Malta's Governor, Ferneze, taxes every Jew at half their income so he can pay the tribute he owes Turkey. When the title character, Barabas, protests this injustice, Ferneze confiscates all his wealth. Barabas goes on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge.
This play contains examples of:
- Ambition Is Evil: The only way to get anywhere in the world is to murder your way to the top.
- Break the Haughty
- Byronic Hero: Barabas.
- Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: The characters routinely conspire and betray each other. Even the supposed good characters stab each other in the back by the end.
- Create Your Own Villain: The Jew of Malta, while not free of the anti-semitism of its premise, at the very least has a Jewish Villain Protagonist (where The Merchant of Venice has a Jewish Big Bad and supporting character). Barabas also makes it clear that his actions are inspired by racism and oppression at the hands of Christians and Muslims.Barabas: Why, I esteem the injury far less,
To take the lives of miserable men
Than be the causers of their misery.
You have my wealth, the labour of my life,
The comfort of mine age, my children's hope;
And therefore ne'er distinguish of the wrong.
- Crime After Crime: Barabas has a series of them; he poisons his own daughter Abigail and the nuns to cover up the deaths of Abigail's suitors; upon realising she has confessed to Father Bernadine, he contrives the latter's death too.
- Do Not Do This Cool Thing: The Jew of Malta has the flashy Magnificent Bastard Villain Protagonist that is the coolest character in the show and wins at absolutely everything, but then gets boiled alive in the last five minutes as if to say that "we aren't supposed to root for them" was invoked. Some argue that this is because of the censorship at the time and that Marlowe's intention is that Barabas is totally rad.
- Dying Curse: As he dies, Barabas curses the "Damned Christian dogs and Turkish infidels!" who brought about his death.
- Greedy Jew: Barabas's motivation is revenge for the loss of his wealth — but as he points out, he is what the Christians made them.
- Grey and Gray Morality: All over the place in Marlowe's plays where there are almost no purely good characters anywhere. One reason that The Jew of Malta is less racist than The Merchant of Venice is that the Christian characters are just as corrupt and venal as the hero (whereas Shakespeare says that the quality of Christianity is "mercy") and as Barabas points out, they are worse, because they created him and act like hypocrites while At Least I Admit It.
- Heroic Comedic Sociopath: Because of Values Dissonance and the fact that he's very entertaining in his evil schemes the audience may end up rooting for The Jew of Malta.
- Historical Domain Character: Niccolò Machiavelli delivers the prologue to The Jew of Malta, he makes pithy comments on how "I consider religion a childish toy." which fits with the Elizabethan perception of the Florentine.
- Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Barabas is named after Barabbas in The Bible, a violent criminal who was freed in the place of Jesus.
- Offing the Offspring: Barabas kills his own daughter after she converts to Catholicism.
- Rationalizing the Overkill: After Malta's Governor, Ferneze, confiscates all his wealth, Barabas plots to avenge himself, but he doesn't stop with the Governor. He orchestrates the death not only of Ferneze's son Lodowick, but also of Lodowick's friend Mathias, an entire convent of nuns (deliberately including his own daughter after she converts to Catholicism and takes holy orders), and two friars.note Barabas rationalizes his actions thus (2.3.313-316):Barabas: It's no sin to deceive a Christian,
For they themselves hold it a principle
Faith is not to be held with heretics;
But all are heretics that are not Jews.
- Religion Is Wrong: The Jew of Malta has Christians, Muslims and Jews as characters and all of them are shown to be equally selfish, two-timing and corrupt, with the Christians triumphing over Barabas and the Turk by being more backstabbing and ruthless than both of them. As Machiavelli outlines in the prologue:Machiavel: I count religion but a childish toy
And hold there is no sin but ignorance.
- Roaring Rampage of Revenge
- Stupid Evil: Barabas betray the Christians, who have wronged him, to the Turks, who reward his betrayal. He then betrays the Turks to the Christians, on the ground that he hates them both and ends up in that boiling cauldron.
- The Scrooge: Barabas.
- Then Let Me Be Evil: Barabas gets cheated out of his fortune by those in power who hold the attitude that Jews are greedy and evil, oh and by the way make more money so we can cheat you out of it again. He decides if he's going to be considered wicked no matter what he does he might as well show them true villainy and give them something to really complain about.
- Villain Protagonist: Barabas.