1. “For all the critical debate about subversiveness of Marlowe’s play, there is nothing in either Doctor Faustus or The Jew of Malta that is not fully consistent with a Christian world view.’ Discuss with reference to Doctor Faustus and The Jew of Malta.
Christopher Marlowe is a prototype of the Renaissance “universal man” living in 16th century England. It was a period where Elizabethan world view of Christian humanity dominated as the orthodox point of view. One fundamental belief is “The Great Chain of Being” where ‘all existing things have their precise place and function in the universe, and to depart from one’s proper place was to betray one’s nature.’ – A Guide to the Study of Literature: A Companion Text for Core Studies 6, Brooklyn College.
Examples of betrayal included usurpation and selling of one’s soul to the devil. Marlowe portrayed Dr Faustus as a representation of the Renaissance rejection of medieval, God-centered universe. He was a well-proclaimed and respected scholar who was ambitious, had awe-inspiring plans and hungered for unlimited knowledge. His appetite was so great, he offered Lucifer his soul if Lucifer would for twenty-four years, let ‘him live in all voluptuousness’ (1.3.90).
Such a clear projection of an evidently anti-Christian protagonist in a play, with a nervy plot whereby God and Lucifer fights for the soul of a man is an excellent display of the rebellious and controversial man that Marlowe is infamous for.
Marlowe’s life and career were shrouded with much mystery. He had been known to exhibit atheist behavior such as spelling the word god backwards and if the rumors were anything to go by, he was a homosexual and he died in a pub brawl from a possible political assassination.
‘Though they could hardly have accused Marlowe of Communism, they had other charges to fling. They called him an Atheist, a Machivellian, an Epicurean.’ – The Overreacher, Harry Levin
In the plays, Marlowe positioned his protagonists as undesirable beings whose conduct and spiritual choices would be condemned. Both characters were “overreachers” who were not contented with their lot and desired to have more of what they wanted.
In Dr Faustus, the tragic hero did the unthinkable by selling his soul to the devil. Barabas was treated unfairly because he was a Jew. These antiheros behaved in an unacceptable fashion and eventually died horrible deaths. Hence on the surface, Marlowe would seem to have adhered to the Christian world view. This, we shall explore in closer detail by examining the plays.
Dr Faustus exhibited strong Renaissance humanist behavior by his preference of an ‘active life’ versus a ‘contemplative life’. He was not satisfied with being a scholar whose ‘bills hung up as monuments; (1.1.17). Rather he lusted after the dark arts because he believed that ‘a sound magician is a demigod.’ (1.1.61)
This protagonist was alarmingly and distinctly adverse to Christian doctrines for he said ‘this word ‘damnation’ terrifies not me,’ (1.3.56). This behavior extended to others for he commanded Mephistopheles to be dressed like a Franciscan friar for ‘That holy shape becomes a devil best.’ (1.3.26). Even as a play, wouldn’t that have been considered as blasphemy language for a conservative audience?
The influential Pope was not spared in the play. Together with Mephistopheles, Dr Faustus performed childish pranks on this influential figure. Even the most conspicuous representation of Christianity was not excused. Dr Faustus flaunted more scalding insolence when he proclaimed ‘How now? Must every bit be spiced with a cross?’ (3.2.85)
Through his words and deeds, this magician of tremendous intellectual had demonstrated staggering impertinence to the endorsed religion and its revered representatives.
The play included three evil characters (Lucifer, Belzehub and Mephistopeles) who had appeared on several occasions in unity. It eerily seems to allude to the three persons of the Godhead (Father, Son and the Holy Spirit).
Another perplexing and questionable point is how Faustus could possibly have misread Jerome’s Bible and decided on its conclusion as ‘We must die an everlasting death’ (1.1.46). As a highly educated doctor of divinity, how is it probable that one of his intellect could have misinterpreted the text?
Hence, in Dr Faustus, there are many clear signs that Marlowe crafted the play carefully to take a jab at Christianity. Taking advantage of his knowledge of Christianity, he has taken some very devious twists at the heart of the religion.
Once again in Jew of Malta, Marlowe forces the audience to take a reality check by mirroring many of the then current issues of Christianity and their unethical treatment of those who decidedly ‘don’t belong’ such as magicians and the Jews community.
Even though the Jew community was not responsible for the ten years lax in tribute money to the Turks, they were taken to task and had to give up half of their estate to raise the money. Barabas, being a Jew and the wealthiest Jew of Malta, had to shockingly give up all of his estate regardless that his wealth came from his own diligence in a proper trade.
Ferneze’s only reason was that this is ‘for through our sufferance of your hateful lives’ (1.2.63) And with that, he was not questioned and his reason accepted as a justified one. Clearly, there is nothing just about it.
One ironic aspect of the play is that Barabas the Jew was allowed to buy a Turkish slave. The Jew who had to sacrifice his entire fortune to save the Christian community from the Turks is now purchasing a Turkish slave to do his bidding. Marlowe offensive take on Christianity is loud and clear in this instance.
‘And at this level of society, the religious and political barriers fall away: the Jew buys a Turk at the Christian slave market.’ – Renaissance Self-Fashioning, Stephen Greenblatt
Ferneze being allowed to confiscate the Jews estates and subsequently deciding to keep the money and risk war instead and under the circumstances, Barabas being allowed to buy a Turkish slave screams hypocrisy. These are sure elements that are going to make the Christians in the audience squirmed in their seats.
When the friars exposed Barabas’ evil hand in the deaths of Mathias and Lodowick, the cunning protagonist quick response was to put on an act and proclaimed his repentance and plans to donate all his money to some religious house. Upon hearing this, both friars anxiously pleaded him to ‘come to our house’ (4.1.80). Here, Marlowe put the Christian God’s shepherds of his people in an extremely negative light.
Lastly, Abigail’s death prompted a distinctly inappropriate response from Friar Bernardine who sighed ‘and a virgin, too; that grieves me most.’ (3.6.41) In Jew of Malta, from the Governor of Malta (Ferneze) to the friars (Friar Jacomo and Friar Bernardine), all the Christians exhibited undoubtedly abominable behavior. It is hard to imagine that one who is a Christian and god-fearing man would create a play as such.
‘The Jew of Malta confronts Elizabethan spectators with their own representations of this demonized other.’ – Christopher Marlowe, Roger Sales
In a time of intense religious turmoil, these are bold plays and possibly reckless ones to put forward. In view of all the points we have considered in detail, I believe that these plays have demonstrated a definite anti-Christian stand. Considering how the cause of his death remains a cloud of mystery, one cannot help but wonder if he like Dr Faustus played a part in the workings of his death.