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Monday, September 05, 2005

The Terrorist of Malta, Part I

Posted by Ray Davis on 09/05/05 at 03:46 PM

"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 accept 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.


Comments

Marlowe’s work appeared during one of history’s dramatic transformations. I’m motivated to get his stuff and read it all. Tamburlaine and Doctor Faustus, literary qualities aside, touch on interesting historical episodes too.

By John Emerson on 09/06/05 at 01:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I know it’s not a very PoMo stance but in the world of us readers (and writers) there’s a good reason Shakespeare is still considdered The Bard while Kit Marlow is a litterary footnote.

By Keith on 09/06/05 at 04:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Not being as good as Shakespeare isn’t exactly failure. I’ve always thought that Marlowe deserved more attention that he gets. “Litterary footnote”—I wouldn’t express it that way.

By John Emerson on 09/06/05 at 04:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

[No spoilers, hurrah!]

I love a lot of Marlowe, but as a period writer he means not nearly as much to me as Nashe, Spenser, Sidney, Campion, Bacon, or (newly) Marston.

Shakespeare doesn’t replace any of ‘em. Luckily, we aren’t all fighting for room in a lifeboat.

By Ray Davis on 09/06/05 at 11:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A few more thoughts, in no particular order:

I agree with John Emerson: it is strange to call Marlowe a literary footnote.  He is one of the greatest playwrights in the language, and I don’t think there has been one of equivalent stature since the seventeenth century.  And I think one can also argue pretty convincingly that he was the best English playwright BEFORE Shakespeare.  Marlowe transformed the language of drama, and without his innovations, Shakespeare might have been a weaker artist.

Marlowe was far more anti-Christian than he was anti-Semitic. He had an instinctive distrust of institutions and rules, like, say, Rimbaud.  As Groucho Marx sang, “Whatever it is, I’m against it, I’m against it.” Lisa Hopkins points out that there is one virtuous character in the play, and she is Jewish.  For an Elizabethan, Marlowe is shockingly positive about at least some Jews and Muslims.

Is freedom from prejudice really a meaningful criterion of esthetic value?  I am Jewish, and I still appreciate Celine’s work.

By on 09/08/05 at 07:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s no denying that Marlow had an influence. He was a well known freethinker, spy and playwrite and his contributions are of course noteworthy. But I think his influence was more localized to his period, whereass Shakespeare has become universal. You don’t, for instance, hear poeple making casual references to the Jew of Malta or Dr. Faustus the way you do Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet. Shakespeare has had a lasting and thorough influence on our culture, beyond just the conventions of Elizebeathan drama; he’s shaped our language and even, to some extent, shaped the way we look at the world. I suppose the same could be argued for Marlow but I think it’d be a bit of a stretch.

By Keith on 09/09/05 at 08:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Matt, this is a spoiler of sorts, but I wouldn’t presume to call Christopher Marlowe anti-Semitic (or much of anything else, aside from talented and antagonistic). I’m referring solely to The Jew of Malta, which is pretty explicitly no plea for tolerance. The play is also rambunctiously anti-Catholic, which results in some awkward conflicts of tone—but I hope to be getting to that.

And I would never say that “freedom from prejudice” is “a meaningful criterion of esthetic value”—I’m sorry you got that impression. Nor do I think that relying on horror conventions indicates a lack of aesthetic value. Nor do I even think that a script which reads like shallow trash makes bad theater. I like watching The Abominable Dr. Phibes, and even in my naive New-Critic phase I would probably have liked watching The Jew of Malta with performers as straightforwardly hammy as Vincent Price and Peter Jeffrey.

About all I’d say along any of those lines is: 1) Blatant stereotypes which offend us can make it more difficult to enjoy a work. ("Snowflake" Toones throws me out of The Palm Beach Story‘s spell every time he appears.) 2) If Marlowe’s literary reputation depended entirely on The Jew of Malta, I imagine we’d be reading more Thomas Dekker.

Keith, was this the face that launched a thousand ships or what?

By Ray Davis on 09/09/05 at 10:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"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.”

That’s a really fascinating notion on it’s own right. If I may further the digression, it’s an interesting question whether there are works that
do have such an effect - subtly sabotaging their own moral logic, *without* clearly flagging this logic as parodic from the start (by stylistic means or its system of values being fiercely unintuitive, and so on).
The only candidate I can think of is ‘Fargo’ :As I understand it, it’s an outstandingly moral story about the clash of innocence and vileness, where the evil are punished by their own machinations and the good prevail and maintain their innocence, but at the same time it takes the kindness and warmness of the protagonists slightly beyond the verge of Ad Nauseam, till a sense of claustrophobia immerges.

By on 09/09/05 at 01:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You don’t, for instance, hear people making casual references to the Jew of Malta or Dr. Faustus the way you do Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet.

Few people read any of them, and I’d as happily try to teach Dr. Faustus to new students as anything by Shakespeare. Shakespeare is a major source of cliches, of course.

Marlowe had rougher edges and was more unfinished, but in some moods I like that. I get more of a sense of possibility and unknown outcomes, and less a sense of fruition or completion.

By John Emerson on 09/09/05 at 08:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John- This brings to my mind Wittgenstein’s infamous remarks on Shakespeare: “[Shakespeare’s] pieces give me the impression of enormous *sketches*rather than paintings; as though they had been *dashed off* by someone who can permit himself *anything*, so to speak.”
I’m mostly not crazy about Witt’s views on art and culture, but this one strikes me as incisive. Some Shakespeare plays are pretty decentralized,
even unharmonious - Witt speaks of him like a slightly annoyed but respectful Ashbery critic, and while I don’t tend to agree with the his value judgment, I think he’s up to something. The same goes for Eliot’s “Hamlet And His Problems”.
I can’t at the moment think of any non-banal examples for the spots where you just can’t get a proper clean cut take on things , but you know the drill- Iago’s motives, the sympathy balance in Richard III, and so on.

By on 09/09/05 at 11:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, Tamburlaine is pretty cool too—but if you want sense of possibility, you gotta read Marston. I’m pissed that it took me so long to get there.

A couple of notes before moving to part 2....

I picked my hedges carefully, but I might as well be explicit about them. Not all blatant stereotypes offend: in The Palm Beach Story, Franklin Pangborn’s sissy and Sig Arno’s fantastically fatuous parasite bother me not at all, and Claudette Colbert’s fascination with shiny objects bothers me only a little. And not all offenses make it more difficult to enjoy a work. Celine’s anti-Semitism doesn’t make his novels less effective, since offensiveness is what they aim for. On the other hand, T. S. Eliot’s and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s expressions of anti-Semitism mean to insinuate a viewpoint comfortably shared between writer and reader, and in resisting that community, I resist the writing.

As for ABIGAIL, daughter to BARABAS, the sexually attractive Jew’s daughter is almost as established a bigotry pressure valve as the lovable pickaninny. (My own favorite version is Pushkin’s “Gavriiliada”.) In this case, she’s virtuous, too; you can tell because she wants to marry a Christian and she converts.

Peli, I may be unusually soul-searching, or just perverse, but it’s hard for me to think off-hand of any effective narrative that doesn’t sabotage its own moral logic to some extent. It seems kind of essential to the livelihoods of comics and tragedians both. When I wrote earlier about writers who found themselves violating their original intentions, I was thinking of something similar—starting off wanting to attack, but then becoming fascinated by the puzzle of empathy. Many a masterwork begins in parody.

Finally, there’s a bit of historical trivia that neither Wilson nor I managed to work in. The month before the first recorded performance of The Jew of Malta (not to be confused with the first performance; entertainment listings weren’t printed daily back then), the same month that launched the Levant Company, Marlowe was launched out of Flushing, a British port in the Netherlands, for an experiment with counterfeiting. While sending him back to England, Flushing’s governor carefully avoided deciding what Marlowe actually meant to do with the fake coinage, possibly because “the scholar says himself to be very well known both to the Earl of Northumberland and my Lord Strange.”

By Ray Davis on 09/10/05 at 11:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"When I wrote earlier about writers who found themselves violating their original intentions”
I’m not actually sure what paragraph\post\comment you’re referring to here.
Anyway, I was thinking less about a process of organic ambivalence in the genetic level creating complex and multifaceted morals in what began in the mind and maybe even the page as simple, and more about trick narratives, that hint that their moral logic is unreliable while the operating moral logic remains monochromatic and intact - not emergent ambivalence in the writing process, but a form of ironic distance that isn’t a filter for the view of events from the beginning, but something more like a hidden punch-line. I just find it very interesting when it’s not the judgements of a narrator made unreliable by subtle seeds and hints, but the value judgements implied by composition, the selected quai-mimetic logic, stylystic choices and so on. Especially in works without a personified narrator.
But I’m probably really digressing now, and it’s just my own persoanl fetish.

By on 09/10/05 at 01:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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