Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Barabas Gambit

Thou has committed—
Fornication: but that was in another country
And besides, the wench is dead.

--Christopher Marlowe, The Jew of Malta, IV, I, 41-43

I searched Google Web before writing this post for “Fornication: but that was in another country”—and got 191 hits. Some were straight quotations, but there was enough variety to suggest that this is a catchphrase with general appeal. The most visible is perhaps the epigraph to the poem, “Portrait of a Lady” by T.S. Eliot (link). Ernest Hemingway used it as a convoluted riff on himself, as recounted here (evidently he also considered using it as the title for what became Farewell to Arms (link)—the German title is In Ein Andern Land (link)). It makes its way into the corpus of Inspector Morse (link). It appears in a trilogy by Edward St. Aubyn (who? –oh, link).

Just a bit of reflection is enough to suggest that the line has natural appeal to college students (link) law students (link), journalists (link, link, link) and others.

Freely bandied about though it may be, it is remarkable how rarely anyone attempts to put it in context. A certain Bruce Jackson, otherwise unknown to me, does the job nicely (link):

…reminded me of the scene in Christopher Marlowe’s Jew of Malta when Barabas, on his way home from setting fire to a nunnery, is challenged on the road by two friars. One of the friars says “Thou hast committed–” Barabas interrupts him and says, “Fornication. But that was in another Country: and besides, the Wench is dead.” That’s the Barabas Gambit: when they’re asking you questions about something you don’t want to cop to, answer a different question and hope that will keep them so busy they’ll forget about what they really wanted to know.

Barabas, Marlowe’s Jew is a kind of precursor to Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. I wish I’d been able to see F. Murray Abraham’s bravura double this winter at the Duke on 42d Street in New York, when he played both roles back to back (link). The Times critic in the end thought Shakespeare’s Shylock more subtle and challenging. But you have to save a warm sport for a character like Barabas who can say:

As for myself, I walk abroad o’nights
And kill sick people groaning under walls
Sometimes I go about and poison wells.

--Christopher Marlowe, The Jew of Malta, II ii.


Correspondents point to other connections:

  • Julian Mitchell's play, Another Country about British public school life, homosexuality, and spying for the Soviets (link). There is also a James Baldwin novel that bears the name, though whether it carries the reference I cannot say.
  • But the first line of L.P. Harlety's novel, The Go-Between, is "the past is a foreign country." Not the same thing at all (link).

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