Elizabeth Cary. The Tragedy of Mariam. Ed. Stephanie J. Wright. Staffordshire: Keele UP, 1996. 128pp. ISBN 1 85331 181 1 Cloth; 1 85331 104 9 Paper.
Carrie Hintz
University of Toronto

Hintz, Carrie. "Review of The Tragedy of Mariam." Early Modern Literary Studies 3.2 (September, 1997): 9.1-6 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/03-2/rev_hin2.html>.

  1. Elizabeth Cary's The Tragedy of Mariam has become one of the early modern period's most studied texts by a woman writer, with good reason. Based on Josephus's Jewish Antiquities, the play explores the troubled relationship of King Herod and his consort Mariam in 35 B.C. At the beginning of the play, Herod is missing and presumed dead. He returns, but not before Mariam discovers that he has decreed she should be killed after his death, as a result of his possessive passion for her. Mariam expresses keen anger, finally confronting Herod himself. Later, Herod is led by his sister Salome to believe that Mariam has been unfaithful, and arranges for her death. To his horror, he learns that he has been deceived, but too late to save the innocent Mariam. The stirring events of this play, with its seething passions and brute political force, show the intersection of tyranny and patriarchy in the early modern period. As Stephanie J. Wright, the editor of this Keele University Press edition, notes, Mariam reflects "the politics of a society in which the married man is not only his wife's husband, but also her lord" (17).

  2. Before the 1990s, it was difficult to find an edition suitable for use in the classroom. Now there are three versions in addition to Wright's in print, two in collections of Renaissance drama by women (Cerasano and Wynne-Davies, 1996 and Purkiss, 1994) and Barry Weller and Margaret W. Ferguson's 1994 scholarly California Press edition. It is finally possible to read this important text in many possible versions, but it has become necessary to ask what yet another edition can add to our understanding of the play. Wright's edition is a solid contribution to the editorial history of the play, although it does not render the previous editions less important. Wright does refine the editorial work of previous editions; she saw two copies of the play Weller and Ferguson did not, and looked at handwritten emendations no other editor had considered. Wright offers fresh notes, and, helpfully, explains points of difference with previous editors. Having several versions of the notes is undeniably helpful for the researcher, and further proof of the play's aesthetic density.

  3. In general, the edition is pleasant to read. Wright's notes are credible and thorough, and allow the reader to navigate through the text easily. Biography and history are dealt with well, albeit somewhat briefly, and Wright makes intriguing links back to Mariam's dramatic precursors, particularly court masques which explored the nature of patriarchal and political authority. Wright deftly gestures to current work on Mariam, offering her own opinions on key critical questions raised by the drama.

  4. What could differentiate this edition from any other is that it takes into account the inaugural performance of the drama, that took place on October 19-22, 1994 at the Bradford Alhambra Studio, and that was directed by Wright herself. Given the importance of this performance for the study of early-modern women writers, and for seventeenth-century drama more generally, it is unfortunate that Wright does not give us more information about the rehearsal and staging process; she offers only the vague remark that the theatre company discovered that the play was "peopled by ambiguous and complicated characters" (23). Even a photograph of a rehearsal or performance of the play would have been valuable, capturing something of what the play was like when brought to life on the stage.

  5. Instead of offering the titbits of stagecraft craved by lovers of this play, Wright spends her energy arguing that Elizabeth Cary wished her play to be staged rather than read as a closet drama. This may be true, but it is probably unprovable. Wright may be confusing our sense that the play works wonderfully on stage (which I am fully prepared to believe) with Cary's expectations. She cites the complexity of the characters and the presence of showy physical action (such as sword fights) as evidence that the play should be staged rather than merely read. Both these arguments are specious; it is possible, as in a novel or dramatic poem, to thrill to the action of a sword fight, whether read out loud or silently. Wright's assertion that Mariam made a "significant contribution to the development of public drama in the early seventeenth century" (23) overstates the case, since it was not performed at the time. However, the play is undeniably one of the most accomplished and rivetting Senecan closet dramas of the period, and relates well to other public dramas of the period.

  6. This edition is worth having, despite my sense that Wright stresses the wrong elements in her introduction. This play will continue to inspire critical excitement and lively discussion in the classroom. If we have gone from having too few versions to having more than enough to choose from, it is a pleasing testimony to the interest of the work itself, and to the energy of scholars who wish to explore it.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

© 1997-, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(JD, PB, LH, RGS, 11 September 1997)