Published in 1613, Elizabeth Cary’s The Tragedy of Mariam is universally accepted as the first drama published by a woman. Cary was a contemporary of Shakespeare, though due to the fact that she was memorialized in a biography by one of her daughters (the exact author is unknown), more is known about her than her more famous Elizabethan playwright counterpart. Elizabeth Cary was quite scholarly, and knew (and translated works from) French, Spanish, Latin and Hebrew. Her play Mariam deals with the story of the wife of Herod the Great, and though it does not appear in the Bible, it was in Antiquities of the Jews by the historian Josephus, whose work was popular in translation at the time. This just goes to show you that people in Early Modern England really knew how to party. Mariam also happens to be the latest in my queue of classics. Very convenient. Here we go…
As a backstory, Herod was a bit of a dirty social climber and married Mariam to gain ties into the Jewish monarchy. To make his ascent to the throne secure, he has Mariam’s brother and grandfather killed, which is something that Mariam is understandably unhappy about. He’s summoned to Rome to answer to the murder accusations, and at this time, he decrees that after his death, Mariam has to be killed (you know, because if he can no longer have her, then nobody else can, either). After awhile, Herod has to return to Rome, and the play opens with the news that Caesar has had him put to death. Turns out this was untrue, and he returns home to a wife who’s not all that happy to see him, and in fact, she tells him off for killing her brother (which makes her a mouthy harpy). Further on, Herod’s sister Salome convinces Herod that Mariam has been cheating on him, and he has her beheaded, only discovering that he really shouldn’t have listened to his sister Salome after it’s too late. This story, at least the “death sentence for unsubstantiated accusations of adultery” angle, bears some similarity to that of St. Guglielma, except Guglielma managed to escape death and live happily ever after in a wasteland with her husband and his brother. Yet the fact that twice in a row I’ve read of women being sentenced to death based purely on accusations from people who had beef with them raises a serious question: don’t these married couples ever talk to each other? Hasn’t anyone ever heard of verifying a rumor? “Okay, so maybe you heard it from a friend who heard it from a friend who heard it from another that you been messin’ arou-hound.” I guess that means you have to die. Ah, justice. The justice of love.
To a point, the play deals with women’s roles and the dichotomy of public vs. private, woman as silent, obedient wife vs. woman with a mind and will of her own, woman as a body vs. woman as a thinker and the struggle to match these things to find a sense of personal balance. Mariam, of course, does not achieve this balance, and it is perhaps telling that Mariam is put to death by beheading, a final severing of mind and body.
Anyway, for those of you who may be hoping that someday there will be Trivial Pursuit: Renaissance Edition, the action in The Tragedy of Mariam: The Fair Queen of Jewry (yes, Jewry) takes place in a single day, thereby following the classical rule of unity of action originally set forth in Aristotle’s Poetics. Nice, huh? I know. Also, the play has been compared to Shakespeare’s Othello because of the “jealous husband kills wife, then realizes he’s an ass” plotline. It was also a closet drama, which means that instead of being staged like a traditional play, it was performed as a reading in private for a small group. It has a lot of long speeches, and though pontificating is swell, it isn’t really all that interesting to read. I’m sure it would’ve been much better to listen to, however, which makes sense because it’s a play. So if you attempt this one, it might be best to do it with a group of friends, and all of you can read your parts aloud. I used to do this with plays I was assigned in school, and it always really helped my understanding of the text. It also proves that I am a total nerd and have been this way all of my life. In case the fact that I’m reading the classics on purpose wasn’t proof enough, that is.