Barabas means "son of Abbas". In all four evangelists it is the name of the Zealot whom Pilate released instead of Jesus. Apart from that, there is no connection between the biblical figure and the title figure in The Jew of Malta.

With Barabas, Marlowe shows a jew who absolutely did not correspond to the typical image of the late 16th century.

"Jude sein bedeutet nach der Definition von Marlowes Stück: emanzipiert sein von den falschen Bindungen von Religion, Rasse oder Klasse, von den interessengebundenen Konstruktionen der Moral und des Rechts, bedeutet Dekonstruierer zu sein, der den Verblendungszusammenhang auflöst, bedeutet durchzublicken und sein Außenseitertum zu genießen."1

Marlowe’s characters are basically pleased with their position as outsiders. The only exception is Mephostophiles.

"Barabas gehört ganz in die Kategorie der Aaron, Richard III., Don John, Edmund, Iago, Jachimo, die "I am myself alone" (The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York) auf ihr Panier geschrieben haben und stolz im pluralis maiestatis verkünden "We love our self" (Hamlet, 4. 7. 34)."2

All this distinguishes Barabas drastically from Shakespeare’s Shylock, with whom he is so readily mentioned in the same breath.

Baraba’s fortune is the result of his liberation from all social, political and societal constraints. It is precisely this freedom that all the other "pious" inhabitants of Malta envy him.3 He is in many ways a highly modern figure who personifies the emerging international capitalism.4 As such, he has no interest in the property of others, their savings are not worth the trouble to him. At most, he delights in the fact that the others would like to have what belongs to him. He only becomes a threat to the possessions and lives of his fellow men after Ferneze has stolen from him and Ferneze’s son has seduced his daughter Abigail.5 This makes his break in character, which occurs frequently in Marlowe, understandable in any case, in contrast to that of Guise or Mortimer. Once Barabas has recovered some of his fortune, he lapses into the same immoderateness that all Marlowe’s heroes know. His vindictiveness does not even stop at Abigail. After Tamburlaine, Barabas is Marlowe’s second dramatic character to kill his child.

His deeds become increasingly ludicrous and, contrary to expectations, he not only gets away with them, he never becomes an actual villain because his surroundings are almost entirely so depraved that they are absolutely unsuitable as pitiful victims. Elfriede Jelinek thought that Barabas had to go away so that he could no longer reflect meanness.6 However, he himself causes his final disappearance, entirely in the tradition of the Marlowean hero. At the height of his power, he is overcome by the absurd idea that the enemy of my friend could become my friend. So in the end, the impression is rather that Barabas has to disappear so that those who were previously allowed to be mean without hindrance can be mean again, or no matter how mean Barabas is, Ferneze is meaner in any case.

Historical Characters

No clear literary sources could ever be established for The Jew of Malta. Presumably Barabas has no historical inspiration either, although four men have repeatedly been named who could have served as references.

Joseph Nasi

Works that Marlowe may already have consulted for 1 Tamburlaine include an account of the unprecedented career of Joseph Nasi and, in particular, his connection with the siege of Cyprus. These include Philipp Lonicer’s Chronicorum Turcicorum (though only in the 2nd edition of 1584)7, Pietro Bizari’s Cyprium Bellum inter Venetos et Selymum Turcarum Imperatorem Gestum (1573) and François de Belleforrest Cosmographie Universelle de Tout le Monde (1575), an extended translation of Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographia.8

Leon Kellner first suggested in 1887 that Marlowe had been partly inspired by Joseph Nasi to create the character of Barabas.9 Nasi was born João Miquez in Portugal around 1524 and came from a wealthy Marran10 family. He lost his father at an early age, which is why his mother moved in with her sister-in-law. Gracia Nasi (Christian name: Bearice de Luna) had married Semah Benviste, whose Christian name was Francisco Mendez, in 1528 at the age of eighteen. His family owned the well-known Mendez trading and banking house. In 1536 Gracia became a widow and moved with her family to Antwerp. After the death of her brother-in-law six years later, she inherited the entire fortune and became head of the family business. She proved to be an excellent businesswoman who introduced her nephew to the world of finance. In Antwerp she consorted with Governor Mary, sister of Charles V, who, like Henri II of France, was one of her debtors. As early as 1545, Venice allowed the Mendez family to settle. The bank’s fortune had grown immensely in the meantime, when rumours began to spread that the family was planning a move to the Ottoman Empire. The Venetian government wanted to prevent this at all costs, as they suspected the withdrawal of the assets. Thanks to the far-reaching connections of the family, the Mendez were able to settle in Constantinople in 1554 after some rather adventurous ventures. There, the entire family, which had always practised its faith in secret, publicly professed Judaism. João Mendez became Joseph Nasi, an influential advisor to Suleiman I and Selim II. During the Ottoman throne disputes, he supported Selim, who made him Duke of Naxos after seizing power. This island state, also called the Duchy of Archipelagos, which comprised several islands in the Cyclades, had been founded by the Venetians in 1207 after the Fourth Crusade. When Selim II deposed the last Christian duke, Jacopo IV Crispo, the latter had long been obliged to pay him tribute.11 Nasi had widespread contacts, such as with King Sigismund August of Poland,12 which he used in favour of the Ottoman Empire. At home, he used his political and economic influence to successfully force Henri II to repay the debt and then supported the Huguenots financially. Nasi also intervened in the dispute over Cyprus between Venice and the Ottoman Empire. He influenced Selim II to enforce the claims militarily if necessary. After the Ottoman negotiator in Venice failed, the Ottomans conquered Cyprus in 1569. Pope Pius V called on the Catholic countries to fight. Although this Holy League defeated the Ottoman fleet in the naval battle of Lepanto on 7 October 1571, it was unable to gain any advantage from this victory. Two years later, Venice officially renounced its claims. With this, Nasi seemed to have withdrawn from Selim’s court, where his opponent Grand Vizier Sokollu Mehmed Pasha was increasingly gaining the upper hand.13 Like his aunt Gracia, who had died in 1569, Nasi supported his fellow believers. As early as 1561, he had received permission from the Sultan to found a Jewish settlement in Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee. The attempt failed because many European jews shied away from the crossing and the economic challenges of the country. Nasi died in Istanbul in 1579, whereupon Murad III, the son of Selim II, confiscated his property. Nasi’s widow Reina, Gracia’s daughter, was left only the sum stipulated in the marriage contract. With it she founded a printing press for works in Hebrew.14

Hector Nuñez

At least his name is mentioned directly in the drama (I,1,122). Hector Nuñez (1521-1591) was from Portugal and came to London around 1550. He was a member of both the College of Physicians and the Royal College of Sugeons and was naturalised in 1579. Lord Burghley consulted both him and Lopez, but preferred the former.

Rodrigo Lopez

Rodrigo Lopez was also from Portugal and came to London in 1559. He became a member of the College of Physicians and first treated Francis Walsingham in 1571. He had been working at St Bartholomew’s Hospital for some years when he became a doctor in the Earl of Leicester’s household. He earned money not only as a doctor, but also as a merchant, as he held the import monopoly on anise and sumac. When Don Antonio, Prior of Crato came to England in 1580 to assert his claims to the Portuguese throne against Philip II, numerous negotiations took place with Burghley, Francis Walsingham and Leicester. Because of their language skills, knowledge of Spanish-Portuguese relations and their extensive connections, both Lopez and Nuñez were involved in these operations. In addition, there was a significant improvement in the already good Anglo-Ottoman connections. Joseph Nasi also supported Don Antonio from Constantinople. Murad III confirmed English trading rights as early as 1580. Two years later, William Harborne, the first English ambassador, was sent to the Ottoman Empire. The Jewish contacts that reached from Constantinople via the Netherlands to Spain and London now paid off for the English. Although the first attempts to install Don Antonio as King of Portugal had failed, Nuñez continued to work for Walsingham. After Nasi, the pretender found a new confidant in Solomon Abenas, whose most important agent in London was Rodrigo Lopez, a relative by marriage, who was appointed the Queen’s personal physician in 1586. Spain did not remain idle and from 1587 onwards there was contact between Lopez and Philip II via the agent Antonio de Vega and ambassador Bernardo de Mendoza in Paris, whose main concern was initially to eliminate Don Antonio. In the summer, however, Antonio and Lopez broke off. de Vega urged Lopez to resume contact, but the relationship remained cool. With the victory over the Armada in 1588, Don Antonio hoped for a quick intervention in his favour in Portugal. This was also planned by the English side, but Antonio lost patience and blamed Abenas for the failure of his hopes. Sir Edward Barton, who had replaced Harborne on 3 August, had to learn in October that Abenas had been replaced by David Passi. Passi was also a Portuguese Marrane who had some influence at the Sultan’s court. The English suspected him of working for the Spanish, although this could never be proved.15 Passi was quite active, as evidenced by the reports of several ambassadors,16 until he fell from grace in 1591 and was sent into exile to Rhodes. He later returned to Constantinople, but no longer played a role in political life. In April 1589, an expeditionary army actually set out for Lisbon, which was supposed to destroy the remaining ships of the Armada. The whole enterprise became a total fiasco and England lost interest in Don Antonio. Lopez, on the other hand, became more and more entangled in the turmoil of the secret services. Its earnings declined because its import monopoly had not been extended. Probably in 1591 he received a valuable ring from Philip II. After Walsingham’s death, the Earl of Essex tried to persuade Lopez to act as a double agent. The doctor refrained from doing so after consulting the Queen. Nevertheless, at her request, he delivered relevant news to her, which he learned through his numerous contacts. In doing so, he upset Essex, about whom he was publicly disparaging. At the same time, Lopez wanted to give Elizabeth I the ring of the Spanish king, but she refused. It was unclear whether she knew about the origin of the jewellery. Late 1593 early 1594 saw the capture of Spanish agents, one of whom made contact with Lopez. The doctor was then arrested and placed under house arrest. Essex tried to turn the Queen against her doctor, but Elizabeth I did not believe the accusations, which left the Earl feeling humiliated. He did everything he could to create a case against Lopez. The arrested agents testified that the physician had offered to poison Elizabeth I for 50,000 crowns. The trial began at the end of February and ended with a guilty verdict. Lopez had signed a confession under torture, but then retracted it. He affirmed that he had only accepted the Spanish proposals as a pretence. Since it had been considered treason since 1585 at the latest to have even agreed to the Queen’s assassination, Lopez was indeed guilty in the eyes of the law. Elizabeth I deliberately delayed the approval of his conviction and had an already scheduled execution of sentence cancelled. Ultimately, at Essex’s instigation, Lopez was executed after all on 17 June 1594.17 The Queen continued to provide for his widow and children. For the Elizabethans, Lopez was a traitor, which put him in a distinct category. Not once was this betrayal linked to his Jewish faith.18

David Passi

David Passi as a stimulus figure, as Charles Frederic Tucker Brooke19 suggested, can almost certainly be ruled out. He was frequently mentioned in diplomatic letters at the time, but it is hardly likely that Marlowe had access to this correspondence.

Bersohn, Matthias. 1869. “Einige Worte Don Joseph Nasi, Herzog von Naxos Betreffend.” Monatsschrift Für Geschichte Und Wissenschaft Des Judentums 18 (9): 422–24.
Brooke, Charles Frederic Tucker. 08.06.1922. “The Prototype of Marlowe’s Jew of Malta.” Times Literary Supplement 1064 (08.06.1922): 380.
Katz, David S. 1996. The Jews in the History of England: 1485 – 1850. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

  1. Apel (2003), 162↩︎
  2. Breuer (1975), 408↩︎
  3. Al-Khalili and Al-Shalibi (2012)↩︎
  4. Vitkus (2006)↩︎
  5. Anderson (2012)↩︎
  6. Jelinek (2001)↩︎
  7. Seaton (1929)↩︎
  8. Thomas and Tydeman (1994)↩︎
  9. Kellner (1887)↩︎
  10. Jews had already been living on the Iberian Peninsula since the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem and the Diaspora. As soon as they converted to Christianity more or less voluntarily, they were officially called "conversos" or "cristianos nuevos". Many of them practised the Jewish faith secretly after conversion and were called "marranos". "Marrão", probably a loanword from Arabic where "máhram" means a "forbidden thing", means "pig" in Portuguese and Castilian.↩︎
  11. Mindel (s. a.)↩︎
  12. Bersohn (1869)↩︎
  13. Mindel (s. a.)↩︎
  14. Katz (1996)↩︎
  15. Katz (1996)↩︎
  16. Thomas and Tydeman (1994)↩︎
  17. Katz (1996)↩︎
  18. Berek (1998)↩︎
  19. Brooke (08.06.1922)↩︎

Aktualisiert am 18.01.2023

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