Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Women as possessions

I was not at all surprised upon reading Christopher Marlowe's play Jew of Malta, to have discovered yet another example of a female character in Renaissance literature, who is treated as if she were a possession. In the following exchange with Lodowick, after Barabas has lost all of his wealth, he begins to use his daughter Abigail as a bargaining piece.

Lodowick: Well, Barabas, canst help me to a diamond?
Barabas: Oh, sir, your father had my diamonds.
Yet I have one left that will serve your turn.
(Aside) I mean my daughter; but ere he shall have her
I'll sacrifice her on a pile of wood.
I ha' the poison of the city for him,
And the white leprosy.
Lodowick: What sparkle does it give without a foil?
Barabas: The diamond that I talk of ne'er was foiled.
[Aside] But when he touches it, it will be foiled.
[Aloud] Lord Lodowick, it sparkles bright and fair.

Barabas refers to Abigail as a diamond whose value might depreciate should Lodowick become involved with her. Her happiness is of no importance to Barabas either, as we soon find out when he causes a fight between Lodowick and Abigail's true love, Mathias. This fight ends the lives of both men, leaving Abigail shocked and alone.
Of course nothing demonstrates the true value that Barabas places on his daughter quite like the course of action he takes when he finds out that she has converted to Christianity. After deciding that his daughter is no longer valuable, he kills her and all of the other nuns at the nunnery with poison. This really isn't shocking considering that in the beginning of the play he states "I have no charge, nor many children / But one sole daughter, whom I hold as dear / As Agamemnon did his Iphigen". This reference to a man who was willing to sacrifice his daughter's life in exchange for a strong wind, kept me on my toes awaiting the sacrifice of poor Abigail.

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