17th century, Arts

The silent rebellion of Elizabeth Cary

By Martin Parlett

For many, Elizabeth Cary (1585–1639) is not a name that readily flares the synapses; nor one which encourages an emotional kindling of English national or literary pride. It is a name, whether through natural critical evolution, or purposeful ostracism from the literary canon, forced to whisper itself at the fringes of syllabi and the precipice of recognisability. But such neglect is a remarkable injustice. Not only is Cary the first female dramatist of the English language, writing The Tragedy of Mariam in 1602-3, but her life and fiction offer striking instances of female resistance to the oppression of Jacobean patriarchy. This article will briefly explore how Cary navigates the ’space’ for women in seventeenth-century England, and how within a male dominated society, the female voice has the ability to question, threaten and destabilise this institution, whilst remaining ostensibly silent, obedient and chaste.

The most extraordinary account of Cary’s utilisation of the female voice exists not in her fiction, but in her juvenile biography. At ten years old, Elizabeth attended a witchcraft trial judged by her own father. The story follows that during the proceedings Elizabeth acutely observed something awry in the defendant’s behaviour, which suggested coercion. Elizabeth whispered some prudent lines of enquiry to her father’s ear, which he replicated in front of the crowd, with the result that:

She [the defendant] was easily believed innocent and quitted 1.

Whilst this incident of restrained whispering between daughter and father conforms to an image of Jacobean propriety and female verbal restraint, it also conveys that the female utterance is extended, albeit via her male superior, to the public sphere with the ultimate end of procuring social justice.


Cary’s play, The Tragedy of Mariam, also begins with the solitary vocalisation of a woman. Within the patriarchal structure of the author’s society, the act of original thought, let alone its vocalisation, was grounds for the censure of women. As Weaver has noted 2, Cary’s use of monologue for the characters of Mariam (Herod’s wife) and Salome (Herod’s sister), creates dramatic liberty for the female to think in the proactive, rather than reactive, mode. The monologue serves as a plane in which the perceived contradictory emotions of Mariam can be resolved, affording her greater strength to reject her husband, Herod, later in the play. Linguistic evidence of the female attempt to perfect the self in monologue sequences can be found, for example, in Mariam’s use of anaphora:
Oft I have wished that I from him were free
Oft have I wished that he might lose his breath
Oft have I wished his carcass dead to see (16-18)
in which the reinforcement of the opening clause, allows Mariam to build, in the style of an ascending tricolon, from a vague call for freedom, to a specific visualisation of her husband’s corpse. Metaphorically, Cary refuses the male penetration via dialogue in these scenes, which would threaten to demote her constructed female authority.

Conversely, the male characters are strictly prohibited from monologue. Unlike the females, who have the stage ’space’ in which to formulate their arguments, the male may act only through reactive gestures. As Cary denies the males this privilege, she simultaneously banishes them from the art of solitary verbal construction, and also presents the male community as lacking the decisive action of Mariam. Throughout the play the male voice attempts and fails to regain authority through verbal control revealing a traditionally ’feminine’ inconstancy, and critiquing the eloquence and stature of the patriarchal stronghold. This is most significantly demonstrated in the character of Herod, whose usurped verbal domination is starkly contrasted with his innate territorial and military power. The text presents numerous examples of this verbal tension between internal male and external female within Herod’s character, creating indecision and wavering.


When first convinced by Salome’s counsel (the falsified claim that Mariam plans to kill him) Herod responds with a strong, clear-cut declarative reaction: ’for impunity shall Mariam die’. However as the play progresses, the struggle between Herod’s personal conscience and the corruptive influence of the female results in a King who is prone to indecision:
Here, take her to her death. Come back, come back!
What meant I to deprive the world of light…etc (IV. 235)

[…] She must not, shall not, die.
Without her I most miserable am,
And with her more than most. Away, away,
But bear her but to prison, not to death (248-51)


He is therefore a leader, the figurehead of absolute patriarchal control, who cannot decide competently the fate of his wife, and now, enemy. His speeches are peppered with questions, flags of indecision and abstract supposition, continuing until Cary’s protagonist is eventually put to death. But even after Mariam is executed, upon his own orders, Act V opens with Herod’s naive belief that Mariam is alive, placing his own inconstant hopes above the actualisation of his orders.
What? Lives my Mariam? Joy, exceeding joy!
She shall not die (14-5)

In contrast to Herod’s weakness, Nuntio (the servant) relates Mariam’s brave resoluteness in the face of imminent death, who, behaving calmly
[…] picked me out from all the crew
She beckoned to me, called me by my name
For she my name, my birth, my fortune knew (61-3)

This security of knowledge and purposefulness of action is placed in total juxtaposition with Herod’s ignorance of the conduct of his instructions.

However to suggest that The Tragedy of Mariam is a simple endorsement of female empowerment is to oversimplify and undermine Cary’s skill. For her play constructs a diverse female community, and although Mariam and Salome present a threat to, or at least a critique of, patriarchal verbal domination, the character of Graphina is an ostensible recommendation of female capitulation to patriarchal dogma. Graphina, like the male characters, exists only within dialogue, and her verbal reactions do little more than respond to the verbal prods from her husband, Pheroras. As the name Graphina derives from the Greek graphein meaning ’to write’, Cary constructs the character of the obedient wife Graphina to parody the accepted logic that women’s writing was the parroting or unimaginative child of male thought. As such, the weakness and mediocrity of this character suggests Cary’s rebuff to such a claim.

In killing Mariam, and subjugating Graphina, one could argue that Cary does little to improve the perception of women in the period. However this argument does not hold credibility beyond surface readings. Though the young Cary of the biographical scene works within her constraint of silent informing, she does so to underline the essentially flawed state of that patriarchal ideal. Silent or not, it is still the words of a female child that implore social justice, and the voice of a female that ensures that the ’crowd’ may question the institution of the Renaissance ideal. Similarly, Mariam and Salome do not escape from their context, but extend the possibilities for failure to the furthest extreme within that system. That is, the idea of a government which demands the silence of a woman yet remains susceptible to be manipulated by the verbal seduction of that same sex, is one Cary demands analysis of. Masterfully, Cary presents voices of both submission and authority to explore the extremes to which absolute patriarchy may affect the female voice, and the stability of the realm.

1FALKLAND, A F C C. The Lady Falkland: Her Life, Catholic Pub. and Bookselling Co (1861)
2WEAVER, S. ’A Space for Women in The Tragedy of Mariam’ from The Nieve Roja Review, No. 4, (1998-9).
CARY, E. ’The Tragedy of Mariam’ in The Routledge anthology of Renaissance drama (Barker and Hinds) Routledge, 2003, pp 191-221.
FERGUSON, M W.  ’Renaissance concepts of the ’woman writer’ from Women and  Literature in Britain 1500-1700’, New York, Cambridge University Press, (1996)
MILLER, N. ’Domestic Politics in Elizabeth Cary’s The Tragedy of Mariam’ from Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 37, No. 2, Tudor and Stuart Drama. (Spring 1997), pp. 353-369