The principal character in Christopher Marlowe's "The Rich Jew of Malta," first produced at the Rose Theater, Bankside, London, in 1591, and entered in the Stationers' Books May 17, 1594. The rôle of Barabas was created by Edward Alleyn, the founder of Dulwich College. The play was revived in 1818 at Drury Lane Theater by Edmund Kean, but failed to secure popular approval. Barabas is an inhuman fiend, with an occasional lapse into humanity. His predominating traits are vicious ingenuity, intensity of vengeful emotions, a lustful love of gold, and a degenerate desire to kill. He is the embodiment of all that is thoroughly bad, and as a character-drawing must rank high—during the first two acts of the play almost as high as the Shakespearian Shylock. The latter—harsh though his methods be—seeks payment of a just claim; Barabas seeks revenge on all humanity—Christian, or Turk, or Jew. He prostitutes his own daughter and uses her as a bait for which her two lovers fight to the death. Shylock has some nobility of character; Barabas, none. His money and estates confiscated by the governor of Malta to pay an overdue indemnity to the Turks, Barabas, who has hidden the greater part of his gold and jewels in his former home, induces his daughter, Abigail, to feign conversion to Christianity, that she may reenter the home, now a cloister, to obtain the hoard. When Abigail protests, Barabas reassures her with:
". . . Tush! As good dissemble that thou never mean'st As first mean truth and then dissemble it: A counterfeit profession is better Than unseen hypocrisy."
Having obtained the hoard, Barabas buys a palace to shame the Christians, and plots vengeance against the governor of Malta and incidentally against Mathias, the Christian lover of Abigail. By means of a forged letter he brings Mathias and Lodowick, son of the governor, into a duel, in which both die. When Abigail learns of her father's deed, through his slave Ithamore, she turns Christian and retires to the nunnery, her former home. On hearing this, Barabas sends poisoned broth to the nuns.
Abigail, dying, confesses her father's villainy to the two friars, Jacomo and Bernardine, and they become the next victims of Barabas' wrath. He lures Bernardine into his home by promises of money, and, aided by Ithamore, strangles him. Then he placesthe dead body in a natural attitude. When Jacomo arrives he becomes jealous of his brother friar and brains him. Thereupon Barabas turns him over to the authorities, who hang him on a charge of murder.
In the mean time Ithamore has been ensnared by Bellamira, a courtezan; and to her and her lover, Pilia-Borza, he confesses. They seek to blackmail Barabas; and he kills them by means of poison sprinkled on flowers. When taken into custody, he swallows a sleeping-draft of "poppy and cold mandrake juice." He is left for dead, and betrays the city into the hands of the Turks, who make him governor.
Barabas' next desire is vengeance on the Turks, the prime instigators of his troubles. He invites their commander-in-chief to a banquet, prepared in a room so built that by the cutting of a rope all in the room would be precipitated into a caldron of boiling oil. As the Turks arrive, Ferneze, the ex-governor of Malta, cuts the rope, and Barabas is thrown into the caldron, from which, dying, he exclaims:
"Die, life! fly, soul! tongue, curse thy fill, and die!"
Such is Barabas, the embodiment of devilishness. It is only fair to say that three of the Christian characters in the play—the two friars and the courtezan —are fully as repulsive as Barabas. Remarkable as was Marlowe's perception of human nature, his knowledge of Hebrew nomenclature was decidedly defective; for in Act 1, Barabas indicates other Jews by such names as "Zaareth," "Temainte," "Nones," and "Kirriah."
- Merchant of Venice, in H. H. Furness, The New Variorum Shakespeare, Appendix, pp. 322-324;
- Gentleman's Magazine, 1830, c. 593, 594, 596, 597;
- Fuller, Worthies, ii. 223;
- Collier, Memoirs of Edward Alleyn, 1841.