The Jew of Malta: Metaphor Analysis

The Counting House, Money Bags, Hidden Wealth


When the play opens, Barabas is in his counting house, complaining about having to count all his money by hand. He has been laboring over his hoard: “Wearying his finger’s ends with telling it” (I, 1,  l.16). The very image gives weight to the money, making it a burden coupled with the idea of the money being accumulated by physical hardship and violence. The counting house is high up in his house, and the courtesan Bellamira’s man, Pilia-Borza, is tempted to climb up, break in, and steal a bag of silver. Many references are made to the counting house, bags of gold and silver, jewels, and other concrete reminders of Barabas’s wealth. This is the basis of Barabas’s system of values, and everything is measured against his tendency to hoard wealth. It is the absolute in his world; he believes that the wise man should hoard ”infinite riches in a little room” (I, 1, l. 37 ). 


This closed economic system does not benefit society or even the owner that much, for it is hidden. It demonstrates Barabas’s isolation and difference from others. He realizes his hoard makes people hate him. The counting house is known and seen and in an elevated place, but many metaphors abound about Barabas’s tendency to hide his money under ground. The Governor of Malta only takes his visible assets, but he has hidden half his wealth under the floorboards of Abigail’s bedroom. In Act IV, Ithamore tells Bellamira he cannot steal Barabas’s money because “he hides and buries it up, as partridges do their eggs,/ under the earth” (IV,iv, l.55).


Barabas believes that his money is the result of a divine promise to the Jews; it is their due. Anyone who does not have such wealth is inferior in his eyes. Even high government office is not as appealing to him as money; he would rather have wealth than “principality” (I, 1, l.133 ). Heaven even “rip[s] the bowels of the earth” (I,1, l. 107) to give riches to the Jews. So should he hide the wealth again to keep it safe. In Act II as he waits for his daughter to recover his treasure from its hiding place, he refers to himself as one of the ghosts that traditionally hover around buried treasure. He predicts that when he dies, his spirit will continue to haunt his treasure on earth. He prefers material wealth to heaven and makes fun of the nuns and friars for their poverty. This obsession with money belongs to the stereotype of the greedy Jew, and it becomes a metaphor for the character of Barabas.


Animal Imagery


In Renaissance thought, humans were situated between the animal kingdom and the angelic kingdom. Whenever animal imagery is used in Elizabethan plays to refer to people, it is an indication of subhuman behavior. The animal imagery thus points out the villainy or gullibility of characters. Christians, Turks, and Jews (except Abigail perhaps) are busy going down the Great Chain of Being, or the ladder of life, to the animal kingdom instead of up towards the angels and heaven.


When Barabas loses his wealth to the Governor of Malta, he walks abroad at night and compares himself to “the sad-presaging raven” that brings news of men’s deaths, and “shake[s] contagion from her sable wings” (II, 1, ll. 1-5) Like this he will bring ruin and curses to the Christians.


In a monologue in Act II, Barabas uses animal images to explain his ability to dissemble to others. “We Jews can fawn like spaniels when we please;/ And when we grin we bite; yet are our looks/ As innocent and harmless as a lamb’s” (II,iii, ll.20-22 ). In Florence they called him a “dog” (II, iii, l. 24) and he pretended to accept it meekly. When he sees Don Lodowick, the Governor’s son, however, he sees a chance for revenge: “Now will I shew myself to have more of the serpent than the dove” (II, iii, l. 36). Barabas sees others as animals too, as when he thinks of Lodowick as “ a hog’s cheek new-singed” (II,iii,l. 42). This is an insult, for Jews did not eat pork, a filthy animal. He also calls Lodowick “a gentle maggot” (II,iii, l. 302) When Ithamore goes to poison the nuns he compares them to “a whole stable of Flanders Mares” (III,iv, l.106 ). In Act IV Ithamore calls the friars “two religious caterpillars” (IV, 1, l.20). By constantly referring to others as animals, Barabas and Ithamore justify their inhuman feelings and behavior.


Adam, Abraham, Job, Agamemnon and Iphigen


Allusions to Biblical and mythical people become metaphors for the behavior of Barabas. As a Jew he compares himself to the Old Testament fathers, Adam, Abraham and Job, first in terms of wealth. As his ships come in laden with treasure, Barabas says,“These are the blessings promisd to the Jews,/ And herein was old Abram’s happiness” (I,1, l.104 ). When Barabas’s fortune is taken away by the Governor of Malta, the other Jews bid Barabas to be patient and to remember Job. They mean he should bear his afflictions as patiently as Job did when he lost everything. Barabas says he has a right to curse his fate, for he was richer than Job ever was (I,ii, ll.182-192). 


Another aspect of Abraham is invoked, however, when Barabas is pretending to betroth his daughter to Lodowick, the Governor’s son. He says in an aside, “ere he shall have her,/ Ill sacrifice her on a pile of wood” (II,iii,ll.51-52). This recalls Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac on a pile of wood when so ordered by God. Barabas will likewise not hesitate to sacrifice his daughter Abigail for his revenge against her and the Christians for converting her. In Act II when Abigail recovers his wealth for him, Barabas identifies her with his gold: “O girl! O gold! O beauty! O my bliss!” (II, ii, l.54). He hugs the bags of gold as though they are Abigail. At this point he seems to equate his love for his daughter with his love for money. In Act III, when he learns Abigail has become a Christian, he curses her “Like Cain by Adam for his brothers death” (III, iv, l. 30). Even in Act I, Barabas foreshadows the moment when he will murder his own daughter along with the nuns when he says he has “one sole daughter, whom I hold as dear/ As Agamemnon did his Iphigen” (I, 1, ll. 135-36). Agamemnon’s fondness for his daughter was exhibited by his willingness to offer her up as a blood sacrifice for a successful journey to Troy. It became the seed of his own death when Iphigen’s mother, Clytemnestra, got her revenge on Agamemnon when he returned from Troy. By invoking these superhuman examples, Barabas puts his history in tragic terms.