The Tragedy of Mariam, Day 2

The Tragedy of Mariam, Day 2

On Language:

Back on May 16th, I read an Op-Ed in the NYT by Verlyn Klinkenborg entitled “The Lost Art of Reading Aloud,” and this piece crossed my mind again yesterday as I was, well, reading aloud Cary’s closet drama, a work that by its very sub-genre calls for this, often by an intimate group, and not, as all other forms of drama do, for performance on a public stage by gesticulating actors.  This “lost art,” which was common practice among friends and family for centuries, through the age of Austen and into the early 20th century, used to include the reading of novels, newspapers, scripture, and more, but is today  limited to poetry, children’s literature, and classroom texts (as long is there are teachers, students will not escape this hot seat).  The fact that Cary’s play, like so many of Shakespeare’s, uses iambic pentameter (10 syllable lines with 5 poetic feet that follow an unstressed/stressed pattern)  makes reading it aloud all the more meaningful and enjoyable, for it possesses a rhythm and cadence beyond its rhetoric and arguments. And as Klinkenborg points out, words have a physicality that is lost when they are not read aloud.  

Moreover, The Tragedy of Mariam is acutely concerned with the use and abuse of language.  The fact that the word “tongue” appears more than 21 times in the play more than underscores this point!  We learn in “the Argument” before the play even begins that Alexandra, Mariam’s mother, has spoken out and informed Marc Antony of her son-in-law Herod’s unethical murder plots that have resulted in the death of her father and son.  And as one critic, Danielle Clark, reminds us, the plot itself hinges on a rumor device, the false report of Herod’s death.  It is this belief that the tyrannical Herod is, indeed, dead that frees the tongues of so many previously quieted characters in the play.  In addition, according to early modern wisdom, women were to be chaste, obedient, and silent.  Yet, interestingly, female characters monopolize the play’s dialogue.  We do not hear from a male character until Silleus speaks in act one, scene five.  In her opening soliloquy, Mariam examines her feelings about Herod’s death, particularly the conflict between her sense of wifely duty to grieve for him and her sense of integrity not to do so because of her true inner dislike of him.  And in one line, she reduces her husband to a talking tyrant, “Why joy I not the tongue [of Herod] no more shall speak.”  For all her virtue and beauty, Mariam is not an ideal Renaissance wife precisely because she disobeys Herod by speaking out and reminding him of the murders that afforded him his illegitimate seizure of the throne.  Salome, the most transgressive female in the play, doesn’t even pretend to be concerned with honoring the three-part adage incumbent upon women then; and, in proto-feminist fashion, she inveighs against the double standard that allows men, but not women, the right to divorce.  Graphina,  Pheroras’ love interest in the sub-plot, is the only woman in the play who, at least initially, vows silence, obedience, and love. Pheroras, however, urges her to speak out: “Why speaks thou not, fair creature? Move thy tongue, for silence is a sign of discontent”; how refreshing for a male character to recognize that silence could signify something other than wifely compliance.  But, then again, the play was written by a woman whose biography makes plain how unhappy she was in her own marriage.

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