ENRON and Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta: When Greed Had a Face

As grossly prejudiced as they were, the portrayals of greed in 16th century literature provided an outlet for the have-nots of society. In Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, Barabas embodies every stereotype regarding greed. Recently, we have seen similar portraits of greed in characters like Gordon Gecko in the film Wall Street and the fallen angels of the Enron Corporation, Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling. The stereotypes pinned on Barabas still exist today, but in different forms. As a scapegoat, Barabas focuses the gaze of the have-nots. The Jewish character fits into a “containment model” of the 16th century power structure (Thurn 157). Through the discourse of Jewish merchants, frustration among the lower classes found a release valve. Associating Jewish wealth with all that’s cold and calculating creates distracts from other types of merchants, particularly Christian or English. Moreover, because the Jewish merchant operates alone, as a sole proprietor, he is a physical singularity to protest against, a focal point. The archetypical Jewish merchant has morphed from socioeconomic changes into a new entity of acceptable bashing. The scapegoat for greed became amorphous; today’s have-nots throw stones at an abstract, glossy, complicated conglomerate: the corporation.

Similar to Shakespeare’s commercial epicenter, Venice, Malta bubbles with the primordial ooze of modern business. As David Thurn says, “The Jew of Malta may be understood as symptomatic of one phase in the prehistory of capitalism.” Among other modern business practices, during the Italian Rennaissance, accounting found a rebirth and in the 16th century became common practice. By the end of Barabas’s opening scene, Malta seems as globalized as today’s economy. Malta is strategic to vilifying the Jew: “Because of its location in the Meditteranean Sea, Malta remained a strategic post for both trading and warâÂ?¦” (Bartels 99). Barabas is a merchant working the water hub of the Mediterranean, and like an overseer of a distribution center, squares his assets with his liabilities down to the last silverling. He dislikes accounting his petty cash, saying, “Fie, what a trouble ’tis to count this trash!” (1.1.7). His irritation resonates today; like Barabas, large modern firms do not bother with accounting entries below certain dollar values, because of two reasons: time and money. Before “heaps of gold,” Barabas hoards his money, and the characterization broadcasts the grossest kind of cartoonish greed, like that of Ebeneezer Scrooge. Instead of entrepreneurial visionary, we see a miserly, selfish, abominable grotesque of greed. Barabas awaits his incoming ships, which creates a striking similarity to Antonio in The Merchant of Venice. However, more important than the mood of the merchant is his religion. The motivation of the Christian merchant seems to be the common good, while the Jew works strictly in self-interest. This difference shows two flavors of “Policy.” Antonio and Barabas reflect two uses of “Policy,” a word that appears several times in the play. Policy in a positive sense means “Prudent, expedient, or advantageous procedure,” but it can also mean “cunning, craftiness, dissimulation” (Babb 86).

Act one, Scene two involves an interesting look at the crossovers of politics, business, and greed. Barabas believes that the marketplace should be autonomous of government, but when the domains cross, a classic situation arises. Barabas expects to grow his enterprise without any fiduciary responsibility to the state, but a financial crisis creates a need for taxation, or in this case, extortion. A prerequisite of prosperity in trade is a stable government, thus Ferneze feels that those getting rich in Malta have an obligation to see the government’s continuation. Ferneze requisitions money before demanding it: “By reason of the wars, that robbed our store; / And therefore are we to request your aid” (1.2.48-49). As an outsider of society, Barabas distances himself from the request, saying, “Are strangers with your tribute to be taxed?” and a knight quickly replies, “Have strangers leave with us to get their wealth?” (1.2.59-60).

The knight’s reply brings up a rich and timeless argument. On one hand, paying the Turks the tax assures that the stability of the region remains intact, and Barabas clearly benefits from peaceful waters. When Ferneze first addresses Barabas about the financial problem, Barabas immediately suggests paying it: “Your lordship shall do well to let them have it” (1.2.44). Barabas implies “you” should pay it, not “we.” He sees his affairs as mutually exclusive from the state. The knight represents a common perspective regarding foreigners getting rich without any apparent vested interest in the land. In a sense, the way Barabas wants to do business resembles “absentee ownership.” Like a business tearing coal and iron out of distant mines, or like a global firm harvesting the Congo of resources while the people suffer, Barabas lacks what we would now call a “corporate conscience.” When he says, “Tush, tell me not twas done of policy,” he bristles at government interference (1.1.139). He radiates the adage, “The business of business is business.” On the other hand, as a pariah, a second class citizen of Malta, why should Barabas care to bail out those that scorn him? Also, he earned his money within the rules of law: “The man that dealeth righteously shall live: / And which of you can charge me otherwise?” (1.2.119-120). The other Jews in the scene say they are poor, but they too are treated “like infidels” (1.2.62). Thus, the government plunders a people less because of their wealth than because of their otherness. Surely, rich Christians do business in Malta, too, but Ferneze summons only the Jews. An important absence in the play is the possibility of repayment of the debt to Barabas. Once Spain offers to pay the tribute to the Turks, Ferneze makes no mention of repaying Barabas. Ferneze “repudiates his convenant with the Turks, though keeping the Jew’s money” (Babb 89). Ferneze becomes fixated on honor and glory, at the expense of Barabas’s going concern.

Barabas uses a series of arguments to keep his wealth, all of which prove him willing to compromise truth for wealth. When Ferneze threatens to take “half his estate,” Barabas says in an aside, “I hope you mean not mine” (1.2.70-71). These lines contrast with what he says later in the scene to the other Jews: “Why did you yield to their extortion? / You were a multitude, and I but one / And of me only have they taken all” (1.2.180-182). Overlooking the Christ references in these lines, alone the words show a selfish, faithless intent. In his earlier aside, he cared solely about his own wealth, but suddenly he blames the other Jews for lacking solidarity. However, the other Jews did show union by choosing their religion over their money. While Barabas tries to stonewall Ferneze and outwit the Christians, the other Jews say together, “Oh my Lord, we will give half!” Barabas replies, “Oh, earth-mettled villains, and no Hebrews born!” (1.2.80-81). He seeks a union of convenience, but in reality prefers permanent alienation from religion, politics, and people in general, unless they can assist him somehow.
Barabas uses additional tactics in the scene to avoid losing his fortune. As his money slips away, he mentions religion to remind the Christians of their rules. “Will you then steal my goods? / Is theft the grounds of your religion?” (1.2.97-98). Also, he appeals to the Christians’ pity by exaggerating about his family. Although he has only a single daughter, he implies a houseful when he says, “You have my hope, the labour of my life, / The comfort of mine age, my children’s hope” (1.2.153-154). He alludes to suicide, saying that if any more is taken, then “bereave my life” (1.2.146).

Barabas always has another plan. He’s terribly proactive. Seemingly defeated, he knows how to cry on demand. When Ferneze leaves, Barabas kneels and laments on his loss to the other Jews. But as soon as he’s alone, he stands, and states, “See the simplicity of these base slaves / Who for the villains have no wit for themselves, / Think me to be a senseless lump of clay” (1.2.218-219). Thus, Barabas wanted to appear in blubbering anguish, but when he arises he schemes and prepares to regain his losses. We learn that he has an ace-in-the-hole, a buried treasure in his house. When Abigail discloses that his house is a nunnery, he despairs for a moment, but then rebounds quickly with another plan. He’s a positive thinker, and follows most of Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” Students of Covey and Dale Carnegie remove the twisted, dark aspects of Barabas’s tactics. In other words, the Machiavell today knows how to win friends and influence people, without appearing like a cutthroat businessperson. Barabas uses what’s available as a tool, such as the appearance of defeat to stage an angle toward recovery.

Like other great villains, Barabas keeps a master inventory of other people’s weaknesses. It is a terrifying joy to watch a great villain arrange characters into annihilating arrangements. He has no qualms holding scripture in one hand, a knife in the other, as he explains to Abigail, “religion / hides many mischiefs from suspicion” (1.2.283). To get revenge with the government, he looks past Ferneze to his family, to Ludowick. In a disturbing introspection, Barabas tells what he has learned from years of oppression under the Christians.

“We Jews can fawn like spaniels when we please;
And when we grin we bite, yet are our looks
As innocent and harmless as a lamb’s.
I learned in Florence how to kiss my hand,
Heave up my shoulders when they call me dog (2.3.20-24).”

Years of gross condescension and abuse taught Barabas cunning deceits, but that unfortunate education assists his revenge. Like an effective salesperson or manager, rather than lash out, he knows how to keep bridges intact, at least until he can ignite a blaze on his own terms. He knows to hold his tongue when provoked, to stoop in subordination when helpless, and to attack along appropriate avenues when the hour is right.

Before revenge clouds his judgment, Barabas opposes violence and has no political aspirations. Violence leads to temporary gains: “Nothing violent / Oft have I heard tell, can be permanent” (1.1.131-132). A surprising insight comes from his statement where he admits a preference for Christian rulers, saying, “Give us a peaceful rule, make Christians kings / That thirst for so much principality” (1.1.133-134). He prefers to stay in the shadows, behind the halls of government and the public eye. This adds to his Machiavellian persona, and almost indicates that the Christians are his puppets, who play childish games of glory while he stockpiles wealth. This is a wonderfully evil notion, and here another mapping could be made to Enron, industrial deregulation, and greed. Those in positions of government perceive control, but in effect take the risk for the real operators beneath them. Barabas “exercises great care in controlling appearances and exchanges of words within his plots” (Thurn 165). It is both exciting and nefarious to watch. Yet Barabas forgets his aversion to violence and political power. By the end of the play, he’s slashed and burned his way to the governor’s seat, and suddenly a high-profile bureaucrat, seeks to profit from his office and then magnanimously defer power back to Ferneze. Blinded by his successful raging revenge, once in power Barabas sees the danger: “I now am governor of Malta. True, / But Malta hates me, and in hating me, / My life’s in danger” (5.2.29-31). Worse yet, he tells himself, “by wrong thou got’st authority” (5.2.35). Now he’s pinned behind his earlier comment about the temporality of violence, and he cannot undo his power so easily. Instead of looking up at power, he is looking down, and now it is his weaknesses that are highlighted to the world.

Ferneze and the knight have envy for the success of Barabas. Jeremy Bentham summarizes their gaze: “Those who have the resolution to sacrifice the present to the future, are natural objects of envy to those who have sacrificed their future to the present” (Stonex 190). Critics of Wal-Mart, Microsoft, Starbucks, and McDonalds might resent the statement, but like Barabas, who is the equivalent of a multinational Dow Jones company, corporate success results from efficient risk. Bentham reduces the envy to a childish metaphor, adding, “The children who have eaten their cake, are the natural enemies of the children who have theirs” (Stonex 190). Ferneze ate his cake too fast, and leans on political power to replenish his plate. The prudence of effective business gets punished, and to Barabas this is anathema; it is incompetent management legalizing theft. Adam Smith would agree that the “Invisible Hand” should not be cuffed, and that a government that gouges the arteries of commerce attacks its own economy and thereby its own competitive advantage.

The image of the corrupt Jewish merchant indicates what the Elizabethan power structure allowed for anti-greed discourse. He acts as the vent for monetary frustrations. This kind of systematic scapegoating allowed for the real power to keep functioning. Similarly, to focus blame on a single company keeps the eye of disdain on one company, sparing the system as a whole. Enron plummets, the public screams, while myriad utility companies pick up the standard and carry on where Enron fell. When elephant-sized Wal-Mart moves, an outcry goes up against the eyesore, but simultaneously Target, K-Mart, and ten other “big-box” stores move into urban areas with relative ease, as no one balks at the less powerful, though equally enormous companies. In The Jew of Malta, Barabas is the sacrificial lamb of the system. The largest merchant makes for an easy target, and the play all but shouts: “Crucify Barabas! He is the reason we suffer!” The play could easily be retrofitted for Enron or Wal-Mart. Pop culture often refers to “the Man,” a faceless financial puppetmaster, who manipulates the masses from behind the scenes. One rare occasion of seeing “the Man” occurred in the Enron crash. The exposed business person becomes the scapegoat for public angst, but the system goes untouched. Like Barabas, we currently watch Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling with disgust, but their collapse is “used to sanction and mystify the economic imperatives of the state” (Thurn 161). After the fall of Enron, every sensible corporation decried unaccountable and unethical business. If not for the periodic crash of a CEO, the image of greed has no body for people to burn in effigy; it only has a logo. The disembodied logos reduce prejudice toward a single group of people, but at the same time the object of disdain gains a buffer. There is no evil Barabas hunched in a counting house, but instead an entity behind glossy advertising and beautiful buildings. Because the object of disdain is not a person, but an array of many people, the disdain is diversified like a strong portfolio. The focal point blurs, and critics cannot galvanize efforts against a single person. Behind the abstract corporate logo live all walks of life, executives and janitors, secretaries and salespeople – and surely not all can be greedy. Barabas makes greed a one-man show, but with well-dressed corporations, there is rarely a single, grotesque person to be angry with, but a well-spoken, often-confusing corporation.

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