A backgrounded sea presence similar to that in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is also found in Marlowe’s earlier play, The Jew of Malta (1589–1590).1 Marlowe, however, includes lines suggesting the sea has the capacity to act as an ally or embody the rage and bravery of a threatened nation. Like Antonio in Merchant, main character Barabas’s wealth comes from his sea ventures, as do his losses—the largest of which stem from the arrival of the Turkish fleet. This event is introduced via Marlowe’s wordplay remark, “What accident’s betided to the Jews?” (1.1.145, emphasis mine). Later, when Ferneze, Governor of Malta, joins with the Spanish to resist the Turks’ demands of tribute and threats of attack, his words to Callapine, Bashaw of the Turks, speak of the sea in terms that imply its agency and alliance with the island. Warning Callapine of the consequences of pressuring Malta, Ferneze describes the waves as willing tools and instruments of vengeance that will side with Malta if the Turks attempt to invade:
Bashaw, in brief, shalt have no tribute here,
Nor shall the heathens live upon our spoil.
First will we raze the city walls ourselves,
Lay waste the island, hew the temples down,
And, shipping off our goods to Sicily,
Open an entrance for the wasteful sea,
Whose billows, beating the resistless banks,
Shall overflow it with their refluence.” (3.5.11-18)
Marlowe crafts lines as descriptors of an entity eager to break its bounds and “overflow” the island. It is made clear, however, that this action would be coordinated with and encouraged by Malta as a response to threats of war. Far from describing a fear of waves overtaking their shores, these lines reflect a people willing to cooperate and fully prepared to allow the waves entry.
These images of a sea imbued with agency and the capacity to assist or oppose are flexible. They can suggest interaction with or aid for those imperiled, or they can suggest the violence of war through depictions of a threatening, dangerous tide. In Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (c.1585-87),2 this imagery is central to the description of an angry, passionate, god-like entity, one seeming to echo the play’s theme of revenge:
Their violent shot resembling th’ocean’s rage,
When, roaring loud and with a swelling tide,
It beats upon the rampiers of huge rocks,
And gapes to swallow neighbor-bounding lands. (1.2.48-51)
The violence of conflict is compared to an entity both vengeful and embodied. Kyd’s images mirror the passions of battle: angry, raging, roaring, and increasing. The tide’s embodiment becomes more pronounced as the passage progresses: it “beats upon…huge rocks,” “gapes to swallow lands,” and its increasing rumble is made almost tangible through consonance (“rage,” “roaring,” “rampiers,” and “rocks”). Kyd’s words evoke a monstrous presence possessing traces of a sea god, capable of rage and dangerous to any opposition. In contrast to Malta’s sea as ally, Kyd’s entity is aggressive and uncontrolled, threatening destruction as it wills or chooses, coming to no creature or country’s aid.
 Marlowe, Christopher, “The Jew of Malta,” in English Renaissance Drama: A Norton Anthology. Edited by David Bevington, Lars Engle, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Eric Rasmussen. (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), 287–349.
 Kyd, Thomas, “The Spanish Tragedy,” in English Renaissance Drama: A Norton Anthology. Edited by David Bevington, Lars Engle, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Eric Rasmussen. (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), 3–73.