Christopher Marlowe, Jew of Malta
For authors of dramatic texts, the future of their literary works are particularly subject to others. A play lives on in subsequent performances, which may occur posthumously and may or may not parallel performances overseen by the author. But plays also have textual futures, often mediated by the commercially conscious people who choose to print them. The 1633 printing of Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta is a case in point. According to Zachary Lesser (who discusses this text in Renaissance Drama and the politics of publication),this is the only sixteenth-century play to be printed for the first time in the 1630s, over forty years after it was first performed. The chronological gap is so large, in fact, that scholars were hesitant to attribute the play to Marlowe, particularly given the seeming divergence in tone and theme from the playwright’s earlier works. The Jew of Malta features a mercenary, conniving Jew, who brings about the destruction of Malta in retaliation for the seizure of his wealth by its governor. Barabas betrays Malta to the Turks, but is later killed by the very invaders he helped.
Before 1633, then, The Jew of Malta had a purely performative history; the first recorded performance was in 1592, and it was revived and played for Charles I and Henrietta Maria in 1633, as the title-page indicates. Nicholas Vavasour, however, saw in this work a printed future that his own contemporary reading market would appreciate, and took the step of publishing a play hitherto confined to the stage. Lesser argues that this future was a religious, polemical one, that “Marlowe’s play seems to have changed the character of [Vavasour’s] career, leading to a Laudian specialty” (100); readers, Lesser explains, would have read Marlowe’s indictment of Barabas as an indictment of contemporary Puritans, rendering Jew, in effect,a pro-Laudian text. This reading suggests texts’ potential to participate in and influence a future context far different from their past one, enabled by people like Vavasour with a vision for a new sort of textual future.