Sunday, January 23, 2011

6. The Tragedy of Mariam, The Fair Queene of Jewry by Elizabeth Cary

I was fascinated to read this sixteenth century woman's reinterpretation of the story of Miriam, the Maccabean princess who was married to Herod, the Greek-Macedonian King of the Jews in the first century CE. Her story is related in Josephus, a Jew who chronicled several events of the era. Her husband had her killed after she allegedly spoke to him with too much anger and pride. He put aside his first wife to marry her because she was of the bloodline of King David, seen as the rightful rulers of the Jews, and then had her grandfather and brother,who had stronger claims to the throne than him, killed.

Cary makes of this story a female-centered tragedy that I saw as equal to Greek and Shakespearean tragedy. The plot, language, and characters are internally cohesive and consistent. Mariam is proud of her heritage, and both in love with Herod and resentful of him for the murders of her family. Her mother Alexandra hates him and believes her grandsons should be on the throne. Salome, Herod's man-eating sister, plays the real villain in the play, she cannot stand Mariam's contempt of her and plots to see her killed. Herod is presented as a paranoid weathervane, blown either way depending on which woman uses her guile to deceive him, which is Salome. Mariam's tragic flaw is that she will not deign to cater to her husband, she will not flatter or praise him, and openly declares her anger. Thus, Salome, the deceiver, wins.

The message is a bitter one, that only deceitful women can triumph through manipulating the power of men. One could see that it would be easy for Elizabeth Cary to espouse; she had a troubled marriage rocked by religious and financial turmoil, and undoubtedly suffered from her refusal to submit to her husband's will. Interestingly, the play was written in the early years of her marriage, before she and her husband separated, and is dedicated to her sister-in-law, also Elizabeth Cary. The dedication itself, a poem about how her husband's sister is the moon to her husband's sun appears good natured on the surface, but one would think she tread a careful road in dedicating to her sister-in-law a play where the protagonist's sister-in-law is the principal villain. I wonder if there is any information or scholarly work on that "coincidence."

I read this for my directed study on early modern women in contemporary and modern fiction. I'll probably be digesting it for a while and hopefully develop some brilliant paper, as I feel it is more than worthy.

1 comment:

Marie said...

what a fascinating tale. and yes, a pretty depressing message.