Book Review

McAdam, Ian. “The Jew of Malta: The Failure of Carnal Identity.” In The Irony of Identity: Self and Imagination in the Drama of Christopher Marlowe. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1999.

Reviewed by Shanna Salinas | March 19, 2004

Ian McAdam’s “The Failure of Carnal Identity,” one of the chapters included in The Irony of Identity: Self and Imagination in the Drama of Christopher Marlowe is a somewhat erratic, occasionally far-fetched, though always provocative exploration of what he loosely terms the “carnal” throughout Marlowe’s play. The carnal, in effect, mostly centers on the body: first and foremost, the “body” of Christ(ianity) and Marlowe’s “ironic” structure, in which “biblical parody…fails to reinforce orthodox Christian morality”; and, later, the body relates to sex–sexual restraints, resistance, and homosexuality. Ultimately, McAdam desires to explore Barabas’s “failure to establish a carnal identity” that he deems as “necessary for survival.”

The combative figures of Barabas and Ferneze are investigated through numerous biblical allusions, and often through oppositional dialectics, including (but not limited to): Jewish/Christian, Christ/Anti-Christ, Job/Anti-Job, Christ/Caiaphas, Christ/Pilate. McAdam’s focus on biblical allusions quickly gives way to his lengthy exploration of the sexual. He suggests that Barabas’s subjected position as the Jewish “alien” within Malta is an extended metaphor for homosexuality within society, and which also illustrates Marlowe’s burgeoning anxiety about his own sexuality. He cites Barabas’s need to control others, and his sexual inadequacy, through murder, but only once these characters enter into, or contemplate, heterosexual relationships. As such, Barabas’s unfulfilled desires can explain the presence of Romantic parody and sexual resistance within the play, as well as reflect Marlowe’s own “disturbed sexual psychology.” In the end, though Barabas fails because he is not “Machiavellian enough” in a society dominated by Machiavels, his real failure resides in the fact that his only successful or allowed desire is the “desire to destroy others,” which will always situate him as the Jewish/sexual outsider despite his desires to belong. McAdam extends this line of analysis in his conclusion to ruminate on Marlowe’s projected self-identification with Barabas; however, he finally concludes that it is Ferneze who “represents not only a man Marlowe ultimately wanted to become like, but also, on a barely subconscious level, one he desired to surrender to sexually.”

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