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The Significance of Christian / Non-Christian Relations in the Formation of Early Modern Identities in The Island Princess (1621) and The Jew of Malta (1590)

Bachelorarbeit 2009 51 Seiten

Philosophie - Sonstiges


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Christianity and Religion and Drama

3 . The Jew of Malta
3.1 Religion and Trade
3.2. Religion and Race
3.3. The Jewish and Turkish Alliance
3.4. The Question of Identity

4 . The Island Princess
4.1. Religion and Colonialism
4.2. Race, Color and Religion
4.3. Gender and Religion

5. Conclusion

Works Cited

Eidesstattliche Versicherung

1. Introduction

This work will depict 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. I have chosen these works to argue that 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 occurred. The significance of Christian and non-Christian relations increased as the age of colonisation advanced, and more territorial expansion and long-distance trade were undertaken. The encounter with different cultures and faiths awoke European consciousness to the existence of great non-Christian societies. This knowledge in turn evoked apprehension of the existing attitudes and beliefs in Christian Europe. Notions of race and religion began to shift. Non-European peoples commenced 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 work will explore various aspects influenced and sustained by Christianity. Christian beliefs laid 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 work will explore the changes in the development of racial thinking and its religious underpinning. Christianity inevitably influenced different spheres of social life and conduct because of its popularity during this time period. Religion empowered European nations to endorse their values in foreign territories and advocated 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. This work 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 work 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 Governor.[1] Henry’s initial aim of ‘reforming’ or purifying the Catholic Church, ended up in (a) complete opposition to Catholicism and became known as Protestantism.[2] Before the reformation in England, “Christianity was entirely synonymous with Catholicism.”[3] By the time of Henry VIII’s death in 1547, Christianity “had split into two very different confessions, Catholicism and Protestantism.”[4] Since Queen Elisabeth I had no children, she was the last monarch of the Tudor dynasty. Her successor, James VI of Scotland (1603-1625),5 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.6 She and her half-sister Elisabeth I were the first female monarchs after many hundreds of years in England.7 The unmarried Queen Mary I challenged the legal position of women, which was considered as either married or about to be married.8 The changes of the Reformation proved to be beneficial for the then as abnormal considered status of the Virgin Queen.9

The population of Renaissance England was deeply religious10 and “Christian belief, based on the authority of the bible, was the main emotional and intellectual mainspring of English society throughout this period.”11 The conversion 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.”12 The Renaissance period was an age of great 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 penetrating further into previously unexplored corners of the globe than ever before.”13 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.”14

Since the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Turks were a growing world power and posed a terrible threat to Christian Europe.15 In 1565 Turkey had only narrowly failed to capture the Mediterranean island of Malta and Malta’s siege was greatly celebrated in Europe.16 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.17 Judaism and Islam were both demonised in Christian Europe. This widespread demonisation gave “rise to a number of stereotypes which are repeatedly drawn on in English Renaissance Drama.”18 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.”19 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 imaginary.”20 Officially, only converted Jews were allowed to live in England. After the law was passed “in 1290 by King Edward I,”21 many Jews converted to Christianity in order to avoid expulsion from England. However, many of them practised their religion secretly and were called ‘Marranos’.22 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.23 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 theory of domination and subjugation that pretended to explain the innate inferiority of certain types of human beings in order to justify the existence of power by elite males in the subjugation of others.24

Religious and interracial tensions endangered Christian European stability and generated anxieties of the Other exposed in The Jew of Malta and The Island Princess.

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 to be considered as independent from race. The word `race´ itself had a different 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.”25 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.”26 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 otherneness.”27 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´.”28 The blood laws pointed out that once white Christian blood was mixed with Jewish or Moorish blood, non-Christian characteristics 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 endures the evil inclination of their ancient ingratitude and lack of understanding… 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.29

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 expression of liberal theology.”30 Hence the shared heritage as descendants of “the same protoplasm” was wiped out through the identification of non-Europeans “as biologically different from Europeans.”31 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.”32 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.”33 Such a view of reproduction had a long tradition. Aristotle “assigned males special responsibility in reproduction” arguing that “men alone could endow embryos with form and soul.”34 For Galen, “women’s seed was less perfected and therefore less determinative than men’s.35 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 perceived 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 Husband.”36 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.37 According to Christian belief, men were placed above women, and preached wifely subjection to their husbands. Wives were expected to be “obedient and deferent to their husbands.”38 This ideology compared colonisation to the relationship between spouses, which saw the subjection of colonial subjects as theologically founded.

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 Turks. The conflict between Christians and Jews arises from Barbas’ mercantile transactions, which were “´strange` in early modern England.”1 The play is set during a time that marks “the transition from old to early modern commercial worlds.”2 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.3 His knowledge and understanding of markets conformed more to “the pattern of intellectual service than to the simple supply model of manufacture.”4 This “knowledge transaction”5 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.”6 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 Levant.”7 In act I Barbas boasts of the international spread of Jewish merchants:

Myself in Malta, some in Italy,

Many in France, and wealthy every one:

Ay wealthier far than any Christian.8

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 international was usually used against them.”9 A more worrying occupation of Jews was usury, which was one of Barbas’ occupations as well.10 Usury contradicted the “fundamental tenet of early modern Christianity,” which pleaded “the barrenness of money”11 and was prohibited during this time period.12 This placed Jews in a complicated position and alienated them from Christians. Christians reproached Jews for their economic success.13 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”14 had its backlashes. “Questions of value and belief”15 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 merchants to Christianity.”16 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 Christianity.

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 centuries as a part of a package of events announcing the approach of the end of the world and the millennium.”17 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.”18


[1] Cp. L. Hopkins,. M. Steggle.: Renaissance Literature and Culture. London 2006, 5. Hereafter referred to as Culture.

[2] Cp. Culture, 5. Cp. Hopkins, 5.

[3] Culture, 14.

[4] Culture, 14.

5 Cp. Culture, 10.

6 Cp. Culture, 13.

7 Cp. David J.B. Trim, Peter. J. Balderstone, ed.: Cross, Crown & Community. Oxford 2004, 1. Hereafter referred to as Crown.

8 Cp. Crown, 1. Cp. Trim, 1.

9 Cp. Crown, 1.

10 Cp. Culture, 13.

11 Culture, 12.

12 Crown, 1.

13 Culture, 107.

14 Culture, 107.

15 Cp. Culture, 18-19.

16 Cp. Culture, 18-19.

17 Cp. Culture, 13.

18 Culture, 108.

19 Loomna, Ania: Shakespeare, Race and Colonialism. Oxford: OUP 2002, 143. Hereafter referred to as Shakespeare.

20 Katz, David, S: The Jews in the History of England. Oxford: Clarendon Press 1994, 108. Hereafter referred to as Jews.

21 Jews, 107.

22 Cp. Shakespeare, 67.

23 Cp. Culture, 108.

24 Zamora, Margarita: Abreast of Columbus: Gender and Discovery. Cultural Critique, 17.1 (1990), 140.

25 Shakespeare, 26.

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.

27 Difference, 367.

28 Shakespeare, 68.

29 Shakespeare, 68.

30 Shakespeare, 68.

31 Shakespeare, 69.

32 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 Imperialism.

33 Shakespeare, 33.

34 Imperialism, 139.

35 Imperialism, 139.

36 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).

37 Cp. Shakespeare, 31.

38 Imperialism, 146.

1 Jardine, Lisa: Reading Shakespeare Historically. London: Routledge 1996, 103. Hereafter referred to as Historically.

2 Historically, 99.

3 Cp. Historically, 102.

4 Historically, 102.

5 Historically, 103.

6 Shakespeare, 144.

7 Shakespeare, 144

8 Marlowe, Christopher, ed. Bawcutt, N., W.: The Jew of Malta. Manchester: MUP 1978, I.i.125-127.

9 Katz, David, S: The Jews in the History of England. Oxford: Clarendon Press 1994, 109. Hereafter referred to as Jews.

10 Cp . Culture, 20.

11 Historically, 107.

12 Cp. Historically, 103.

13 Cp. Shakespeare, 144.

14 Jews, 107

15 Historically, 99.

16 Shakespeare, 144.

17 Jews, 82.

18 Essays, 271.


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Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf – Philosophische Fakultät
religion race colonialism gender color




Titel: The Significance of Christian / Non-Christian Relations in the Formation of Early Modern Identities in The Island Princess (1621) and The Jew of Malta (1590)