There can be many similarities drawn to both the character Shylock in Shakespeares The Merchant of Venice, and Barabas in the Jew of Malta.
However besides the obvious fact that they were both Jews, and the common stereo-types that were attributed to both of them such as being miserly and conniving, there are gaping differences in the dynamics of the characters themselves. There are profound differences in Barabas and Shylock. The role assigned to by Shakespeare to his Christian characters is far more extensive, his Jew on the other hand has been scaled down and domesticated. Shylock has none of the insatiable ambition that makes Barabas for all his grotesque acts, a character along the lines of the great Faustus and Tambourlaine.(Shylock,21) There is a much greater roundness in Barabas then Shylock.Marlowe portrays Barabas the Jew in a dynamic and somewhat curios manner. It is difficult to surmise Marlowes intent when portraying the Jew, yet it is certain that there is more than what seems topically apparent. It is very clear that he is an outsider, not only in the obvious aspect that he is a Jew in the less than theologically tolerant and politically correct Elizabethan drama, but he is also an outsider in terms of evil and his mode of thought.
He is obviously a villain, lying cheating, poisoning a entire nunnery, even killing those we thought were close to him, including his daughter, yet through his Machiavellan quest for power and riches we somehow become almost endeared to him and he becomes an anti-hero. All these aspects combine to make Barabas a character that we are somehow drawn to in the same way people are drawn to stare at a traffic accident. Through the course of modern history, the Jewish people have always been ethnic outsiders, as a product of this outsider status there has always been a somewhat jaded representation of them by artists who were raised and educated in anti-Semitic environment. Though we can blame the way Marlowe presents his protagonist on the fallacies of the time, it is not because he does not know any better, but because Marlowe chooses to satire other common representations of the time. Barabas is still presented with the same types of stereo-types as any other Elizabethan dramatist portraying a Jew would, yet there is an additional layer of parody. Marlowe is somehow mocking the way his society presents the Jews.
Marlowe makes a caricature, a ludicrous parody of the popular Elizabethan stereo-types of the sly, shrewish Jew. Though it is clear that there are some classically Jewish characteristics in Barabas. His vices are not so much those that can be attributed to a Jew as much as those of a villain. Yet somehow this villainy allows us to almost respect and glorify him. Barabas career is one of unbroken infamy, he cheats, lies, robs betrays and poisons an entire nunnery. Yet within this utterly melodramatic outline, Marlowe has created a compelling at times almost sympathetic character (shylock20) His deceit and other treachery, though normally would repel the reader, yet somehow Barabas fascinates us.
Despite all his wrong doing we almost root for him to fulfill his plans. As John Gross, author of Shylock says No one could accuse Marlowe of painting a flattering portrait of a Machiavellan Jew, and yet one grows a good deal fonder of him than any other character.(tydeman62) His position as an outsider allows us to sympathize with his position and the cunning with which he executes his evil makes him our hero. It would be foolish to assume that Barabas distancing from others was not part of his plan to deceive and then triumph over both the Christians and Turks. It then becomes apparent that it was Marlowes intention for the reader to parallel the actions of Barabas to the great philosopher and politic Machiavelli.
Barabas cruelty no matter what the costs is a direct extension of the philosophy that Machiavelli preached. It is the focus on practical success by any means, even at the expense of traditional moral values that earned Machiavelli a reputation for ruthlessness, deception and cruelty.(Britanica) It seems it is also the focus of Barabas on practical success, that success being the inhalation of both the Turks and the Christians in Malta, no matter what the cost, yet in the case of Barabas, his success is motivated by his evil intentions, where Machiavellis evil is motivated by his desire for success. Machiavellis conception of proper application of morality to life is one that judges all participants in terms of the efficacy with which they achieve their ends. Both Machiavelli and Barabas seem to only care for the ends and neither have concern for the means by which the ends are realized, even if those ends involve killing ones own daughter. It is also clear in the way that Barabas keeps everyone at a distance, in the same way that Machiavellis philosoophy prescribed.
It was only the auduence, through Marlowes extensive use of soliloquy that was ever allowed close and knew the true thoughts going through Barabas head. It is for this reason that he both became our hero in the play and was also a true outsider. So it is painfully clear that there are strong parallels between the protagonist and the philosopher, the only problem Marlowe presented was that Barabas ends were not achieved, raising the question, if Barabas means were not achieved and he failed in his quest to deceive and kill the Turks and Christians, then not only were his actions not justifiable, but he a truly Machiavellan outsider? Bibliography: