Book Review

Cary, Elizabeth, and Stephanie Hodgson-Wright. The Tragedy of Mariam: The Fair Queen of Jewry. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press, 2000.

Reviewed by Bill Gahan | March 23, 2003

Stephanie Hodgson-Wright provides a useful guide to Elizabeth Cary’s (1585-1639) The Tragedy of Mariam: Fair Queen of Jewry. Although Weller and Ferguson’s 1994 edition of the play offers a more thorough introduction and appendix section, Hodgson-Wright’s concise book has distinct advantages. For example, she uses footnotes instead of endnotes, a decision that in this case renders the content more readable. Much of her analysis is streamlined and seems in some ways to be geared toward readers encountering the play for the first time. This is not to say that it is useless to scholars more seasoned in Cary studies. It includes textual variants, a short appendix of relevant source material, and a thorough bibliography of 75 titles pertaining to Elizabeth Cary and her work. In the three-part introduction, we see the usual brief biography of Cary, an adequate recap of Cary’s most probable sources for the play, and a commonsensical reading of some of the drama’s major themes. Most interestingly, Hodgson-Wright underscores the tragedy’s performability, arguing that previous criticism has deployed far too much emphasis on the play’s indebtedness to closet drama.

This edition’s necessarily slender biographical account of Cary’s life does not include any new information, although it does attempt to set the date for The Tragedy of Mariam at 1606, when Elizabeth Cary was twenty-one. For a more detailed treatment of Cary’s life, see Heather Ruth Wolfe’s 2001 Elizabeth Cary, Lady Falkland: Life and Letters.

Hodgson-Wright’s discussion of Cary’s sources for the play is lucid and relevant, cutting through the confusion that can result from the inclusion of too many possibilities. The Tragedy of Mariam draws from the story of Herod and his wife Mariam as told by Josephus in The Antiquities and The Wars of the Jews. Hodgson-Wright repeats the common opinion that Cary had probably read Thomas Lodge’s translation of Josephus, The Famous and Most Memorable Works of Josephus (1602), based upon certain similarities in the text. For example, Mariam’s “presumption” may have come from Lodge’s Josephus. The repeated use of the phrase, “under colour of” seems to point to Lodge as well (17). According to Hodgson-Wright, Cary’s main debt to Josephus lies in the plot-line, which Cary uses liberally to her own purposes. In The Antiquities, for instance, Mariam and her mother Alexandra are housed separately, precisely to prevent disputes. “In Cary’s version,…the women are re-placed at the center of power and imbued with freedom of speech and self-determination” (20).

The drama is about women’s voices and women’s bodies, and Hodgson-Wright provides a well-informed recap of several theories concerning Mariam, Salome, and Graphina. She sees that Mariam’s opposition to Cleopatra is an argument against abdicating “bodily power” for the sake of “political and economic gain” (23). She stresses that Mariam, by refusing to have sex with her husband, puts herself into an “anomalous” position. A spurned Herod can only attribute one reason for this kind of refusal. That is, he fears he is being cuckolded. Concerning Mariam and Salome, Hodgson-Wright says, “both attempt to carve out positions for themselves outside of the economy of dynastic marriage”(24), the former through abstinence, and the latter through indulgence. Some critics have hazarded that Salome and Graphina represent the vicious and the virtuous aspects of Mariam’s identity. Hodgson-Wright says that this idea is compromised by the fact that Graphina is a slave. As such, her virtue is entirely forced (25). This conclusion is right: the kind of virtue aimed for in Mariam seems to be one wherein a woman may render her body and spirit to God. Patriarchal rules under which Mariam lives restrict her from serving a Christian God with integrity, while at the same time speaking her mind to a tyrannous husband. Hodgson-Wright sees that the slave Graphina’s virtue is determined by society and not by principle, which is the kind of “heavenly” virtue for which Mariam sacrifices. Although the editor asserts that the play is didactic in tone, she concedes that it ultimately allows the audience to decide its meaning (27).

Against the well-established notion that Mariam is a typical instance of closet drama, Hodgson-Wright posits that its scenes show an intimate knowledge of performance. She states that although most critics have either ignored or dismissed the performance dimension of the play, Weller and Ferguson concede that the drama seems to have plenty of “dramatic energy.” Hodgson-Wright has directed the play herself with the Tinderbox Theatre Co. in October 1994 in Bradford, England. From this experience, she believes specific aspects of the play have become apparent: “The Tragedy of Mariam is a play peopled by well-drawn characters, whose psychological complexity creates a drama which is variously horrifying, tense, and darkly comic” (31). Since this is something most of us, who have not seen the performance, must merely accept or reject at her word, it is a weaker contention than her subsequent one. Referring to three “radically different” stagings of the play in as many years, Hodson-Wright says it is “surely a testimony to its power to signify as both literary and theatrical text” (32).

Hodgon-Wright includes a record of the emendations she has made from the 1613 text. She lists the locations of the extant copies of the 1613 Tragedy of Mariam and a 3-page chronology of Elizabeth Cary’s life. (Of all the timetables of E.C.’s life, Wolfe’s 2001 Life and Letters has the best.) The appendix of Hodgson-Wright’s edition is comprised of cursory selections from Josephus, an addition that helps form a clearer idea of Cary’s borrowing. She also includes extracts from “Didactic and Polemical Texts,” including Vives, King James I, and The Book of Common Prayer, selections that may serve a student’s first foray into the time period or issues in question.

Least helpful to a student of the tragedy are the four pages of black and white photographs from the performance Hodgson-Wright directed. They illuminate nothing concerning the dramatic possibilities of the play, showing scenes that could be part of any low-budget performance for just about any play that includes young actors. Still, the edition is a valuable resource for both undergraduate and more advanced students of The Tragedy of Mariam.

Back to Book Reviews