The Tragedy of Mariam, Day 1

The Tragedy of Mariam, Day 1

Welcome to the first day of our discussion of Elizabeth Cary’s early 17th century closet drama, The Tragedy of Mariam, the Fair Queen of Jewry. Discussion questions are here.

Cary’s play is one whose readership today would typically be limited to academics and theatre historians, so it may seem like an odd selection for “Summer Reading” lists, which usually include recent works of fiction that can be finished quickly and effortlessly on the beach or at the  pool.  A first-time reader may initially find the play off-putting because it is a highly formal work with long, heavy-handed speeches and characters and plot that derive from two source materials that are foreign to many today: History of the Jewish War (75-79 C.E.) and Antiquities of the Jews (93 C.E.),  both by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.  Cary’s central concern with these sources is the story of Herod the Great’s tumultuous marriage with Mariam, a Jewish woman of royal blood.

In spite of these textual stumbling blocks, there are plenty of reasons to make a case for broadening the readership of this play.  For starters, it is a work of both historic and historical importance.  It is the only major work written by a woman during the early modern period in England. It is also the first work written by a woman under her own name, rather than under a pseudonym, a common tendency of many women writers even into the 20th century.  What’s more, the play also provides insight into 17th c. gender roles, family relations, maternity, grieving practices, married life, and even divorce–all of which are still fundamentally relevant to our lives today.  Not to mention the fact that Cary’s play possesses undeniable literary merit; beautiful and powerful lines abound throughout.

“The Argument,” which precedes the opening scene, sets up the backstory, the action that has occurred prior to the play’s start, as well as the play’s ultimate outcome and the death of the title heroine. In sum, Herod, a fairweather husband and father to his former wife, Doris, and his children with her, has remarried the high born, beautiful Mariam, and orchestrated the murder of his new brother-in-law, Aristobulus, and grandfather-in-law, Hyrcanus, in a selfish attempt to access Mariam’s right of inheritance. Alexandra, Mariam’s mother, has informed Marc Antony of Herod’s evildoings, and Herod has been subsequently summoned to Rome. Before departing, however, the jealous Herod has placed Mariam in the custody of his Uncle Josephus (who is also his sister Salome’s husband) with a “strict and private commandment” that, if he should die while away, Mariam be killed also, so that no one else may have her.  When Herod returns and learns from his sister that Josephus, in an effort to assure Mariam of Herod’s love for her, has betrayed Herod’s secret commandment to Mariam, Josephus, too, is murdered.  While Herod’s away on a second trip to Rome (following Caesar’s defeat of Marc Antony in the Battle of Actium), a rumor spreads of his death. Josephus’ successor, Sohemus, informs Mariam of this.

…and so the play begins with Mariam, ostensibly in private at home in Jerusalem, reflecting in soliloquy on her marriage, her believed loss of Herod, the murder of her brother and grandfather, and her role and duty as wife…   Just as telling a child (and many adults for that matter) “NO” is a sure way to achieve the opposite of the command, so Mariam resents the constraints Herod placed on her when he was first away in Rome: “For he, by barring me from liberty to shun my ranging, taught me first to range.” She continues, noting that while she has remained faithful to him, she has exercised some form of resistance by barring him from her heart. This is perennial material. Give it a chance!

Biographical Highlights on Elizabeth Cary:

  • Born 1585. Died 1639.
  • Privately educated daughter of a wealthy lawyer.
  • Read in 6 languages.
  • Could not write for live theatre, so she wrote closet dramas.
  • She followed the classical form of Seneca.
  • Wedded Sir Henry Cary in 1602. Unhappily married and eventually lived separates; he was a Protestant and she grew fond of Catholicism.
  • Father disinherited her after she converted to Catholicism and mortgaged her property to her husband.
  • Wrote Tragedy of Mariam b/t 1603-1608. It was published in 1613.
  • In the 1640’s her daughter Anne wrote a biography of her, the 1st bio ever of an English woman writer. It wasn’t published until 1861.

Online Resources:

Biographical info on Cary and closet drama as a form from a course previously offered at Valpariaso University.

This site, associated with U of Georgia, provides a brief bio on Cary and explores similarities and differences b/t the source text and Cary’s play.

Norton online provides useful contextual information on marriage and domestic life in the 17th c.

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