat from the east of the all-conquering Tamburlaine.  They both swear to keep their truce “inviolable”.

However, Sigismund and his allies soon decide to break the agreement, on the grounds that the Muslims are “infidels”, that treaties with them are not binding on Christians, and that, as the Turks are now turning round to face Tamburlaine, an opportunity presents itself to attack them.

The furious Orcanes tears up the articles of peace; battle is joined; the Christians are defeated.  Sigismund dies of his wounds, belatedly expressing regret for his “accurs’d and hateful perjury”.

This subplot can be seen as conveying the playwright’s condemnation of religious prejudice and the use of such differences to justify treachery.

The Jew of Malta

When this play was first published, in 1633, it was called The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta.  It is a tragedy, indeed, for the many characters who lose their lives.  It can be categorised as one or more of these: a savage farce or a morality play or a revenge play.

Barabas, the Jew of the title, is a successful ship-owner and trader, who loves his wealth (“Infinite riches in a little room”).  As for people, he is concerned only about himself and his daughter, Abigail.  It matters little to him that the Knights of St John of Jerusalem rule over Malta, so long as a stable peace permits the carrying on of business.

The spring that sets the play in motion is the arrival of a Turkish embassy in Malta, demanding payment of arrears of tribute.  Ferneze, the Governor, states that the Christians of the island do not have the resources to pay up, so he looks to the local Jews (and especially Barabas) to supply the necessary funds.  He adds insult to injury: he denigrates the Jews, calling them “infidels” and “accursèd in the sight of heaven”.  He implies that the Turks’ demand for tribute is divine punishment for the authorities’ toleration of the Jews.  Barabas argues back, eloquently, but to no avail.  For his pains, he is dispossessed of his house and of his wealth (apart from the part that is hidden).  He curses his tormentors and plans his revenge.

The political leadership not only picks on a defenceless minority community, it also permits the operation of a slave market.  So another defenceless group is made to suffer.

The religious men – two friars, Jacomo and Bernadine – are little better.  Each hopes that his own order will benefit from hearing Barabas’s confession of his sins and from baptising him as a Christian (never carried out, in the event).  The editor J R Siemon comments: “The thrust of the passage is that each friar naively believes himself in favour with Barabas and, hence, in line for his wealth” (page 88).

And when Abigail utters her dying words – “Witness that I die a Christian” – Bernardine comments: “Ay, and a virgin too, that grieves me the most” (Act 3 Scene 6, 40f).

Barabas himself is transformed from a self-serving accumulator of wealth into a ruthless, boastful murderer.  He is involved, directly or indirectly, in various deaths – of the blameworthy and the innocent (including his own daughter).  Eventually, overreaching himself, he is caught in a trap of his own making and dies, hoist on his own petard.

A parallel with Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is this: Barabas and Shylock are the only Jewish men that feature prominently, as the others are minor characters.  (Their daughters are unlike them.)  Their misdeeds are their own and not those of the Jews in general.  This point is relevant to a discussion of signs of anti-Semitism in either play.

The Christians, then, do not come out of this story at all well.  The Turks – albeit briefly sketched – come out better.  The Jewish men, other than Barabas himself, are given little to say or do.  And Abigail is a sympathetic character.


The Jew of Malta is a savage farce, on the basis of (a) the series of Barabas’s cunning stratagems and (b) his witty running commentary upon them.  It is a morality play, ie about moral living, with the twist that both moral and immoral people are vulnerable to the leading character’s plots.  It is also a revenge play, as Barabas is a self-avenger, who (a) retaliates against those he perceives as enemies and (b) dies himself in the end.  (Compare Kyd’s Hieronimo, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Middleton’s Vindice.)

Marlowe gives us an object lesson in the nature of discrimination and oppression, and the consequences.

Whatever our differences, we should all be humane.

David Harries

May 2015




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