The Ottoman Empire in Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta has an issue with trust. Specifically, it keeps trusting people who don’t live up to it. This happens three times—pretty much every time we see the Ottomans onstage. First, Selim Calymath, the leader of the Ottoman fleet sent to collect tribute from Malta, gives the Maltese an extension to their time of payment, even though this is against the directions he has from his father, the Emperor. This comes back to bite him: while the Maltese do use this time to collect the tribute (by squeezing the Jewish inhabitants of the island), they also use the time to change their mind about paying, and to oppose the Ottomans by force of arms.
Fresh off of this disappointment, the Ottomans extend their trust once more, to Barabas, a Jew and the main protagonist of the play, who promises to lead them through the sewers to get around the Maltese defenses. This looks more successful, since the Turks conquer the city. But they leave Barabas behind as governor, and he immediately repays their trust by betraying them. He plots with the Christian Maltese to trap Calymath in a giant cauldron—though the Christians then betray him in turn and he falls into the pit instead.
Even then, however, the Ottomans are not done with being double-crossed; although the Christians have tipped them off to Barabas’s treason, they have still taken advantage of the opportunity he provided to kill the Ottoman soldiers and capture Calymath even though he isn’t dropped into the pit. He ends the play a prisoner, a victim of repeatedly trusting others to do as they say.
This is not a typical treatment of the Ottoman Empire in early modern English drama. The Ottomans ruled a big, expanding, non-Christian empire during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Unsurprisingly, this meant that early modern English drama tended to play up the Turkish threat: they were more often shown as treacherous as betrayed. But I argue that what we see in The Jew of Malta, while not representative of early modern English drama as a whole, is representative of a particular approach towards the Ottoman Empire in the works of Marlowe and his contemporary Shakespeare. This approach used the Ottomans to illustrate certain issues of empire writ large, rather than critiquing the Ottoman Empire as uniquely bad. I am currently pursuing this idea through a Folger Shakespeare Library Virtual Fellowship, looking at early modern sources about the Ottoman Empire and other empires to show how Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson collectively tried to draw attention to how empires fail and fall. I argue that they did so with an eye towards the potential for English empire in the Americas, identifying pitfalls and difficulties that might make that imperial dream a nightmare.
In this context, I suggest, the difficulty that the Ottomans have in finding reliable partners in The Jew of Malta is not meant to make us think that the Ottomans are uniquely bad at ruling an empire. Nor is it a deserved result of their status as non-Christians and thus infidels. Instead, it is a symptom of a bigger issue with all empires. Precisely because they involve projecting power over long distances and across multiple groups of subjects, empires are vulnerable to problems of delegation and issues of misplaced trust. This raises the question of whether empire is worth it at all, if it involves these risks. I suggest that Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Jonson tend to answer this question ‘no.’
The reasoning why empires don’t work well is different depending on which empire is being used to make it—the Spanish in The Jew of Malta don’t have the same issue with trust, but they do fundamentally misunderstand their subject Jewish population, over-identifying the rest of the Jews with the villain Barabas. But I argue that the core point that empires aren’t effective remains across depictions of the various empires with which Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jonson, and their audiences were familiar, from the Ottomans and the Spanish to the ancient Romans. I see the anti-imperialism in these plays as significant for us today as well, partly because of the role that early modern English drama has played in claims for English cultural superiority in the empire that the English did establish, despite the plays’ anti-imperial message, but more significantly because I think it is worth examining why this anti-imperial message failed to make its mark.
Why did the anti-imperialism in these plays fail? I suggest that the main reason for it is because of their involvement with racist and racializing ideas that became foundational to the same imperialism that they otherwise doubted. While the plays shine light on the flaws of empire, they still reinforce the racial tropes that were emerging to justify white supremacy and trans-Atlantic (and global) empire. We can see this in The Jew of Malta itself. While I do not personally find it a particularly anti-Semitic play because of its depiction of its larger Maltese Jewish community, it ended up reinforcing anti-Semitic tropes by allowing Barabas, the Spanish, and the Ottomans all to identify him as the Jew of Malta, standing in for all the others. Because of this, it has been received as an anti-Semitic play despite its depiction of a whole community of non-Barabas Jews.
What does this mean for us now? It means that these plays provide us with an object lesson in how not to do anti-imperial and anti-colonial work. Even though these plays cast doubt on the usefulness, efficacy, and value of empire, they still ended up being used to support it, because they fail to attack the white supremacy at the core of imperialism and colonialism. If we wish to oppose those same forces today, then, we cannot fall into the same trap.
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