Eminem, Mariam & Motherhood

Eminem, Mariam, & Motherhood

Admittedly, Eminem and Elizabeth Cary have little in common.  He is a contentious 21st century rapper who keeps nothing in the closet; his autobiographical and topical lyrics run the gamut from sexist and homophobic to scatalogical and taboo.  She is a little-known 17th century dramatist who wrote closet dramas, most notably The Tragedy of Mariam, which uses the ancient Hebrew account of Herod and Mariam to explore sexual politics, marriage, divorce, and gender roles in early modern England.  

However, his anti-feminist lyrics and her proto-feminist play do share a concern with motherhood, and neither is of the Hallmark card variety.  For all his epigrammatic wit, when Oscar Wilde wrote in The Importance of Being Earnest that “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy.  No man does, and that is his,” he must not have read Cary’s play and could not possibly have conceived of the Mathers’ family dynamic, both of which prove exceptions to Wilde’s rule about mothers, daughters, and sons.

In “My Mom,” a track on Eminem’s new album entitled “Relapse,” the rapper, once again, plays the blame game with his mother, re-exposing her drug problems and directly linking his addiction to painkillers to her own.  The song’s refrain says it all: “My mom loved Valium and lots of drugs. That’s why I’m on what I’m on cause like I’m her.”  Nearly a decade ago, following the release of Eminem’s first litany of anti-mom songs, Debbie Mathers Nelson filed an $11 million defamation suit against her son, but in the the end was awarded only $25K.  Last year she completed a tell-all memoir about their relationship entitled My Son Marshall, My Son Eminem.  On second thought, maybe some mothers become like their sons.

Unlike Shakespeare’s canon, which contains very few mothers, Cary’s play features three: the title heroine, Mariam; Alexandra, Mariam’s mother; and Doris, Herod’s ex-wife.  The play’s central focus with regard to Mariam is her fulfillment of her duty as a wife. We learn very little about Mariam’s role as a mother, short of the fact that she has bore Herod sons that he actually acknowledges as his own, who will continue the family dynasty.   However, we do see her maternal defenses surface in 4.8 when Doris vows not only to hex and vex Mariam, but also her children; Mariam cries out, “Curse not mine infants!” and Doris counters by intensifying her curse on Mariam: “plague the mother much, the children worse!”  While I don’t fully blame Doris for feeling bitter–Herod did, after all, divorce her so he could upgrade to a younger, more beautiful, and royal model in Mariam and disown his children by Doris–I am still disturbed by this scene and the debased competition among women in the play.  The ongoing conflict between Mariam and Doris proves that today’s “Mommy Wars” are nothing new.  Finally, when we first learn of Mariam’s mom, Alexandra, in the “Argument” that precedes the play, we perceive her in a fairly sympathetic light, as she sought retribution for Herod’s murder of her son and father by informing Marc Antony of Herod’s brutal acts so that he would be held accountable.  When we meet her in 1.3, however, we see her for the woman she is, a stern, scrupulous, and unemotional woman desirous of social and political status and not above marketing her daughter’s beauty to help the cause.  She encourages Mariam to be ruled by reason, not passion, and discourages her from grieving Herod, whom she then believes dead. By the end of the play, Alexandra still garners no sympathy as a character because, after learning Herod is alive, she sides with him (and patriarchal conventions) over her own daughter, whom “she did … loudly rail” upon right up to her death.  What’s more interesting is Nuntio’s account of Mariam’s reaction to her disapproving mother: “She made no answer, but she looked the while as if thereof she scarce did notice take, yet smiled–a dutiful though scornful smile.”  While Mariam takes her mother’s criticism in stride and confronts death bravely, stoically, in doing so, she leaves her children behind to fend for themselves; thus, the play is as much a tragedy of motherhood in a patriarchal society as it is of marriage.

In sum, if you are looking for maternal role models, you won’t find them in the writings of Mr. Mathers or Mariam.


*Image of Eminem and his mother is from Salon.com.


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