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Tragedy of Mariam

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Speaking for women by a woman in a male society in 17th century: Tragedy of Mariam

The Tragedy of Mariam has been accepted to be the first drama written by a woman – Elizabeth Tanfield Cary. It was published in 1613. She was contemporary of William Shakespeare and was in her own right a scholar having translated French, Latin, Spanish and Hebrew works. It is a closet drama of Jacobean times. A closet drama was not staged but was read among within a small circle. The long speeches and pontificating puts off many readers; whereas if parts were read out by various members of the group the book would be more interesting.

The first publication came out in 1613. It was the first work that was published giving the name of the female author. It was only from the 1970’s onwards that the contribution of this piece towards English literature came to be recognized. Since then scholars are focusing on its importance. Written sometime between 1602 and 1604 the drama had never been staged during its era and the author had probably never meant it to be so.

The story is about Mariam of the Hasmonean dynasty. She was the second spouse of Herod, King of Palestine (39-4 BC). The play begins in 29BC when Herod is thought to be dead – killed by Octavian (later came to be known as Emperor Augustus). Mariam now comes face to face with her wavering feelings towards her husband Herod the Great. Herod apparently loved her but he had a hand in killing Mariam’s grandfather and her brother.

In Act IV Herod remerges dismissing the reports about his death as false. Salome, the sister of Herod, known for her villainous nature and loose morals convinces her brother that Mariam had not been faithful during his absence. This enraged Herod to order Mariam’s execution.

Although, as the name of play suggests, Mariam is the main protagonist she occupies the focus in only 10% of the drama. Many secondary characters are introduced by Cary to portray Herod’s court as vibrant with multiple voices as she sketches an overall picture of Jewish society under the tyrannical rule of Herod. These patriarchal values are integrated by the Chorus allowing a chance of the same being reviewed impelled by the political climate of the closet drama.

The conclusion is in keeping with historical facts – there is no contradiction with the historical Herod and the person dramatized in this play. Including Mariam, six of the characters face death in the play. The drama also touches upon idea of divorce and the antagonism of women versus women through the characters of Mariam and Salome.

In Broadview Press review of 13th December 2000 it has been observed that “The Tragedy of Mariam, the Fair Queen of Jewry is probably the first play in English known to have been authored by a woman … In part a critique of male power, the play sets gender politics in sharp relief against a background of dynastic conflict and Roman imperialism” (Cary, 202).

The text of the play has been based on Jewish Antiquities by Josephus. Before the resurfacing of Herod, his wife had come to know that he had decreed that she was to be killed following his death. His love for her was possessive. Salome, Herod’s sister instigated him to kill her making him believe that Mariam was unfaithful to him. But when he realized the mistake it was too late to save his innocent wife.

The dramatic events outline the intertwining of politics with patriarchy reigning during the time of the author. Stephanie J. Wright editing the edition of Keele University Press that the play opens the eyes to “the politics of a society in which the married man is not only his wife’s husband, but also her lord”. (17)

Cary by and large follows the track laid down by Josephus but alters the timeline and some of the traits in the characters while adding Christian undertones; one of two romantic sub-plots are introduced to add color. The events cover about a year in Josephus but Cary squeezes it all into one day in tune with the classical tradition of maintaining time unity.

The play starts with Mariam and conversing with her mother Alexandra.  In the talk Alexandra suggests that perhaps Herod seeks her death so as to reunite with Doris his first spouse. But Mariam answers, “Doris, alas her time of love was passed; Those coals were raked in embers long ago” (Cary, 15). Herod had divorced Doris a good number of years previously so as to marry Mariam. Unlike Josephus who depicts Mariam as adulterous, Carey paints her to be sexually innocent. Her inner struggle is whether to be a silent and obedient wife or to stand up and protest the killings of her father and brother. To grab the throne Herod had a hand in these two killings

The liveliest parts of the play are the exchanges between Salome and Mariam. Losing her patience Mariam dubs Salome to be born low who was nothing better than the servants prior to becoming queen. Cary’s Mariam is good as well as outspoken and for this she has to pay for her life in a man’s world. One of the subplots comprises of the triangular love between Salome, her husband Constabarus and Silleus. Contrary to Hebrew law (where divorce is permitted only to the male and that too if adultery is proved) Salome wants to divorce her husband and marry her lover. Salome manages it. Through this Cary shows how a powerful woman can bend the sacred law to satisfy her lust and hatred. “Unbridled speech is Mariam’s worst disgrace/ And will endanger her without desart” (Cary, 17).

In the play Cary deals with Herod but not the Herod of the Bible but from Antiquities of Jews written by Josephus – a historian. Herod is depicted as a nasty social climber. He married Mariam for establishing links with the Jewish monarchy. To secure it he killed the grandfather and brother of Mariam. Rome summoned Herod for this crime. Although word goes around that he is killed he returns to a wife who is far from happy upon seeing him.

The play highlights the dichotomy of the roles of women from various angles – the public woman versus the private one, the subservient wife versus that of one with an independent mind and the woman with a body versus the woman who thinks. To bring home this point Miriam is beheaded signifying the final severance of the mind from the body.

In the early 17th century Elizabeth Cary penned this drama to highlight the point that since Miriam as woman used speech as a power even in death she has the last say. Elizabeth Cary came from the upper class – progressive and Christian and hence does not voice the viewpoints of those from lower strata of society, the working class and those hailing from non-Christian beliefs or having foreign origins. But it is also true that the work is not merely a rendering of Cary’s own socio-economical background. It has not limited her ability to understand other issues beyond her own milieu.  At that point of time women were not encouraged from being part of the literary world and her entry into it through drama – albeit a closet one – indicates a step forward to break the bonds because a drama hints at public display.

 Setting the play against the backdrop of Jerusalem and by keeping Miriam, the Jewish Queen as the main character she gives voice to the upper class in the non-Christian community. A woman from her ranks holds forth in dialogue with those from the lower working class Jews – both men and women. Thus the speeches transcend the race, religion and economic differences. However the acceptance of Miriam of martyrdom towards the end of the play points to the author’s own background. The Christian color to the story as depicted by Cary is depicted in Mariam’s martyrdom. Like the Christian saints, Mariam too continued to plead her innocence till the eleventh hour.

Cary may be ranked among the first feminist writers. Even while advocating patriarchal values, Cary highlights the slavery of thought to man by introducing the slave girl Graphina. In Act II Graphina faithfully retells what her lover Pheroras tells her or wants to hear. “You know my wishes ever yours did meet” (Cary 72) Graphina said, “And fast obedience may your mind delight” (Cary 72). Graphina is groveling but yet the name given to her by Cary is derived from the Greek graphein that means ‘to write’. Moreover Graphina being poor has no other alternative but to give the nod to whatever those having power over her say. Thus, Cary’s patriarchal society had its sway not only on the upper class women but also on those ranked lower down the ladder. Being a closet drama that is not supposed to be performed most probably it is difficult to imagine the setting while reading. The modern reader may find the play too lengthy and the soliloquies drawn out. 

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