Elizabeth Cary – “The Tragedy of Mariam” (the end)

After Sohemus ends his speech, the Chorus starts to moralize upon the proper duties of a woman. The woman with her marriage, it (he? she? they?) claims, forfeits her own identity and even her own thoughts. The true chastity consists in not only not having sex with our men, but in not even speaking to other men. In a monologue from Act 4 Mariam, now sentenced to death, deplores her fate. She sees herself essentially as a kind of overreacher, because she thought her beauty could always win Herod over. Herod loved her so much that he didn’t succumb even to Cleopatra’s advances. Since this is an excerpt, I don’t know how the plot about Mariam’s vowing never to sleep with Herod again was developed. But if she stuck to her guns, then it was kind of naive to think Herod would accept it, wasn’t it? Anyway, Mariam observes that she had the traditionally desired womanly virtue of chastity, but alas, it was not accompanied by humility. She thought chastity was enough. But at least now, secure in the knowledge of her innocence, she can look forward to death and resting in Sara’s lap (not Abraham’s)

The play was written a long time before Elizabeth Cary’s conversion to Catholicism, which cut her off dramatically from her own family. But it seems already back then Cary was interested in the female agency and what constitutes female virtue. Are we meant to take Chorus’s moralizing on the face value? It seems so, but on the other hand we know Cary’s relationship with her husband was difficult even before her conversion. Perhaps what she really means to say is that the patriarchal system is set against women and unless they are prepared to take all sorts of BS from their husbands, their fate is going to be as tragic as Mariam’s.


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