The Tragedy of Mariam, Day 3

The Tragedy of Mariam, Day 3

All in a Day’s Drama: The Chorus vs. The Characters

The Chorus plays an interesting part in Cary’s tragedy.  Unlike the characters, who infuse the work with multiple viewpoints that readers must weigh against each other, the Chorus takes a single, unequivocal, and conservative stance, particularly at the ends of acts three, four and five.  Women in the play, both unspotted and blemished, enjoy an exceptional degree of outspokenness and  verbal dexterity, which may suggest to some that Cary’s work is progressive, even proto-feminist.  One’s sense of this is problematized, however, by the third Chorus, which proclaims that wives must truly be AND appear to be virtuous and that their identity becomes subsumed by their husbands’, who control both their bodies and their minds. The fourth Chorus preaches of forgiveness as the noblest form of revenge.  The third and fourth Chorus each ends by identifying Mariam’s remissness: in the former, she breached two wifely duties, disobeying Herod by speaking out against his murder of her brother and grandfather, and in the latter, she revenged Herod with hatred instead of loving forgiveness.  

The fifth and final chorus recounts the highlights of the play–the string of deceptions and deaths–and reminds us of the play’s observance of the classical unities, for all this has occurred in just “twice six hours.” It also didactically suggests that the play, a “school of wisdom,” is intended as a “warning to posterity.”   The Chorus, for all its reprimanding of the the title heroine, in the end identifies her as “guiltless” victim and Herod as mad tyrant.  So, then, what exactly do we learn from reading The Tragedy of Mariam, wherein evil prevails over good?  And better yet, who or what might be the target of the play’s lesson?  Unruly wives? Controlling, jealous husbands? Patriarchy at large? Moreover, what do we finally make of Mariam?  Is the ideal female reader of the play supposed to be inspired to be more or less like Mariam?  She fulfills Aristotle’s requirements of a tragic hero, for she is of high estate, has nobility of soul, free will, and a tragic flaw (outspokenness, which today’s readers will likely not perceive as a fault, and/or vanity, since she admits to believing her beauty would ensure Herod’s love), achieves anagnorisis (enlightenment) in 4.8, makes important choices, and dies bravely.  In the end, does the play, subvert patriarchal dominance or endorse female subservience?  Critics disagree on this point.  I, personally, want to believe the former, especially given Herod’s seemingly genuine appreciation of Mariam’s brains, not just her beauty, his decline into lunacy, and his emasculating desire to retire into darkness and drown in his own tears.  However, the relationships between women in the play proves a sticking point for me.  It is not bad enough that Mariam, overwhelmingly chaste and virtuous, even if flawed, must die because of Salome’s false reports about her,but she must also suffer verbal lashings from both Doris (Herod’s previous wife) and Alexandra, her own mother, an additional time before she is beheaded.  For me, the play is an excruciating example of how detrimental women themselves can be to the cause of feminism; in a cutthroat competition to access some semblance of power in a patriarchal system, Salome, Doris, and Alexandra demonstrate how women become instruments of their own sex’s oppression.

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