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Religion and the Formation of Early Modern Identities in The Island Princess and The Jew of Malta: The Significance of Christianity in the Early Modern Period

©2009 Bachelorarbeit 51 Seiten


This study depicts the significance of Christian and non-Christian relations in the formation of early modern identities in John Fletcher’s The Island Princess and Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta. Christian and non-Christian relations are explicitly demonstrated in the Elizabethan and Jacobean plays due to their incorporated issue of religion. The plays are set in the early modern period, during which many changes occur. The significance of Christian and non-Christian relations increase as the age of colonisation advances, and more territorial expansion and long-distance trade are undertaken. The encounter with different cultures and faiths awakes European consciousness to the existence of great non-Christian societies. This knowledge in turn evokes apprehension of the existing attitudes and beliefs in Christian Europe. Notions of race and religion begin to shift. Non-European peoples commence to be perceived as rivals to Christianity. Marlowe’s and Fletcher’s plays depict the anxieties towards the Other, where religion becomes the central issue of distinction. Marlowe’s tragedy The Jew of Malta deals with Judaism and Catholicism and their mutual hostility. Fletcher’s tragi-comedy The Island Princess deals with the pagan princess’s conversion to Christianity.
This study explores various aspects influenced and sustained by Christianity. Christian beliefs form a foundation for early modern European society. The emerging identities are indispensably intertwined with Christianity and Christian attitudes of that time. Notions of race and gender cannot be easily defined without religion. This study explores the changes in the development of racial thinking and its religious underpinning. Christianity inevitably influences different spheres of social life and conduct because of its popularity during this time period. Religion empowers European nations to endorse their values in foreign territories and advocates the spread of Christianity in the world. The Island Princess, for example, explores underlying Christian values, which set the heroine’s conversion in the centre of the play. The Jew of Malta, on the other hand, explores the notion that Christians are not flawless. Not only does it reveal the condemned character traits of the Jews, but it also ridicules the Christians. The study investigates the emergence of Christians’ repulsive attitudes towards the Jews, the relationship to the Turks, and it explores Marlowe’s criticism of the […]


The Jew of Malta, on the other hand, explores the notion that Christians are not
flawless. Not only does it reveal the condemned character traits of the Jews, but
it also ridicules the Christians. The study will investigate the emergence of
Christians' repulsive attitudes towards the Jews, the relationship to the Turks,
and it will explore Marlowe's criticism of the Christians. The study will inquire
into the causes for the tense relationship to non-Christians and look for clues in
the unconverted natives' perception of Christian Europeans.

2. Christianity and Religion and Drama
At the end of the sixteenth century, the protestant Queen Elisabeth I ruled all
over England. She was the youngest daughter of King Henry VIII and continued
what her father had established. In 1533 Henry VIII broke up with Rom and
founded the Church of England, whereby he declared himself as the Supreme
Henry's initial aim of `reforming' or purifying the Catholic Church,
ended up in (a) complete opposition to Catholicism and became known as
Before the reformation in England, "Christianity was entirely
synonymous with Catholicism."
By the time of Henry VIII's death in 1547,
Christianity "had split into two very different confessions, Catholicism and
Since Queen Elisabeth I had no children, she was the last
monarch of the Tudor dynasty. Her successor, James VI of Scotland (1603-
was also a Protestant and the first monarch of the Stuart dynasty.
Henry's eldest child, Mary I (1553-8), reverted England to Catholicism during
her short reign.
She and her half-sister Elisabeth I were the first female mon-
archs after many hundreds of years in England.
The unmarried Queen Mary I
challenged the legal position of women, which was considered as either married
or about to be married.
The changes of the Reformation proved to be beneficial
for the then as abnormal considered status of the Virgin Queen.
The population of Renaissance England was deeply religious
and "Chris-
tian belief, based on the authority of the bible, was the main emotional and
intellectual mainspring of English society throughout this period."
The conver-
sion of a person from one religion to another became a central theme of that
period. The period is referred to as `early modern' because it "suggests belief in
`modernisation' process."
The Renaissance period was an age of great
Cp. L. Hopkins,. M. Steggle.: Renaissance Literature and Culture. London 2006, 5. Hereafter referred
to as Culture.
Cp. Culture, 5. Cp. Hopkins, 5.
Culture, 14.
Culture, 14.
Cp. Culture, 10.
Cp. Culture, 13.
Cp. David J.B. Trim, Peter. J. Balderstone, ed.: Cross, Crown & Community. Oxford 2004, 1. Hereafter
referred to as Crown.
Cp. Crown, 1. Cp. Trim, 1.
Cp. Crown, 1.
Cp. Culture, 13.
Culture, 12.
Crown, 1.

explorations, long-distance trade, colonisation, the rediscovery of ancient
knowledge, encounters with foreign people, cultures, faiths and lands. The
period ushered in the rise of Europe to a world power with international trade
connections and saw a growing sense of national identity and self confidence
throughout the whole European continent. "Renaissance explorers were pene-
trating further into previously unexplored corners of the globe than ever be-
England's colonialism began in 1607, when the first North American
colony, Virginia, was successfully established. Early modern trade led far
beyond the European borders and "Englishmen were trading with Russia, India
and Turkey."
Since the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Turks were a growing world
power and posed a terrible threat to Christian Europe.
In 1565 Turkey had
only narrowly failed to capture the Mediterranean island of Malta and Malta's
siege was greatly celebrated in Europe.
Jews, in contrast, did not pose any
kind of comparable threat against the European security because of the lack of
political power to generate an invasion.
Judaism and Islam were both demon-
ised in Christian Europe. This widespread demonisation gave "rise to a number
of stereotypes which are repeatedly drawn on in English Renaissance
Marlowe's tragedy The Jew of Malta depicts a wide range of Jewish
stereotypes of that time.
Renaissance England had officially no Jews. England expelled "Jews in
1290, and they were not officially allowed back until 1656."
This means that
there were not enough Jews to verify the various negative traits that were
ascribed to them during this period. Katz argues that "the only Jews of most
people's acquaintance were biblical figures, literary characters, and entirely
Officially, only converted Jews were allowed to live in England.
After the law was passed "in 1290 by King Edward I,"
many Jews converted to
Christianity in order to avoid expulsion from England. However, many of them
Culture, 107.
Culture, 107.
Cp. Culture, 18-19.
Cp. Culture, 18-19.
Cp. Culture, 13.
Culture, 108.
Loomna, Ania: Shakespeare, Race and Colonialism. Oxford: OUP 2002, 143. Hereafter referred to as
Katz, David, S: The Jews in the History of England. Oxford: Clarendon Press 1994, 108. Hereafter
referred to as Jews.
Jews, 107.

practised their religion secretly and were called `Marranos'.
This gave rise to
suspicion towards Jews and their religious identity. The advantage of the Jews
as opposed to Turks and Moors was that they were indistinguishable from local
population. Their outer appearance and behaviour were similar to the rest of
Europe's inhabitants. The anxieties of confrontation with a disguised Jew made
it necessary to stigmatise them. An attempt was made with a wide range of
traits which were attributed to Jews and which were supposed to help to discern
Jews from Christians. The idea of feigned Jews, who were Christians, with
Christians and Jews with other Jews, contributed to the question of race and
religion, both complex subjects in the early modern period. The religious and
racial significance of that period appears in the Renaissance tragedy called The
Jew of Malta.
The increasing contact to peoples of non-Christian faiths was central to
the growing significance of non-Christian relations in early modern Europe. The
interreligious contact challenged the knowledge of Christian society. The
discovery of new lands and foreign peoples was puzzling for Europeans and
aroused curiosity of their backgrounds. Answers were sought within the Bible,
but every attempt turned out to be useless.
However, the rediscovery of
ancient philosophers, such as Aristotle, helped to explain the existence of
different looking peoples.
The Aristotelian concept of natural slavery [...] was a centrepiece of a the-
ory of domination and subjugation that pretended to explain the innate in-
feriority of certain types of human beings in order to justify the existence of
power by elite males in the subjugation of others.
Religious and interracial tensions endangered Christian European stability and
generated anxieties of the Other exposed in The Jew of Malta and The Island
The early modern period was crucial for the development of the biological
notion of race. It was a time when `race' became associated with physical traits.
The medieval counterpart began to fade away, establishing the beginnings for
the modern conceptions of race. Prior to the shift in racial thinking religion used
Cp. Shakespeare, 67.
Cp. Culture, 108.
Zamora, Margarita: Abreast of Columbus: Gender and Discovery. Cultural Critique, 17.1 (1990), 140.

to be considered as independent from race. The word `race´ itself had a differ-
ent meaning than it has today. It was not considered biological but rather
cultural and religious. Peoples' faith was superior to other characteristics. Due
to the "belief in a common inheritance [...] 'race' in a religious sense was more
porous than the later colonial notion of races as genetically distinct species."
Race or nationality were not taken into account once a non-Christian converted
to Christianity. However, this changed after world-wide explorations were
undertaken and various cultures encountered. The notion of race began to shift.
Neil argues that in "the seventeenth century, the pressure of encounter with so
many unfamiliar peoples begins to shift definitions of alterity away from the
dominant paradigm of culture."
Consequently, racial prejudices established
biased views on the individuals and depicted them as `other', and "it is possible
to see color emerging as the most important criterion for defining otherne-
As a result, Fairness became a contested term, used to signal Europe's
shared whiteness, and skin color became the equivalent for one's social status.
Fletcher's tragi-comedy The Island Princess is a good example for investigating
the blurred appreciation of race and skin colour at that time.
Ever since race was linked to religion in the early modern period, all non-
white people were perceived as non-Christians. A crucial historic event, which
had an impact on the notion of race, took place during the Inquisition at Seville
(in Spain) in 1480. The inquisition "introduced the idea that religious faith was
manifested in `purity of blood´."
The blood laws pointed out that once white
Christian blood was mixed with Jewish or Moorish blood, non-Christian charac-
teristics would persist throughout many generations. The new thinking becomes
evident in the extract from a Spanish biography of Charles V:
Who can deny that in the descendants of the Jews there persists and en-
dures the evil inclination of their ancient ingratitude and lack of under-
standing... Similarly it is not enough for a Jew to be three parts aristocratic
or Old Christian for one family-line alone defiles and corrupts him.
Shakespeare, 26.
Neil, Michael: "Mulattos," "Blacks" and "Indian Moors": Othello and Early Modern Construction of
Human Difference. Shakespeare Quarterly, 49.4 (1998), 366-367. Hereafter referred to as Difference.
Difference, 367.
Shakespeare, 68.
Shakespeare, 68.

However, these blood laws contradicted the Christian ideal that all humans
descended from Noah and his sons. As colonialism advanced, the idea of purity
of blood seemed to be justified for Christians. At the same time "the question of
conversion which catalysed the development of `biological' ideas of race [...]
became a highly volatile question, with a corresponding reduction in the expres-
sion of liberal theology."
Hence the shared heritage as descendants of "the
same protoplasm" was wiped out through the identification of non-Europeans
"as biologically different from Europeans."
The evolution of the biological
notion of race influenced people's perception of Jews and Moors. Hence the
impact of Barbas' and Quisara's perception can be explored in the Renaissance
plays The Jew of Malta and The Island Princess.
Also people's gender had a different meaning than it has today. Gender
was crucial in the discourse of conversion. In the early seventeenth-century
Captain Seagull "suggests a male autogenesis that involves native women only
as vessels for European seed."
Ania Loomba argues that "at that time men
were regarded genetically dominant [and] unions between high-born women
and inferior men could not be looked at so favourably."
Such a view of repro-
duction had a long tradition. Aristotle "assigned males special responsibility in
reproduction" arguing that "men alone could endow embryos with form and
For Galen, "women's seed was less perfected and therefore less
determinative than men's.
Hence, the union between European men and non-
European women was not only viewed with approval but also encouraged.
Status was obtained through the husband's religion, and only a Christian was
regarded as a full human being. The issue of gender and its relevance for
conversion are demonstrated in The Island Princess.
Colonial expansion was a strongly gendered dynamic and colonists per-
ceived foreign unconquered lands accordingly. Land was referred to as being
female. In Samuel Purchase's description of Virginia, the land is depicted as
"luxuriant wantonesse" that is "worth the wooing and loves of the best Hus-
Shakespeare, 68.
Shakespeare, 69.
Nocentelli, Carmen: The Erotics of Mercantile Imperialism: Cross-Cultural Requitedness in Early
Modern Period. The Journal For Early Modern Cultural Studies, 8.1 (2008), 139. Hereafter referred to as
Shakespeare, 33.
Imperialism, 139.
Imperialism, 139.

Sexualising colonial space as female denoted its inferiority to its male
conquerors. The colonial discourse of gender applies to the setting of The
Island Princess, and can be transferred to the heroine of the play. European
Christian colonists are expressed in terms of masculinity and thus increasingly
representative for European, Christian identity.
According to Christian belief,
men were placed above women, and preached wifely subjection to their hus-
bands. Wives were expected to be "obedient and deferent to their husbands."
This ideology compared colonisation to the relationship between spouses,
which saw the subjection of colonial subjects as theologically founded.
Stevens, Paul:
Paradise Lost and the Colonial Imperative
In: Milton Studies, ed. Simmonds, James,
D. Pittsburgh : University of Pittsburgh Press 1969, 11.
< > (25.07.2009).
Cp. Shakespeare, 31.
Imperialism, 146.

3. The Jew of Malta
3.1 Religion and Trade
Marlowe's play The Jew of Malta deals with Catholics and Jews on the island of
Malta. The play's main character, Barbas, is a Jew. He is a wealthy merchant
whose wealth was seized by the Governor of Malta in order to pay tribute to the
The conflict between Christians and Jews arises from Barbas' mercantile
transactions, which were "´strange` in early modern England."
The play is set
during a time that marks "the transition from old to early modern commercial
The crux of Barbas' mercantile business is that his wealth grew not
from a simple exchange of self-manufactured commodities but from the buying
and selling of commodities based on his knowledge of demand.
His knowledge
and understanding of markets conformed more to "the pattern of intellectual
service than to the simple supply model of manufacture."
This "knowledge
was new and strange in the early modern period. Apart from that,
many Christians tried to establish themselves on the new markets and were
unable to do so due to the strong Jewish competition. Loomba points out that
Jewish "traders offered stiff competition to English merchants seeking to
establish a foothold in the lucrative trade."
The French traveller Nicholas de
Nicholay wrote around 1585: "At this present day, they have in their hands the
most and greatest of traffic of merchandize and ready money that is in all
In act I Barbas boasts of the international spread of Jewish mer-
Myself in Malta, some in Italy,
Many in France, and wealthy every one:
Ay wealthier far than any Christian.
Jardine, Lisa: Reading Shakespeare Historically. London: Routledge 1996, 103. Hereafter referred to as
Historically, 99.
Cp. Historically, 102.
Historically, 102.
Historically, 103.
Shakespeare, 144.
Shakespeare, 144
Marlowe, Christopher, ed. Bawcutt, N., W.: The Jew of Malta. Manchester: MUP 1978, I.i.125-127.

As David S. Katz points out, "the claim that the economic abilities of the Jews
were considerable and that their trade connections were efficient and interna-
tional was usually used against them."
A more worrying occupation of Jews
was usury, which was one of Barbas' occupations as well.
Usury contradicted
the "fundamental tenet of early modern Christianity," which pleaded "the bar-
renness of money"
and was prohibited during this time period.
This placed
Jews in a complicated position and alienated them from Christians. Christians
reproached Jews for their economic success.
Even though Jews occupied
important economic positions, the tension between them and the Christians was
inevitable. "The growing importance of the Jews in the economic sphere"
its backlashes. "Questions of value and belief"
arose driving Christians and
Jews apart. Christians blamed the Jews for their mischief and attributed it to
their unchristian life.
For through our sufferance of your hateful lives,
Who stand accursed in the sight of heaven (I.ii.63-64)
Hence in the play, Barbas' mercantile transactions massively contributed to
Christian suspicions against his character. Moreover, English merchants
"believed that they could achieve their aims only by converting Jewish mer-
chants to Christianity."
The financial importance of Jews in the early modern
period was overshadowed by their supposed reluctance to renounce their faith
and thus to assimilate. Marlowe addresses Barbas' opposition to convert to
Why, Barbas, wilt thou be christened?
No, governor, I will be no convertite. (I.ii.82-83)
His reluctance implies Christian anxieties of the approaching coming of the Anti-
Christ, if the unconverted won't surrender and convert. Christopher Hill argues
that "the conversion of Jews was seen in the sixteenth and seventeenth centu-
Katz, David, S: The Jews in the History of England. Oxford: Clarendon Press 1994, 109. Hereafter
referred to as Jews.
Cp. Culture, 20.
Historically, 107.
Cp. Historically, 103.
Cp. Shakespeare, 144.
Jews, 107
Historically, 99.
Shakespeare, 144.

ries as a part of a package of events announcing the approach of the end of the
world and the millennium."
Thus he continues that "the conversion of the Jews
and the spreading of Christianity to all nations were necessary conditions
without which the millennium could not take place."
Marlowe's ridicule of the Catholics, however, reveals that the playwright
does not advocate Christianity, though he does not fully sympathise with
Judaism. In the beginning of the play one can feel his admiration for Barbas for
his achievements and his great skills as a merchant. This transient admiration
fades away with Barbas' death at the end of the play. Marlowe's advocacy for
"the truth of the orthodox view, that self-interest is self-destroying"
evident with the demise of the protagonist. Thus, even though he did not fully
advocate Christianity, especially Catholicism, he retained some of the funda-
mental Christian values. Christian sense for solidarity appears briefly in the
beginning of the play, when the Governor of Malta preaches:
... better one want for a common good
Than many perish for a private man.
This exclamation shows Marlowe's brief celebration of Christian values in "the
fallen world"
of Malta.
The striking element of the play turns out to be that despite Malta's alleged
adherence to Christian faith, its Christian inhabitants do nothing of that sort. In
Marlowe's "vision of Malta as a Christian bulwark" he presents "its idealistic
rhetoric of honour and pity" as "a window-dressing, behind which, on both sides,
lies the reality of greed."
Thus the Catholics of Malta do not differ much from
its Turkish invaders, who demand tribute for Malta's peace. Christian lapses are
clearly indicated and subliminally criticised in the course of the play. The greed
for money appears not to be a purely Jewish trait, but a universal one:
The wind that bloweth all the world besides,
Desire of gold. (III.iv.3-4)
By depicting the greed for money as a shared negative trait, Marlowe suggests
that "the Jew is not the exception but rather the true representative of his
Jews, 82.
Essays, 271.
Theology, 215.
Theology, 240.
Theology, 229.

Barbas even demonstrates that he has retained some secret belief in
Christianity, as was often thought to be the case with Jews.
Katz asserts that
even though when Barbas dies and damns "Christian, dogs and Turkish infi-
dels"(V.v.85), he actually reverses in his last breath the litany in the Book of
Common Prayer.
Hence, the incorporated Jewish and Christian values depict
Barbas as a representative of both societies. By placing the Jew against the
Christians "Marlowe's primary purpose is not to justify the Jew, but to belabour
the Christian."
Barbas points out that his and his fellow Jews' attitudes and
behaviours are better that the religious "hypocrisy of the Christians:"
A counterfeit profession is better
Than unseen hypocrisy. (I.ii.292-293)
When the Governor of Malta threatens to confiscate Barbas' possessions,
Barbas appeals in disdain to Governor's faith:
Will you then steal my goods?
Is theft the ground of your religion? (I.ii.95-96)
This renders "the Jewish profession of Barbas" preferable "to the hypocrisy of
the Christians."
As the crux for belabouring the Christians Barbas blames them for the
slave trade. "The matter-of-fact buying and selling of human bodies" contradicts
the Christian doctrine and places it at "the symbolic centre of the corruption of
financial dealing."
Nevertheless, Barbas participates in the slave trade be-
cause of his need for an ally, so he can realise his vicious revenge plan. He is
"the Jew" who "buys a Turk at the Christian slave market."
The slaves are
"captives", which are "produced" and "bargained for a merchandise in the
Christian-governed world of Malta:"
"Every one's price is written on his back"
Greenblatt, Stephen, J.: Renaissance self-fashioning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1980, 203.
Hereafter referred to as Renaissance.
Jews, 81.
Jews, 81.
Theology, 240.
Theology, 240.
Theology, 240.
Historically, 110.
Renaissance, 205.
Historically, 110.


ISBN (Paperback)
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Institution / Hochschule
Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf
2015 (Februar)
Religion Race Colonialism Gender John Fletcher Christopher Marlowe


Die Autorin Milena Bubenechik: Anregung zum Thema dieses Buches fand ich nach meinem Auslandsstudium an der Nottingham Trent University in England. Die Inspiration mich mit diesem tiefgreifendem Thema so ausführlich zu beschäftigen kam durch die hervorragende fachliche Vermittlung des Stoffes durch die Dozenten der Nottingham Trent University. Die Einblicke in die Entstehung unserer heutigen Denkweisen eröffnen ein weites Feld an Wissen, ohne welchen wir viele kausale Zusammenhänge nicht verstehen würden. Die Bedeutung dieses Themas ist fächerübergreifend und ist auch für nicht wissenschaftliche Interessenten sinnbringend und verständlich. Unser heutiges Verständnis von Rasse und Religion hat seine Wurzeln in der modernen Neuzeit. Dieses ausführlich zu erforschen, war eine sehr interessante und horizonterweiternde wissenschaftliche Expedition.

Titel: Religion and the Formation of Early Modern Identities in The Island Princess and The Jew of Malta: The Significance of Christianity in the Early Modern Period