Teaching Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta

Philip Smith, The University of the Bahamas

Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta is an engaging and often enjoyable play to teach. It contains a gleefully diabolical villain who never fails to provoke discussion. It is also satisfyingly problematic – it is open to a range of readings, some of which might lead us to find either the seeds of modern anti-Semitism channeled through Marlowe’s work, or, conversely, a carefully-orchestrated reversal of anti-Semitic stereotypes.

In the following teaching guide I wish to build upon Simon Shepherd’s observation that A-Level and degree courses risk teaching a version of Marlowe he calls ‘Marlowe-who-isn’t-Shakespeare’  a figure who can sometimes loom larger than ‘Marlowe-who-is-Marlowe, (or […] Shakespeare-who-isn’t-Marlowe)’ (xiii). While useful connections can be made between Marlowe and Shakespeare’s work, it is often useful to think of Marlow in his own terms, outside of Shakespeare’s shadow.

The following lesson plans seek to provide advanced high-school or first-year undergraduate students with an understanding of the critical issues that surround the representation of Jewish identities in the play, and the question of civic and civil power. Depending on the instructor’s preferences, the discussion can also engage with the figure of the anti-hero, and the question of Jewish daughters. It would be well-suited to a course which also features The Merchant of Venice and, ideally, Richard III although, as mentioned above Marlowe should be taught in such a way as to stand alone.

I have assumed that the students have previously studied at least one Shakespeare play and thus already have a very basic understanding of Elizabethan society and theatre. I have also assumed that the students can be trusted, following an introductory primer, to independently read and understand a text in early modern English (albeit glossed and with standardised spelling) without too much difficulty. Finally, I have assumed that students can distinguish between credible and unreliable sources when carrying out research.

The following activities aim to be student-centered and involve multiple ways of learning. The arc of the classes goes from understanding to analysis. In lieu of a further reading section, I direct the reader to Sarah K Scott’s excellent survey The Jew of Malta: A Critical Reader, a text which may serve as the basis for handouts or lecture notes.

Lesson One 

Learning Outcomes

  • Build context for our reading of the play
  •  Identify tone and theme
  •  Recognize differences and similarities between early modern and modern English

Teaching Strategy and Activities

Students who are still developing an ear for Early Modern English may benefit from a pre-reading activity. (The following has been adapted from Shakespeare Set Free, a book I heartily recommend). Prior to the lesson write the following lines on slips of paper.

  • The story of a rich and famous Jew
  • A sound Machiavill
  • To have your princely ears
  • To present this, many years agone,
  • That he hath past/So many censures is now come at last
  • Who liv’d in Malta
  • ‘Mongst other plays that now in fashion are
  • We humbly crave your pardon

Distribute these among the class by asking students to pick a folded slip from a hat or envelope. Ask each student to stand up and read the writing on the slip of paper aloud (it may be useful to also make the passages visible through an overhead display or on a white board as they are read out). If any of the slips pose a problem to understanding the instructor should call upon other students to explain the words (‘sound Machiavill’ and ‘censures’ may need to be explained). If it arises, the instructor may wish to clarify the differences between Modern and Early Modern English (particularly now-retired verb forms such as ‘hath’). Once all slips of paper have been read and understood ask the students where they think this speech may appear in the play (the prologue), who it is going to be performed for (at court) and what the play is about (a Machiavellian Jewish character who lives in Malta). You can call upon particular students to answer these questions or ask all of the students to write their answers down. Write their answers somewhere visible for the entire class. At this stage accept all answers even if they later turn out to be wrong.

The purpose of this activity is to take away some of the apprehension certain students experience when encountering early modern English. It helps the students to understand that they are perfectly capable of understanding Marlowe’s work without needing someone else to parse it for them. For classes who require additional help, Shakespeare Set Free has several activities which make early modern English more accessible, as well as hand-outs for understanding early modern English.

Follow this activity by reading the prologue of the play aloud in class. This can be done by the instructor or by calling on students. My preferred method is to call upon students one at a time to read a single sentence (until the next full stop, question mark, or exclamation point). Encourage students to sound out any unfamiliar word, making their best guess as to pronunciation. Follow this by comparing what we now know having read the prologue to our initial predictions.

Finish this session by asking students to debate why the prologue is presented by a caricature of Machiavelli? If the topic has not arisen already, you may wish to explain, or (better) call upon a student to explain, who Machiavelli was and what he has come to symbolize.

Between this and the next lesson the students should read the first two acts and write a short summary at home (you may wish to ask students to submit this before class). Students should also predict, briefly, what they think will happen next.

Advanced placement high school classes may benefit from reading the text together in class rather than reading independently. Reading the text from start to finish as a group allows the instructor to gloss the text live, test understanding, and call attention to specific passages. It also gives students an opportunity to speak the words aloud. It is, however, very time consuming and therefore ill-fitting to the pace of a typical undergraduate seminar.

The Jew of Malta can often be a problematic text to teach. It suggests a range of readings, some of which are decidedly anti-Semitic. This can, understandably, create tensions in a classroom environment. Some teachers may wish to take their cue from Lowenstein and ask their students to keep reaction journals as they read. Students should be encouraged to record any thoughts or observations in their journal, not only those related to the anti-Semitism. Depending on how assessment is structured in one’s institution, journaling may be used as part of the assessment.

Lesson Two

Learning Outcomes

  •  Summarise the text
  •  Recognise the political and social contexts for The Jew of Malta
  •  Develop our critical vocabulary when discussing the figure of the anti-hero
  •  Identify the key themes of the play


The instructor begins by placing students into groups. Each group has ten minutes to create a concise summary of the first two acts of the play. They should use the summaries they brought with them but should not use any external resources. Each group’s summary should be as short as possible while including the names of all main characters and key events. Each group then reads their summary aloud with each group member taking a turn to read a sentence. The instructor times the activity. Whichever group can effectively summarise the play in the shortest amount of time wins.

This activity allows the teacher to both test the student’s understanding of the play and ensure that everyone in the room has refreshed their memories as to character names and key events. It also allows students to clear up any misunderstandings they have as to the plot. The competitive nature of the activity also means that energy levels are often high when doing this task, thus providing a nice, engaging, start to the lesson. 

Teaching Strategy and Activities

In order to lead on to the next activity, ask students what kind of questions we might ask in order to better understand this kind of text. You may start them off with the question ‘What was the status of Jews in sixteenth century England?’

The following activity is designed to provide the students with background knowledge before they approach the play. The instructor should place the students in new groups. Each group is assigned one of the following topics:

  • Jews in Elizabethan England
  • Sixteenth century Malta
  • Anti-hero
  • Jewish daughters in early modern drama

Instructors may wish to add or remove topics as they see fit depending on group size and the content already encountered on the course. The following topics may also be of interest:

  • The reception of Machiavelli’s works in Elizabethan England
  • Barabas (the biblical character)
  • Jewish communities in Renaissance Europe

The instructor should bring resources to class for students to consult (see Scott), but the class should be encouraged to go online to seek additional (credible) resources. Examples of online sources might include Early Modern Literary Studies or the Marlowe Studies journal.

Students are given half an hour (adjust according to time available) to assemble as much information as they can on their assigned topic. During this time the instructor should circulate to make sure that students are on-task and that their research is moving in the right direction (students may find the trial and execution of Roderigo Lopez noteworthy, for example, but should recognise that he was not executed until two years after The Jew of Malta was written).

After thirty minutes has elapsed each group elects an ambassador. The ambassador moves to another group. He or she then has ten minutes to offer a summary of their research to the new group, after which the group will have ten minutes to explain their own research to the ambassador. Once each ambassador has visited every group the activity is over. At the end of the activity the instructor can give a quick summary and an explanation of any key information which he or she feels may have been missed. Encourage students to keep their notes as these will be relevant for future lessons. 

Lesson Three

Learning Outcomes

  •  Summarise the text
  •  Analyse the role and forms of anti-Semitism in the play
  •  Analyse the connection between anti-Semitism in early modern England with twentieth century propaganda


The instructor begins by asking students to write down everything they remember from the last lesson. It may be helpful to write the research topics from the last lesson in a place where the class can see them as an aid to memory. This writing can take the form of bullet points, full sentences, a spider diagram, etcetera. Follow this with the summary game which opened the last lesson, covering act three. 

Teaching Activity

The purpose of the following activities is to explore the question of anti-Semitism in the play through open and free-flowing discussion supported by textual detail. The instructor will often act as a guide or devil’s advocate according to the needs of the class. In an ideal scenario students will take the lead in this discussion after being given prompts, but in practice a more structured discussion is often necessary. For classes where students are shy to offer opinions, a list of methods to facilitate class debates can be found at The Cult of Pedagogy website (link below).

The instructor begins by asking students how they feel about the play to this point and the character of Barabas. Students should be given a few minutes to write down their ideas before the discussion or refer to their reaction journals. The instructor may ask students to work in pairs or as a group.

The instructor then explains that in this class we will consider the question of anti-Semitism in the text. Each group is given an image from the German Propaganda Archive and are asked to describe the stereotypes presented therein. After each group has taken a turn describing the image they are given, the instructor asks the students to work in new groups to find references to Barabas’ physicality, particularly his nose, or the numerous religious (and anti-religious) references which litter the text. For comparison, students should seek both physical and spiritual descriptions of Abigail, possibly the only morally ‘good’ character, in the text. The purpose of this activity is to develop connections between the works of Elizabethan playwrights and twentieth-century racism. The instructor should be clear that Elizabethans did not invent anti-Semitism, but that works from around that time cemented certain toxic stereotypes which have continued into the twentieth century and the modern day.

This leads to a discussion of the text’s arguable anti-Semitism. Taking our cue from Lowenstein, a discussion may be oriented around the following questions:

Does Marlowe reinforce or complicate the stereotypes we have encountered so far?

How does Abigail compare to the contemporary stereotype of ‘the murderous Jewess’

What effect might these stereotypes have on an audience in Marlowe’s time?

What effect might these stereotypes have on an audience today?

Can you think of other texts (from any time period) which invoke the same stereotypes?

The instructor should allow all viewpoints to be heard, but may also wish to guide students towards a reading which complicates the play’s apparent anti-Semitism. Prior to this discussion, the instructor may wish to make themselves familiar with Andrew Duxfield’s ‘The Uses of Unity: Individual and Multitude in The Jew of Malta‘ which makes the case that Marlowe invokes then complicates stereotypes.

As a follow up question, the instructor may ask the students if they can think of any other literary characters whom Barabas brings to mind (you may wish to allocate time for note-taking prior to discussion). Depending on the students’ previous experience, answers may include Richard from Richard III, Shylock from The Merchant of Venice, Aaron the Moor from Tutus Andronicus, or Iago from Othello. Similar characters from beyond Renaissance drama may include Byronic heroes such as Pechorin from Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, or more modern anti-hero types such as Francis Underwood from the series House of Cards. Students may need to offer brief summaries in case not everyone in the class has the same points of cultural reference. The class can examine what makes Barabas similar to those characters and what makes him different.

Reading between this and the next lesson is from act four scene one to the end of the play. In their journals students should consider the different forms of power which appear in the story, both in this reading and parts of the play they have already studied. They should also compare their predictions from earlier reading assignments to the resolution of the text.

Lesson Four 

Learning Outcomes

  • Summarise the text
  • Analyse forms of power which are practiced in the play
  • Recognise the distinction between civic and civil power


Begin by calling upon students to summarise what we learned last lesson concerning the question of anti-Semitism in the play. In new groups students create a summary of the play as per the previous lessons.

Teaching Activity

Begin by placing students in groups. Ask them to discuss the different types of power which appear in the text – they can refer to their journals as they do this. Each group then presents their findings to the class.

At this point the instructor explains Greenblatt’s argument that Barabas is excluded from civic society (that of political power) but flourishes in the realm of civil society (that of the social, domestic, and economic). The students are then given a few minutes working in pairs or groups of three to identify incidents in the play first where Barabas is excluded from full citizenship (including self-exclusion such as ‘we come not to be kings’ (1.1.228) or his eagerness to give up his political appointment) and, second, where Barabas exercises economic or social power. After a set amount of time the students share their findings. Once every group has responded students should be given the opportunity to discuss Greenblatt’s thesis:

Do we find Greenblatt’s arguments convincing?

Can we find examples which contradict Greenblatt’s argument?

How does the distinction between civil and civic power inform our understanding of the anti-Semitism of the play which we discussed last lesson?

Once the discussion has reached a natural conclusion you should encourage students to bring up or return to any ideas they have had about the play which have not yet been discussed. If you have been reading the student’s journals then this is an opportunity to engage with ideas you have found there which might not yet have been discussed in class.

Once the discussion has come to a close students should be directed to the further reading on the handout and given an ‘exit ticket’ which they can use to ask additional questions and provide feedback to the instructor.


Works Cited

Duxfield, Andrew. ‘The Uses of Unity: Individual and Multitude in The Jew of Malta’, Marlowe Studies, 3 (2013): 63-81. Print.

Goodwin, Peggy, Roberts, Jeanne Addison, Tolaydo, Michael, Goodwin, Nancy eds. Shakespeare Set Free. New York: Washington Square Press, 2006. Print.

Goldberg, Dena. ‘Sacrifice in Marlowe’s the Jew of Malta’ Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 32.2 (1992): 233-245. Print.

Edelman, Charles. ‘”Which is the Jew that Shakespeare Knew”: Shylock on the Elizabethan Stage.’ Shakespeare Survey 52 (1999): 99-106. Print.

Greenblatt, Stephen J. ‘Marlowe, Marx, and Antisemitism.’ Critical Inquiry. l5, no. 2. (Winter 1972), 291-307. Print.

Logan, Robert A. ed. The Jew of Malta: A Critical Reader. London: Bloomsbury. 2013. Print.

Lowenstein, Andrea Freud. ‘Confronting Stereotypes: Maus in Crown Heights.’ College English 60, no. 4 (1998), 396-420. Print.

Lupton, Julia Reinhard. ‘The Jew of Malta.’ The Cambridge Companion to Christopher Marlowe. Patrick Cheney ed. Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.

Web Sources 

Bytwerk, Randall. German Propaganda Archive. http://research.calvin.edu/german-propaganda-archive/. N.d. Web.

Early Modern Language Studies http://extra.shu.ac.uk/emls/emlshome.html. N.d. Web.

Marlowe Studies www.ipfw.edu/marlowe/. N.d. Web.

Gonzalez, Jennifer. ‘The Big List of Class Discussion Strategies.’ The Cult of Pedagogy. http://www.cultofpedagogy.com/speaking-listening-techniques/ 15 October 2015. Web.

The Literature Network http://www.online-literature.com/marlowe/. N.d. Web.