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  • Barabas’s Fall
  • Mark Hutchings (bio)

Early modern play-texts present numerous puzzles for scholars interested in ascertaining how plays were (or may have been) staged. The principal evidence of course for a notional “reconstruction” of practices is the apparatus of stage directions, augmented by indications in the dialogue. In conjunction a joining-of-the-dots is often possible, at least in broad-brush terms. But as is well known, the problem is that stage directions tend to be incomplete, imprecise, inaccurate – or missing altogether; more significantly, even when present they offer only slight and indirect evidence of actual stagecraft. Some stage directions are rather more “literary” than “theatrical” in provenance, and in any case to the extent that they do serve the reader (early modern or modern) they cannot be regarded as providing a record of stage practice. After all, words can be no more than imperfect substitutes for (and of another order from) the things they represent. For the most part directions serve as a guide that provides the basis for reasonable interpretation informed by our knowledge of theatre architecture, technology, and comparable play-situations, rather than concrete evidence of actual practice. Quite how some stage business was carried out remains uncertain, leaving the scholar little option but to hypothesize solutions. One such conundrum arises in Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta. The scenario in question is hardly an obscure one, but it has not been examined in detail, even by modern editors. The purpose of this essay is to explore what sense might be made of the surviving textual evidence, in combination with our knowledge of theatre architecture and playmaking culture in the late sixteenth century. [End Page 2]

In the concluding scene Barabas is hoist by his own petard; or rather, he descends, the victim of the engine he has designed (with Ferneze’s apparent complicity) to entrap the Turks. The (figurative) image of a man being boiled to death in a hot cauldron such as the earliest text, the 1633 quarto, provides is striking, and Ferneze himself draws attention to the macabre spectacle when, the trap sprung, the Turks invited to the banquet are about to make good their escape:

Caly. Treason, treason Bashawes, flye.Gov. No, Selim, doe not flye;See his end first, and flye then if thou canst. (K2r)1

For Ferneze, of course, this cannily-fashioned state execution is particularly pleasing, since he has harnessed Barabas’s skills to take his own revenge on the man who, he has earlier learned, was responsible for the death of his son, Lodowick. In the absence of a stage direction specifying who does what, editors agree that it is Ferneze himself who cuts the cable and sends Barabas to his doom, and through this device the play re-orientates the geopolitics of the 1565 siege of Malta, the Jewish merchant becoming the unwitting instrument by which the Christians repel the Turks. But scholars have not examined the staging of Barabas’s death in detail: how, precisely, did the actors carry out this business?2

The stage directions in Q do make some aspects of 5.5 reasonably clear, even as they elide or obscure others. In this respect of course the text is entirely unexceptional. “Enter with a Hammar aboue, very busie” (K1r) refers, as the speech prefixes “Serv.” and “Carp.” and ensuing dialogue make clear, to Barabas and his assistants, who appear at the beginning of the scene. They have been busy “aboue”, on the upper stage, as (in modern editions) the new scene begins; the previous scene of a mere ten lines takes place on the main stage, and gives way (perhaps with some aural and visual overlap) to the opening of this scene, to which the audience’s attention is now directed (not least by the hammering). The remainder of the play maintains this “vertical” dimension, with Barabas, following his accomplices’ exit, alone on the upper stage while the Christians and Turks enter below. Thus until the moment of his fall Barabas usurps the “authority position” of the balcony, which is in keeping of course with the new power he believes he has; his abrupt removal fits the moral trajectory...


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