Sunday, September 11, 2005
The Terrorist of Malta, Part II
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.
Wilson warns us that "modern anti-Semitism" wasn't part of the play's original context.
That's so. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries hatred of Jews was much more wide-spread, fervid, and unquestioned than it is now.
For instance, Marlowe's Maltese governor confiscates Jewish property as repentance for previous sins of tolerance and mercy:
For through our sufferance of your hateful lives,
Who stand accursed in the sight of heaven,
These taxes and afflictions are befall'n,
And therefore thus we are determined.—
The modern reader — even the anti-Semite — likely finds this justification weak. But no other character disputes it, and it would have sounded like common sense to at least some portion of the original audience. Its form should be familiar enough even to Americans: the fornicators and fags who brought great Neptune's wrath upon the poorest sections of Louisiana; the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers.... (Internationally, however, the prevalent 9/11 myth more closely resembles Marlowe's main plotline.)
Wilson points out that no practicing Jews were actually resident in Malta during the sixteenth century, since they'd been robbed of their possessions and exiled en masse in 1492. (He calls Marlowe's blatant disregard for this point "subversive.")
After expelling Jewish residents Levant-wards, the Maltese went on to forcefully import some:
Jewish chronicles are punctuated with such episodes, like those that occurred in 1567, when large numbers of refugees from persecution in Italy were held hostage; and in 1620, when a party of pilgrims was hijacked on their way to Palestine. Jews were the most lucrative victims, in other words, of the slave traffic which made Malta infamous until the Knights were evicted by Napoleon. Thus, 'the monks of Malta are exceedingly evil to the Jews,' it was reported in 1600: 'They sail in Italian seas to prey on seafarers, and sell them for slaves, both men and women, unless they can pay ransom.'
... as English witnesses reported, 'the victims are persons of any race, age or sex, who happen to be sailing in captured ships,' and 'Jews, Moors, Turks and Christians are enslaved and sold together.' ... When English warships did first pass through the Straits of Gibraltar, in 1620, it was part of a campaign to release English slaves, to which the Levant Company contributed £1,800. But it was Jewish brokers who took the lead in founding fraternities for 'Redemption of Captives,' and it was under the auspices of these that a few Jews were allowed into Malta in the 1580s, as middlemen charged with negotiating freedom for captives on commission, 'normally 15 per cent of the ransom.'
- Richard Wilson, "Another Country"
But when Wilson suggests that Barabas frequents the slave market solely as angel of redemption, he again snubs the text itself.
Wilson shows how closely the rhetoric and motives of Barabas match those of Marlowe's patrons and friends: Biblical prophecies fulfilled in financial gain. He reminds us of Thomas Nashe's tribute to the wealth carried through Yarmouth in "The Praise of the Red Herring":
... not an infant of the curtail'd skin-clipping pagans but talk of London as frequently as of their Prophet’s tomb at Mæcha, & as much worships our maidenpeace as it were but one sun that shin'd over them all. Our first embassadour was he to the Behemoth of Constantinople, and as Moses was sent from the omnipotent God of heaven to persuade with Sultan Pharao to let the children of Israel goe, so from the prepotent goddesse of the earth, Eliza, was hee sent to set free the English captives and open unto us the passage into the redde sea and Euphrates. How impetrable hee was in mollifying the adamantinest tiranny of mankinde, and hourely crucifier of Jesus Christ crucifyde...
Conversely, the dream of Pax Britannica, "a peaceful rule" built on subtlety and guile, is well expressed by Barabas:
Thus trowls our fortune in by land and sea,
And thus are we on every side enrich'd:
These are the blessings promis'd to the Jews,
And herein was old Abram's happiness:
What more may heaven do for earthly man
Than thus to pour out plenty in their laps,
Ripping the bowels of the earth for them,
Making the sea their servants, and the winds
To drive their substance with successful blasts?
- Wilson notes that a policy of philo-Semitism was increasingly recommended in the seventeenth century as a way to wage economic war against the Spanish and French empires.
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.
Don’t know how seriously to take your offer, but I just ordered a complete works of Marlowe.
My angle on this is that Early Modern Europe was a chaos where no one really could be sure what they believed any more, with all different kinds of world-views, both archaic and innovative, orthodox and heterodox on the table, but also an era of openness and possibility. Marlowe embodyies this uncertainty as well as anyone, especially in Faustus, even though he is not the greatest writer of the time.
Regarding the earlier post, I think that the equation “anti-Semite = proto-Nazi” (not explicitly stated here an seldom elsewhere, but always lurking in the background) is to be avoided. Naziism was a peculiarly efficient and relentless form of state exterminism, and even though the target people was the same, medieval anti-Semitism was something much different.
For the most part, I agree, John. I hope you enjoy the Marlowe. I wish it was easier to order the complete Nashe!
I do think that, despite the chaos, some people in the Renaissance seemed pretty damn sure of themselves, even if they might sometimes be disconcertingly quick to switch orthodoxies. As a personal matter, I (and you?) tend to prefer those who explicitly live in uncertainty, which is probably why I’m so drawn to the Restoration period.
Your Nazi equation certainly isn’t lurking in my background, but you may be right that some readers might be less aware of anti-Semitism’s extensive historical and geographical range, and that it may be worth being explicit about the difference. The Final Solution lasted a couple of years more or less under wraps in a limited chunk of Europe. “Modern anti-Semitism” covers much more ground—it enabled the death camps, but can’t be equated with them. (North American slavery lasted a long time, but North American racism lasts longer.)
What I see in many figures of the time is the jusxtaposition of beliefs without clear decision. For example, in his last speech wishes for his soul to pass to an animal (metempsychosis) so that he can escape hell, since animals’ souls are not immortal, but dissolved into their elements (which means he switches back to the Christian belief about animals, dropping metempsychosis.) The Portuguese romance/pastoral/fiction Menina E Moca apparently came from a milieu where Judaism, Catholicism, humanism, Lutheranism, Islam, neo-Platonism, and perhaps Manichaeanism coexisted, and the book itself (possibly by an exiled crypto-Jew) and the characters in it are all very desparate and confused.