The Tragedy of Mariam
by Elizabeth Cary

Reviewed by Jeanette Tran


Published by Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2010   |   101 pages

Elizabeth Cary’s The Tragedy of Mariam’s opens with the presentation of a heroine who feverishly fantasizes about her husband’s dead corpse. In Act I, scene i, Mariam has just been informed that her husband, Herod, King of Judea, is dead. While she publicly presents herself as weeping for Herod’s passing, she freely admits that she does not actually lament his death:

Oft have I wished that I from him were free,
Oft have I wished that he might lose his breath,
Oft have I wished his carcass dead to see.

Over the course of the drama, Cary’s readers subsequently learn that Mariam is not simply a bitter woman, but the abused wife of an irrationally jealous and controlling man responsible for the murder of her brother and grandfather, and ultimately, of Mariam as well. The gender of its author and year of its publication (1613) ensure the significance of The Tragedy of Mariam in the history of English literature. But the play is remarkable equally for its astonishingly nuanced and detached exploration of marriage, divorce, and gender inequality, towards which the preceding sentences only begin to hint.

Though Cary’s name may be unfamiliar to all but scholars in the admittedly niche field of early modern women’s writing, she is without question a critical figure in the history of English literature and drama. Cary was born in 1585 to Sir Lawrence Tanfield, a lawyer, and his wife Elizabeth Symondes. As her father’s only child and heir, Cary was extremely well-educated and is said to have translated Seneca’s Epistles from the Latin as a child. One of Cary’s daughters, in her own biography, suggested that Cary produced a large body of poems and translations in her lifetime, but all but a handful of works, such as The Tragedy of Mariam, remain. Cary became the Lady of Falkland upon marrying Sir Henry Cary, Viscount of Falkland, in 1602, and is said to have been an ardent supporter of his political ambitions. They were married until 1625, when, upon her public declaration that she had converted to Catholicism, he renounced her as his wife and cut her off from all financial support.

While it would be tempting to attribute to Cary’s own marital troubles a role in her choice to write a play about the plight of an abused wife, this autobiographical reading does not account for the date of the play’s composition and publication. The Tragedy of Mariam — the first work to be published by a woman under her own name — was published in 1613, and there is no record in the literature that Tanfield had been abusive prior to this date. In fact, scholars speculate that the play was written and privately circulated through manuscript as many as ten years prior to 1613.

Nor does it account for the role that women—in addition to Herod—play in Mariam’s demise. Indeed, while Herod is undoubtedly the play’s central villain, much of The Tragedy of Mariam centers on the ways in which women both willfully and unwillfully undermine and destroy one another. The plot only gains in depth as it progresses into complexity. Mariam, as Herod’s second wife, is the unwitting usurper of Herod’s first wife Doris’s throne. Mariam is also the archrival of Herod’s sister, Salomé, who is jealous of the power that she wields. When we first meet Salomé, she accuses Mariam of taking too much pleasure in Herod’s death, and of heartlessly plotting to find another king to replace him. Mariam retaliates by accusing Salomé of plotting to kill her own husband, Constabarus, so that she can replace him with Silleus, an Arabian man who she secretly loves. Such a confluence of events problematizes any simple reading of the text as an unambiguous work of early feminist literature.

And yet, due to its complex portrayal of the female experience, The Tragedy of Mariam nevertheless is a feminist text. Salomé, in love with Silleus, wants nothing more than to be able to request a divorce from Constabarus. Arguing that divorce should be a male and female right, she asks, “cannot women hate as well as men?” Though this question leads into Salome’s riveting feminist diatribe, in which she declares that she will “be the custom-breaker and begin/ To show my sex the way to freedom’s door,” she proves unable to free herself or her literal and figurative “sister” Mariam from the strictures of patriarchy, let alone from the traps that the women in the play set for one another. Though gender equality in marriage is never achieved in the play, Cary does demonstrate that women can indeed hate as well as men. Mariam justly criticizes Salomé for her adulterous relationship with Silleus, then later refers to the darker-skinned Salomé as “thou mongrel, issued from rejected race.” Salomé’s reply, “What odds betwixt your ancestors and mine?/ Both born of Adam, both were made of earth,/ And both did come from holy Abraham’s line,” demonstrates Cary’s capacity to represent a variety of perspectives within her text with detachment. Mariam herself is accused of adulterous behavior by the embittered Doris for displacing her as Herod’s lawful wife.

Crucially, the text suggests that Mariam ultimately meets her tragic end not because of the machinations of her fellow females or any accusations of infidelity, but because of her husband’s inability to abide her refusal to be silent. Prior to Herod’s return, Sohemus, a court counselor, proclaimed that “Unbridled speech is Mariam’s worst disgrace, / And will endanger her without desert.” The text demonstrates the wisdom of Sohemus’s charge when Mariam refuses to rejoice in Herod’s return as a proper wife should, instead stating, “your offers to my heart no ease can grant/Except they could my brother’s life restore.” Her refusal to be silent regarding past wrongs enrages Herod and fuels his jealousy and distrust of her, his admiration of Mariam turned to accusation as he now wonders, “Where could’st thou get thy stars that served for eyes/ Except by theft, and theft is foul disgrace?”

Though the Chorus states, “the fairest action of our human life/ Is scorning to revenge an injury,” Cary gives Mariam the last word and symbolic triumph over Herod: the play’s conclusion enacts the wronged wife’s ultimate revenge fantasy. The conflict amongst the women is quickly dissolved and Herod learns almost immediately of the true nature of his wise, chaste and virtuous wife. Herod is shown, to Mariam’s supporters’ great satisfaction, to regret immediately the death of his innocent wife. Her beheading, the literal separation of her mouth from her body, makes it physically impossible—as Herod has seemingly intended—for her to speak her dangerous, or loving, words ever again. And yet, unable to speak, Mariam nevertheless engenders speech. Herod states, “the thought of Mariam doth so steal my spirit/ My mouth from speech of her I cannot wean.” Similarly, the “truth” of Mariam situation engenders speech within the text’s author’s Cary’s “mouth,” and consequently, the mouths of Cary’s characters and legacy of readers. Such speech, however constrained, ensures that Mariam, and her perspective and plight, will never fully be silenced.

While Karen Britland compares Cary’s play to Shakespearean drama for its refusal to present a single perspective on any issue, the conditions under which Shakespeare wrote his plays—as a man writing for the commercial theater—ensure that certain kinds of comparisons between the playwrights are not possible. Considering the conditions under which Cary wrote her play, and given the play’s concern with the dangerous things that women can do with words, it seems unsurprising that The Tragedy of Mariam would take the form of what is now referred to as “closet drama.” Closet drama designates a play that was not written to be performed on the commercial stage, but is instead meant to be read or performed by small groups in more private spaces, such as schools or homes. It seems that it was only in this form that Cary was able to take such aesthetic and political license.

Given the various ways in which the play explores the strength that women can find within constraint, Cary’s controlled style (presented in an iambic pentameter that follows an alternating, interlocking rhyme scheme in contrast to the blank verse that had become the norm of the public stage) seems entirely appropriate. Her play is also distinguished for the way in which it observes the classical unity of time by containing the dramatic action to a period of just one day. Given the scope of what Cary aims to represent in this brief window—the rise and tragic fall of Mariam, the fair queen of Jewry—it is only fitting that it is precisely within these constrained forms that Cary is most able to demonstrate and explore the diverse political and existential situations of her text and age.

Jeanette Tran is a scholar of early modern literature who also enjoys reading contemporary American fiction. She currently resides in New York.

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