Gerontus and Early Modern Dramatic Representations of Jews

Lisa Hopkins

This paper considers the extent to which The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice draw on and develop The Three Ladies of London, and how the paradigms afforded by Wilson helped shape early modern dramatic representations of Jewishness. It argues that the association which Wilson establishes between Jews and jewels proved particularly significant in that Marlowe and Shakespeare both connect the two, and that they also respond to Wilson’s treatment of the motif of conversion and to the play’s carefully drawn contrast between the behaviour of representatives of different religions. ‘Which is the merchant here? And which the Jew?’ asks Portia in The Merchant of Venice, while The Jew of Malta systematically blurs the distinction between Jewishness and Christianity in ways which, this paper argues, have their roots in Wilson’s treatment of Gerontus.

In their Christopher Marlowe: The Plays and Their Sources, Vivien Thomas and William Tydeman proposed The Three Ladies of London (first published in 1584 but which the play’s most recent editor dates to 1581)1 as a possible source for The Jew of Malta,2 which is generally dated to 1589-90 (the first known performance was at the Rose on Saturday, 26 February 1592, but it was not marked ‘ne’ in Henslowe, so there may in fact have been earlier performances; however, it cannot credibly predate 1587). One can certainly see why Thomas and Tydeman should have thought the claim likely, because not only does Lloyd Edward Kermode note that ‘Three Ladies is alluded to unusually frequently in the couple of decades following its first performances’,3 but there is an obvious and striking overlap between a speech of Wilson’s Gerontus and a speech of Marlowe’s Barabas. Gerontus says, ‘Besides I haue Diamonds, Rubies, Emerodes, Saphires, Smaradines, Opalles Onacles, Iacynthes, Aggattes, Turkasir, and almost of all kind of pretious stones’ (D4r).4 Barabas praises

Bags of fiery opals, sapphires, amethysts,
Jacinths, hard topaz, grass-green emeralds,
Beauteous rubies, sparkling diamonds,
And seld-seen costly stones of so great price,
As one of them indifferently rated,
And of a carat in this quantity,
May serve in peril of calamity
To ransom great kings from captivity.
This is the ware wherein consists my wealth:
And thus methinks should men of judgement frame
Their means of traffic from the vulgar trade,
And as their wealth increaseth, so enclose
Infinite riches in a little room. (1.1.25-37)5

Marlowe has obviously developed Wilson’s original here by adding adjectives and expanding the list of stones, but he has also done more than that, for Barabas’s list focuses not only on the monetary value of the stones nor even on their aesthetic appeal, but also draws attention to their portability by pointing to their combination of great value and small size. This emphasis on portability serves to remind us of the vulnerability of Jews in early modern Europe: prone to arbitrary expulsion from their homes, as the Sephardic community of Spain were expelled by the Catholic kings and as Barabas himself will shortly be from Malta, they would find small, portable treasures far more useful to them than bulky ones. In Barabas’s speech, we glimpse something of what it meant to be a Jew in early modern Europe, permanently living under the threat of deportation and exile, and we can also see how Marlowe has built the effect on material he found in Wilson. In this short essay, I want to consider what else Marlowe, and Shakespeare too, responded to in Wilson’s play, and to show how the paradigms that Wilson afforded helped shape early modern dramatic representations of Jewishness.

The association which Wilson establishes between Jews and jewels is particularly significant. Marlowe and Shakespeare both draw attention to the portability of jewels on a number of suggestive occasions, and both connect that portability to Jews. They also, however, inflect that connection in ways that cause it to touch on other concerns. Barabas may like all jewels, but he is particularly fond of pearls, and specifically assures Abigail that

Ten thousand portagues, besides great pearls,
Rich costly jewels, and stones infinite,
Fearing the worst of this before it fell,
I closely hid. (1.2.248-51)

That word ‘infinite’ appears again, drawing attention to the fact that the use and value of jewels is not to be expressed in simply monetary terms. This cache of jewels is what makes it worthwhile for Barabas to send Abigail back into their confiscated house, and it is no wonder that their existence makes him confident because we later learn that one of these pearls is

                                  so big,
So precious, and withal so orient,
As be it valuèd but indifferently,
The price thereof will serve to entertain
Selim and all his soldiers for a month. (5.3.27-30)

Infinite riches in a little room indeed, but also a reflection on the increased value of pearls in the late Elizabethan period, which the queen’s own passion for them – demonstrated by their prominence in her portraiture – partly drove. I have suggested elsewhere that Marlowe was not averse to subtle incrimination of his queen,6 and we might well remember that Barabas is not alone in his preference for pearls. After all, while Barabas may be exceptionally alert to the market value of jewels, it is not he who determines that value, but wider cultural forces for which he is prism and conduit. If we find market values questionable, we should note that he is not their cause but their symptom.

In The Merchant of Venice, too, Jewish characters are associated with jewels. As the news of Jessica’s elopement breaks, Salerio says to Shylock, ‘There is more difference between thy flesh and hers than between jet and ivory’ (3.1.35-6);7 later, hearing from Tubal the details of Jessica’s flight and her extravagance, Shylock wails ‘A diamond gone cost me two thousand ducats in Frankfurt! … I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear!’ (3.1.76-81). Jessica escaped by climbing out of the window, so she could not take much with her, but the diamond was portable, valuable and easily exchanged for ready cash. Most notably, though, Jessica also takes a ring:

TUBAL One of them showed me a ring that he had of your daughter for a monkey.
SHYLOCK Out upon her! Thou torturest me, Tubal. It was my turquoise; I had it of
            Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys. (108-13)

Like many early modern English writers, Wilson notes that as well as monetary value, precious stones were also popularly supposed to possess medicinal or even quasi-magical properties: Lady Lucre tells Mercadorus ‘You must say Ieat will take vp a straw, Amber will make one fat, / Corrall will looke pale when you be sicke, and Christall wil stanch blad’, but she qualifies any sense that she herself might believe in such things when she adds ‘So with lying, flattering, and glosing you must vtter your ware’ (B3r). Shakespeare too draws on the idea that stones have properties, but he undercuts it even more comprehensively, for in Pierre Boiastuau’s Certaine secrete wonders of nature we are told that ‘The Turquise (accordyng to the moste Philosophers) is of no singular propertie, but to chase awaye thoughtes and troubles of the braine’,8 and Pierre De La Primaudaye too comments that ‘the Turkesse being worne in a ring doth keepe a man from hurt that falleth, yea though it be from his horse’.9 If a man did come to grief, though, any turquoise that he owns will grow pale in token of his sorrow, as Ben Jonson notes in Sejanus: ‘true as turquoise in the dear lord’s ring, / Look well or ill with him’ (1.1.37-8).10 If audiences remember this belief they will note the rich irony that the turquoise in his ring neither calms Shylock’s mind nor mirrors his mood, but in fact brings him to the height of his distress, and in so noticing they will inevitably and perhaps unexpectedly have their attention drawn to Shylock not as usurer, Jew, or villain but as a fellow human with a life story and a capacity for emotion. The moment occupies little stage time, but nevertheless Leah’s ring, and the contrast between what it should mean and what it does mean, prises Shylock momentarily apart from the damaging association between Jews and money and helps us see him as someone who has passions and affections.

Paying attention to another aspect of the closing line of Barabas’s paean to jewels, when he refers to them as encapsulating ‘Infinite riches in a little room’, is also worthwhile. As critics have often remarked, this description draws on the iconography of the Virgin Mary.11 Ian McAdam has suggested that the fact that we can conceive Barabas as exhibiting maternal behaviour underlines the Virgin Mary iconography.12 Barabas, though, appears to have no knowledge of the echo, and one way of reading this unawareness would be to see it as evidence of Jewish deafness to the call of the Messiah, clearly audible to the Christian audience of the play; such an idea of Jewish perverseness certainly underlies the insistence at the end of The Merchant of Venice that Shylock must convert to Christianity. Conversion is a question of compelling interest in early modern plays about Jews. Shylock is forced to convert; Abigail chooses to; and by far the most interesting aspect of Gerontus in The Three Ladies of London is his attitude to the question of conversion. When Gerontus pursues Mercadore for payment of the debt owed him, Mercadore attends the court in Turkish dress, and the judge rather unexpectedly declares, ‘Sir Gerontus you knowe, if any man forsake his faith, King, country, and become a Mahomet. All debts are paide, tis the law of our Realme, and you may not gainesay it’ (F1r), presumably because of the Islamic prohibition on the taking or paying of interest. This declaration puts Gerontus in an extraordinary position of power: instead of being the one who is forced to convert, he is offered the opportunity to preside over the conversion of a Christian to Islam, something to which one would expect he would be quite indifferent, since he presumably regards both religions as equally deluded. But in fact Gerontus does not at all approve of the proposed renunciation of faith: concluding that Mercadore is acting ‘Not for any deuotion, but for Lucars sake of my monie’ (F1r), he first offers to remit the interest and exhorts Mercadore to respect your faith’ (F1r), and when this proposition is rejected ups his offer first to excusing half the debt and finally to writing it all off: ‘I would be loth to heare the people say, it was long of me / Thou forsakest thy faith, wherefore I forgiue thee franke and free: / Protesting before the iudge, and all the worlde, neuer to demaund peny nor halfepeny’ (F1r). This extraordinary act of generosity leads the judge to declare ‘Iewes seeke to excell in Christianitie, & Christians in Iewishnes’ (F1v), something which, Kermode points out, is typical of a number of texts of the period which ‘emphasized … the similarity between the English and the Jews or the extent to which the English now exceeded the Jews at their own vice’;13 moreover, as Crystal Bartolovich observes, though ‘It may seem that English merchants are let off the hook by the characterization of Mercadore as Italian[,] [h]is allegorical name suggests otherwise’,14 thus offering what Darryl Palmer terms a ‘skeptical denouement [which] would have appealed to Christopher Marlowe’.15

We should also, though, note another point. The judge’s comparison between Christianity and Judaism is inflected by the fact that it is of course misleading to speak of Christians tout court in the early modern period, because in Wilson’s England Christianity had been bloodily and traumatically prised apart into two separate confessions, so that as Peter Pleaseman tells Simony, ‘Indeed I haue beene a Catholicke, mary now for the most part a Protestant’ (C4v). I have argued elsewhere that for some early modern writers it was possible to use allusions to Islam to mask the extent of the differences between the two confessions,16 but I do not think that references to Judaism work in the same way, because it would have been impossible for an educated early modern to forget that Judaism and Christianity have a shared cultural heritage. The Jew of Malta in particular slyly and repeatedly insists that the divide between Jews and Christians is far narrower and more permeable than either of the two sides in the play would wish to think, first when Del Bosco warns Ferneze ‘So shall you imitate those you succeed’ (2.2.47) and secondly when we hear of a Jew supposedly lending a Christian ‘the comment on the Maccabees’ (2.3.157), words which should remind us that Christianity and Judaism share the five books of the Pentateuch and that they and Islam also all stand together as religions of the book.

In drawing these religions together, we might again see Marlowe as building on a hint in Wilson. As Kermode notes in his edition of Three Ladies, Gerontus’s name ‘probably indicates an old man, from the Greek geron’ (80, n.18), and I suggest that we should take this etymological hint to refer to not only to the chronological age of the character but also by extension to the fact that Judaism is the faith of the Old Testament. Gerontus’s unexpected leniency to his creditor might also give us a clue to the meaning of Barabas’s difficult lines,

As good dissemble that thou never mean’st
As first mean truth and then dissemble it;
A counterfeit profession is better
Than unseen hypocrisy. (1.2.292-5)

Gerontus, it seems, values faith for its own sake, regardless of which religion it is invested in; perhaps Barabas does too, and perhaps we should therefore take his words simply at face value, and as showing that he, like Gerontus, regards hypocrisy in religion as serious and deplorable. Barabas may be many things, but his name invests him with the essence of pre-Christian Judaic identity and that is the one thing he never betrays; he, like Gerontus, is a man of faith, and both Wilson and Marlowe are prepared to take that faith seriously.

Gerontus’s act of renunciation is also something on which we can see both Marlowe and Shakespeare as building on. ‘Which is the merchant here? And which the Jew?’ asks Portia in The Merchant of Venice (4.1.171), and, as we have seen, The Jew of Malta systematically blurs the distinction between Jewishness and Christianity. One could even in a sense say the play itself performs a conversion of sorts if one accepts T.S. Eliot’s endorsement of the view that ‘the end, even the last two acts, are unworthy of the first three’ (92);17 one could in fact argue that the shift in the play, if we admit such a shift occurs, mirrors that between the Old and New Testaments. The first half of the play is rich in allusions to the collective history of the Jewish people as told in the Old Testament: Barabas’s exile from his house and his loss of wealth parallel the Jews’ exile in Egypt, while a key figure from the Old Testament is recalled when Barabas assures us that ‘These are the blessings promised to the Jews, / And herein was old Abram’s happiness’ (1.1.104-5). Abraham is remembered again when Barabas apostrophises, ‘O thou, that with a fiery pillar led’st / The sons of Israel through the dismal shades, / Light Abraham’s offspring, and direct the hand / Of Abigail this night (2.1.12-15). The play evokes another Old Testament figure when the First Jew says, ‘Yet, brother Barabas, remember Job’ (1.2.183), and further evokes the long history of conflict between Jews and Philistines when Barabas says to Abigail of Lodowick, ‘Provided that you keep your maidenhead, / Use him as if he were a [Aside] Philistine. / Dissemble, swear, protest, vow love to him; / He is not of the seed of Abraham’ (2.3.232-5). The play also offers, though, plenty of reminders of worse times to come from the Jews. The First Knight says scornfully to Barabas, ‘If your first curse fall heavy on thy head’ (1.2.110), where the disjunction between plural ‘your’ and singular ‘thou’ makes it clear that even if it is on this occasion aimed specifically and solely at Barabas, the curse in question is the collective one that the Jews supposedly incurred for their failure to recognize the Messiah. After the conversion of Abigail, indeed, references to the New Testament begin subtly to multiply in the play. Jacomo says ‘Virgo, salve’ (3.3.56) in a direct echo of the Annunciation, and we see a ‘resurrection’ and the unchallenged triumph of the Christian forces.

Perhaps most suggestively, Barabas directly alludes to the disaster which befell Jerusalem when he speaks of the time when ‘Titus and Vespasian conquered us’ (2.3.10), and this reference may also have an extradiegetic point. On Saturday, 26 February 1592, the first time that Henslowe records The Jew of Malta as playing at the Rose, the takings were 50s, making it the highest-grossing performance of the week. On Friday, 10 March it was acted again, this time grossing 56s; on its next appearance, on Saturday, 18 March, it took 39s, on Tuesday 4 April 43s. A week after that, on Tuesday, 11 April, Lord Strange’s Men acted a new play, Titus and Vespasian, at the Rose; this play may well have been about the destruction of Jerusalm (McInnis),18 and grossed the impressive sum of £3 4s. Titus and Vepasian was played again on Wednesday, 3 May, grossing 57s 6d, and probably on Monday, 8 May (there appears to be a confusion in Henslowe’s Diary), taking 30s. In between, The Jew of Malta had appeared on Friday, 5 May, grossing 41s. It was acted again on Thursday, 11 May, grossing 34s, and on Saturday, 20 May, grossing 54s, but these takings were far outshone by Titus and Vespasian’s £3 on Monday, 15 May. On their next appearances, Titus and Vespasian grossed 30s on Wednesday, 24 May and The Jew of Malta took 33s on Tuesday, 30 May. Thereafter Titus and Vespasian took 42s on Tuesday, 6 June, and The Jew of Malta 38s on Wednesday, 14 June. Shortly afterwards plague suspended playing. It would be wrong to present Titus and Vespasian and The Jew of Malta as being locked in a head-to-head battle for takings – there were also other plays being acted at the same time – but the proximity of these performances, and the superior takings of Titus and Vespasian, must at least have given sharp new point and could even conceivably have prompted the insertion of Barabas’s mention of how ‘Titus and Vespasian conquered us’. It also underlines the extent to which The Jew of Malta is in intertextual dialogue with other drama, and the extent to which we should look to early modern representations of Judaism not as individual but as a collective endeavour. We find the foundation of this endeavour in The Three Ladies, the first play which seriously invites us to consider which is the merchant here, and which the Jew.


[1] Lloyd Edward Kermode (ed.), Three Ladies of London, Three Renaissance Usury Plays (Manchester, 2009), 32.

[2] Vivien Thomas and William Tydeman, Christopher Marlowe: The Plays and Their Sources (London, 1994), 299-300.

[3] Lloyd Edward Kermode, ‘Money, Gender, and Conscience in Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London’, Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 52.2 (Spring 2012), 269.

[4] Robert Wilson, The Three Ladies of London (London, 1592). All quotations of Wilson’s play refer to this edition.

[5] Christopher Marlowe, The Jew of Malta, Mark Thornton Burnett (ed.), Christopher Marlowe: The Complete Plays (London, 1999). All quotations of Marlowe’s play refer to this edition.

[6] Lisa Hopkins, Writing Renaissance Queens: Texts by and about Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots (Newark, 2002).

[7] William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Ed. M. Moelwyn Merchant (Harmondsworth, 1967). All quotations of Shakespeare’s play refer to this edition.

[8] Pierre Boiastuau, Certaine secrete wonders of nature … (London, 1569), 41.

[9} Pierre de La Primaudaye, The French academie Fully discoursed and finished in foure bookes (1618), 852.

[10] Ben Jonson, Sejanus, Ed. Philip Ayres (Manchester, 1990).

[11] G.K. Hunter, Dramatic Identities and Cultural Tradition (Liverpool, 1978), 75.

[12] Ian McAdam, ‘Carnal Identity in The Jew of Malta’, English Literary Renaissance 26 (1996), 54.

[13] Kermode, Three Renaissance Usury Plays, 18.

[14] Crystal Bartolovich, ‘London’s the Thing: Alienation, the Market, and Englishmen for My Money’, Huntington Library Quarterly 71.1 (2008), 141.

[15] Darryl W. Palmer, ‘Merchants and Miscegenation: The Three Ladies of London, The Jew of Malta, and The Merchant of Venice’, Joyce Green MacDonald (ed.), Race, Ethnicity, and Power in the Renaissance (Cranbury NJ, 1997), 48.

[16] Lisa Hopkins, ‘“Fear no colours”: Theatricality, Metaphor, and Confessional Allegiance in Massinger’, James Mardock and Kathryn McPherson (eds), Stages of Engagement: Drama and Religion in Post-Reformation England (Pittsburgh, 2014), 219-39.

[17] T.S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (London, 1920), 92.

[18] David McInnis, ‘Titus and Vespasian’, Lost Plays Database, (accessed 3 July 2014).