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F. Murray Abraham as Barabas

F. Murray Abraham as Barabas

It has always seemed to me that, while the first part of Tamburlaine the Great is all

black and white and red and gold, Marlowe’s later play, The Jew of Malta, bursts with colours.


It struck me from the very first time I met on the page Barabas, the eponymous Jew, first seen in his counting-house, lamenting the nuisance of counting silver…

Here it is:

BARABAS. So that of thus much that return was made;
And of the third part of the Persian ships
There was the venture summ’d and satisfied.
As for those Samnites, and the men of Uz,
That bought my Spanish oils and wines of Greece,
Here have I purs’d their paltry silverlings.
Fie, what a trouble ’tis to count this trash!
Well fare the Arabians, who so richly pay
The things they traffic for with wedge of gold,
Whereof a man may easily in a day
Tell that which may maintain him all his life.
The needy groom, that never finger’d groat,
Would make a miracle of thus much coin;
But he whose steel-barr’d coffers are cramm’d full,
And all his life-time hath been tired,
Wearying his fingers’ ends with telling it,
Would in his age be loath to labour so,
And for a pound to sweat himself to death.
Give me the merchants of the Indian mines,
That trade in metal of the purest mould;
The wealthy Moor, that in the eastern rocks
Without control can pick his riches up,
And in his house heap pearl like pebble-stones,
Receive them free, and sell them by the weight;
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 of 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 judgment frame
Their means of traffic from the vulgar trade,
And, as their wealth increaseth, so inclose
Infinite riches in a little room.

One imagines Ned Alleyn, the first Barabas, moving from coffer to coffer, grasping handfuls of gilded tin coins, chunks of coloured glass and Venice pearls, letting them glitter in the afternoon sun – or perhaps by the flame of a prop candle on his counter – as he rumbles of riches and sparkling colours with his powerful voice… What a vibrant beginning for such a black tale of greed, violence and prevarication…

Whenever I read this or certain passages in Hero and Leander, when I consider the audacity of Tamburlaine’s white-black-red-yellow scheme, I can’t help wondering about Marlowe and colour: who knows – maybe it was because of the beautiful-sounding names, or perhaps the illuminated books he perused at Cambridge, or he just had a good eye for visuals – or had his cobbler father brought him to see the dyers at work when he was a child? Certainly he must have loved colour to have put it to such good and vivid use in his poetry.