“Much speculation surrounds how the playhouse audience experienced Renaissance drama; rather less attention is paid to onstage audiences. With reference to two plays, consider the significance of moments where characters themselves become spectators or auditors of the action taking place around them”.
Several moments of self-reflexivity can be found in The Jew of Malta. The use of this dramatic device has several functions with the play. As well as altering the dynamics of the play, it is used by the dramatist to make comment, and blur the boundaries between theatricality and reality.
The use of Barabas’ asides anchor his relationship with the audience. In breaking the fourth wall, Marlowe fabricates a liminal territory where Barabas can flirt between the world of the text and reality. This achieves a number of things. Barabas appears a lonely character as he fails to build any relations. His soliloquies function as a conduit to voice his social ineptitude and nefarious designs. We soon learn, via these evil soliloquies that his only concerns lie with his daughter, his money and of course, himself, “Let ’em kill all, So they spare me, my daughter, and my wealth”1 The audience is now put in a position of power because they are aware of Barabas’ evil intentions before the characters in the text. Accordingly, the audience starts to feel accountable as the intrigues of the plot unfold. Barabas’ fate ends tragically and his narrative is a testament to the failure as a man and of the Machiavellian principles he tries to emulate.
Barabas demonstrates a command over the world of the text. Being Jewish and affluent alienates him from the Christian Maltese society. In a society of religious hypocrites, Barabas’ honesty is alarmingly compelling. Again, it is through his asides that we see him orchestrating the development of the narrative even when he loses his money (and power – a term interchangeable in the 16th century). “It shall go hard but I shall see your death” (page 53, line 95). It could be argued that Barabas has elements of an anti-hero. Despite ultimately murdering his daughter, he confesses an admirable love for Abigail early on. It is perhaps too strong to use the word ‘hero’, but we do feel sympathy for Barabas. His is no more deserved of his fate than any of the other characters in the text. Ferneze declares that she killed Barabas in the name of religion. This reduces his grandiloquence to a farcical set of lies. Ferneze is merely using Chrisitan ideologies as a guise for his malevolence. Whilst the actions of Barabas are not justified, the remaining characters do not ascertain a moral counterpoint to illuminate his wrongdoings. Aswell as this, Barabas is the only character that we get to witness the inner workings of his mind via the metatheatrical device, the aside. We watch the gradual onset of vengeance as his riches are dubiously taken from him and we can empathise with his increasingly volatile mind state.
Marlowe deliberately sets up dramatic irony at the expense of any narrative surprise. The implementation of this dramatic technique inverts the audience-actor relationship. Whereas normally, the audience watch in ignorance of the forthcoming events, Barabas orchestrates the development of the plot with the audience. In many ways, Barabas is as much an observer as he is an actor. This fusion of reality mixed with fantasy could be Marlowe commenting on the similarities both reality and fantasy share. The arbitrariness and transient evocation that we witness on the stage is not all dissimilar to reality. When this parallel has been firmly established and accepted by the reader, The Jew of Malta holds a mirror up to the audience and begs questions such as, “Is the barbarity of our protagonist, Barabas acceptable and are the remaining characters, who consult religion in a farcical manner, really agents of morality? In the prologue, Machiavelli argues that “religion is but a childish toy”. It could therefore be argued that Marlowe is using a satiric tone throughout The Jew of Malta. If we accept this notion, Barabas’ asides are reduced to merely ironic ramblings and the murder of his daughter deems him more stupid than cruel. If religion is but a childish toy, it does not merit the tyrannical outburst of her father.
Another example of reflexivity can be found in The Spanish Tragedy. The Chorus Tragedy serve a meta-dramatic function for they act as commentators on the action. A notable moment of self-reflexivity in The Spanish Tragedy is the play within the play in the fourth Act. Hieronimo knows a tragedy form his student days and makes everyone present (Balthazar, Lorenzo, and Bel-Imperia) play a part. This has several functions within the play. It foreshadows the tragic events of Hieronimo and Bel-Imperia that happen imminently after this scene. Hieronimo’s provides an ominous reply when Lorenzo and Balthazar suspect his motives, “the plot’s already in mine head”. This suggests that Hieronimo was destined to commit these sins.
It is generally accepted that an audience will suspend their disbelief in the investment of entertainment. However, self reflexivity casts a problem over this emotional transaction as it reminds the audience what they are viewing is fictional. One of the ways in which the audience consumes the text is by living vicariously through the characters. Marlowe complicates this with the meta-fictional stamp he instils on the text. In one way, this assists in our narrative voyage with Barabas as he directly presents himself to the audience and is the only member that breaks the fourth wall. This allows the audience to relate to him. However, Barabas is also the catalyst which destabilises the realism of the text.