An Empowering Wit and an "Unnatural" Tragedy: Margaret Cavendish's Representation of the Tragic Female Voice
Marguérite Corporaal
University of Groningen

Corporaal, Marguérite. "An Empowering Wit and an "Unnatural" Tragedy: Margaret Cavendish's Representation of the Tragic Female Voice." Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 14 (May, 2004): 12.1-26 <URL:

  1. The 1662 edition of Cavendish's dramatic corpus consisted of thirteen closet plays, which were probably written in Antwerp in the late 1650s. [1] Because the manuscript of plays intended for an earlier printing was lost at sea and had to be re-edited from original copies (see Shaver 177), the publication of the plays was delayed. The genre of the plays in this volume was defined in only a few cases by Cavendish. For instance, Love's Adventures and The Publick Wooing are just identified as "plays." [2] Two of the thirteen plays, Matrimonial Troubles and The Comical Hash, are explicitly called comedies. While a play such as Youth's Glory or Death's Banquet contains tragic elements, of all thirteen plays only The Unnatural Tragedy is categorised as tragedy.

  2. Readers of The Unnatural Tragedy will be struck by the similarities between the play and John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (published in 1633). Both plays stage a young man who is afflicted by incestuous desire for his sister. Furthermore, in the two tragedies this incestuous desire results in sexual consummation between the brother and sister. Finally, at the tragic closure of both plays the sister is assassinated by the brother. However, as will be pointed out in the first part of this paper, Cavendish has reworked Ford's plot significantly. In contrast to Ford, who confirms the conventional tragic association of female utterance with sexual lasciviousness and who takes up the traditional tragic plot according to which the once outspoken, assertive female character is silenced for good, Margaret Cavendish defies the gender discourses idealising female voicelessness which had dominated tragedy in the two decades preceding the Civil war. She dissociates woman's self-expression from wantonness and exposes the ideology of feminine silence as a tool through the male sex oppresses women. Cavendish points out that a woman's silence leads to her disempowerment and victimisation, whereas wit and self-assertion result in a woman's control over her fate.

  3. Revising the conventional tragic representation of the female voice, Cavendish at the same time produces a tragedy which is "unnatural" in that it undermines the written and unwritten tragic generic conventions of the age. In the second part of this essay I will analyse Cavendish's reconstruction of the ideas of tragic error and transcendence in relation to her exploration of the "unnatural." In her revision of these tragic generic codes, Cavendish does not only offer a more radical challenge to the dominant gender ideology than any of the women writing closet tragedies before her. Although The Unnatural Tragedy was presented as a closet drama, Cavendish actively engages with and transforms the seventeenth-century tradition of staged tragic drama. [3]

    Ford's Annabella and Cavendish's Soeur: similar plots, different representations

  4. In The Good and the Badde (1616) Nicholas Breton calls the word of a "wanton woman" a "charm" (E2v), thus associating the sexually immoral woman with a capacity for eloquence. The majority of Renaissance English tragic plays endorse the dominant social association of female self-expression with lasciviousness, representing promiscuous women who are outspoken and who successfully use their tongues as tools of manipulation. For example, in James Shirley's The Politician (ca. 1639) Marpisa conforms to the stereotype of the lascivious, wordy woman. She is bound by marital contract to the king, yet she makes a cuckold out of him by paying the politician Gotharus "fair conditions" (3.3) in return for Gotharus's help in introducing her to the king and socially advancing her. Ill-reputed for her wanton conduct, at the same time Marpisa possesses a verbal power through which she is said to cast a spell on others, and is very assertive in her speeches. Olaus, the king's uncle, believes that Marpisa had "charm'd" her former husband Altomarus "by the flattery and magic of her… tongue," and openly accuses her of making "an idol" of "the device of tongue and soft phrases…to disguise her heart" (3.1).

  5. John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore follows this conventional tragic representation of the outspoken woman as sexually immoral. Though at first hesitating whether she should surrender to Giovanni's incestuous lust for her, Annabella has a similar transgressive sexual desire in relation to her brother: she views her brother as a "blessed shape" and a "celestial creature" (3.2.137-138), and confesses that she herself had longed for their sexual union:

    what thou hast urg'd
    My captive heart had long ago resolv'd.
    I blush to tell thee- but I'll tell thee now-
    For every sigh that thou hast spent for me,
    I have sigh'd ten. (3.2. 257-260)

    Expressing and experiencing a socially unacceptable sexual desire, Annabella is also outspoken. Once she has surrendered to Giovanni's lust for her, Annabella is transformed from a reticent girl into a woman who is rude and bold in her speeches. Soranzo defines her speeches to him as "scornful taunts" that "neither become your modesty or years" (3.3.39).

  6. While the incest plot in Cavendish's The Unnatural Tragedy seems to be modelled upon the plot of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, Cavendish rejects the stereotype of the wanton, wordy woman that is embodied by Ford's Annabella. Instead, she moves away from the conventional tragic association of woman's utterance with promiscuity, identifying women's self-expression with sexual virtue. The Unnatural Tragedy depicts a group of young women, called the sociable virgins, who eloquently discuss subjects such as rhetoric and literature, and who are quite outspoken, even on topics such as matrimony and gender issues: "Why we are not Fools, we are capable of Knowledge, we only want Experience and Education, to make us as wise as men" (2.10). These witty, wordy young women are virgins who "resolve to live a single life" (1.7). [4] Combining the two incompatible notions of virginity and female utterance by naming the virgins "sociable," Cavendish identifies speaking women with celibacy rather than sexual looseness. [5]

  7. In The Unnatural Tragedy the association between the sociable virgins and sexual purity is reinforced, because the image of the enclosed garden, symbol of sexual purity, is evoked in relation to the young girls' debates. [6] When the third virgin begins her poem with the words "natures Flowers are Poets Fancies, and Natures Gardens are Poetical Heads", the matrons suggest that they should "leave her in her Garden, and talk of something else" (3. 15). [7] At the same time, her connection of the sociable virgins to the trope of the garden entails a subversion of the Eve myth underlying the dominant condemnation of female self-expression. Eve's persuasive speeches were often represented as the cause of man's Fall and subsequent expulsion from paradise. For example, the author of the Schoolhouse of Women (published between 1542 to 1571) dwells in detail upon how Eve "moved" Adam with her charms and words "first to consent" (153). This stress laid by many authors upon the link between Eve's words and Adam's temptation created a further, more general association between woman's sexuality and words. Placing the talkative virgins in a context which alludes to Eden, Cavendish undermines the idea that woman's words lead to downfall. Thus, she appears to redeem the female voice.

  8. As far as her tragic heroine is concerned, Cavendish has reworked Ford's plot significantly in order to dissociate women's words from wantonness. Cavendish's virtuous Soeur, who is carrying legitimate offspring, abhors her brother's incestuous desires, and Frere can only satisfy his lust for her by raping her. By contrast, as we have seen, Annabella feels sexually attracted to her brother, and therefore consents to have sexual intercourse with him. [8] In addition, Annabella and Soeur differ as speaking women. Annabella openly expresses her sexual desire for her brother, so that her discourse is connected to sexual immorality; Soeur also openly speaks her mind, yet she does so in order to purify her brother's mind: "Brother, speak no more upon so bad a subject, for fear I wish you dumb: for the very breath that's sent forth with your words, will blister both my ears (5.31). Furthermore, Soeur asserts her voice in order to defend her honesty: "No Brother, I never was wild nor wanton, but always modest and honest" (2.12).

  9. Intriguingly, Soeur's speeches, which are related to her sexual purity, are in contrast with Frere's words which express his wanton desires and aim at corruption. [9] He openly speaks of his incestuous lust for his sister, and tries to persuade her into an incestuous relationship with him: "Sister, follow not those foolish binding Laws which frozen men have made, but follow natures Laws, whose Freedome gives a Liberty to all" (4. 25). This contrast between man's bawdy speeches and woman's pure language intensifies Cavendish's positive, subversive portrayal of female self-expression in the play. [10]

  10. The positive, unconventional tragic portrayal of woman's self-expression in The Unnatural Tragedy is endorsed by the contrast between Soeur's pious speeches and Frere's blasphemous discourse. When Soeur asserts her voice in the play, it is not just to protect her own and her brother's sexual honesty, but also to defend God's laws. Like Ford's protagonist Giovanni, who tells Annabella that the "holy church" (2.2.254) condones their incestuous desire, Frere attempts to convince Soeur that it is no sin to submit to his sexual passions for her, since the laws which have forbidden incest are "foolish binding Laws which frozen men have made" (4.25). Frere's defiance of God's laws in this respect is countered by Soeur's passionate refusal to give in to his desires, which at the same time constitutes a defence of God's heavenly doctrine: "Heaven hath taught that Doctrine; wherefore we cannot erre" (4. 25). Cavendish's Soeur uses biblical references and positions herself as a speaker in relation to God and Heaven with honourable ends in mind. For instance, Soeur adopts religious discourses when she confesses her sisterly affection for Frere: "I do vow to Heaven I love you better than ambitious men love power" (4. 25). Linda Payne argues: "Not only can Cavendish 's heroines envision life without marriage, but they can also envision life without men" ("Dramatic Dreamscape", 25). [11] She refers to heaven in order to express her concern about her brother's moral well-being: "Heaven bless your soul: for sure you are possest with some strange wicked spirit, that uses not to wander amongst men" (4.25).

  11. By contrast, Frere's motives for invoking God are immoral. He applies to divine power to help him satisfy his lust by raping his sister: "if Gods had power, they sure would give me strength…and if they cannot help, or will not help me, Furies rise up from the infernal deep, and give my Actions aid" (5. 34). It is significant that Frere talks about "Gods" and "Furies" here. His adoption of pagan terminology in contrast with his sister emphasises his sinfulness. This contrast between Soeur's Christian discourse and Frere's pagan speeches recurs towards the end of the play: whereas Soeur speaks of "Heaven" and "holy prayer", Frere refers to "Elyzium" (5.44), the abode of the blessed in Greek mythology, as the place where he and his sister will dwell forever after death. Thus, the fallen Frere is linked to a Pagan rather than a Christian paradise. [12]

  12. In her depiction of religion in the play, Cavendish again rewrites Ford's plot. In contrast with Soeur, who invokes God to defend her sexual virtue, Ford's Annabella engages with blasphemy, employing religious imagery to describe her transgressive sexual desire for Giovanni by calling him a "celestial creature" with a "blessed shape" (1.2.137-38). Furthermore, Ford's heroine alludes to the account in the scriptures of the Virgin Mary's impregnation by God in order to celebrate her incestuous relationship, and to cover up the name of the child's father. When Soranzo argues with her about the bastard child in her womb, Annabella implies that her child was begotten by a high spiritual being: "The man,/ The more than man that got this sprightly boy-…This noble creature was in every part so angel-like, so glorious" (4.2.31-46). The expressions "more than man" and "angel-like" create the impression that Annabella was impregnated by a God-like creature. Annabella's abuse of biblical discourses in order to legitimise her sexual immorality contributes to the negative portrayal of woman's speech in the play, a representation that contrasts with Cavendish's association of female utterance with sexual and religious honour.

    Victims through voicelessness: Cavendish's deconstruction of the ideology of feminine silence

  13. In The Unnatural Tragedy Cavendish not only undermines the common cultural
    equation of female utterance with sexual looseness; she also undermines society's idealisation of feminine silence by exposing it as a tool of oppression through which women are victimised. The play stages several female characters who suffer immensely as a result of men's abuse of them. Madame Bonit embodies the chaste, silent and obedient wife. She never contradicts her husband, for she readily parts with her jointure upon his request, and argues that she "will strive to be more fashionable drest" (1.6) when Monsieur Malateste criticises her clothing. However, submitting to her husband's wishes, Madame Bonit falls victim to her own goodness. Her husband starts an affair with their maid Nan, who comes to dominate their household. Yet, Madame Bonit is determined to observe a feminine silence even when her husband is unfaithful to her. She will not attempt to persuade other people of the wrongs that her husband afflicts on her, to pity her cause and he her, out of fear of becoming "the publick discourse of the Town" (1.5). Since Madame Bonit will not speak up against her husband, nor publicise his maltreatment of her, she cannot regain control over her life and improve her circumstances. Thus, Cavendish suggests that a woman's silence leads to powerlessness and victimisation; a suggestion which implies a criticism of the cultural idealisation of the voiceless female.

  14. Similarly, it is through her silence that Soeur loses control over her existence. When her brother's vile passion has become known to her, Soeur nevertheless endeavours to dissuade Frere from his plans of seducing her, yet she neither tries to publicise these desires to others in order to convince them of her need for help: "I would willingly hide your faults, nay I am asham'd to make them known" (5.31). However, Soeur's determination not to speak about her brother's passion to anyone eventually makes her the helpless victim of his rape and murder of her, for Frere succeeds in raping and murdering her. In contrast with the victimised Madame Bonit and Soeur, the outspoken, assertive, witty sociable virgins flourish at the end of the play. One of the virgins, who has become Monsieur Malateste's second wife, has even managed to survive his cruel temper through her assertive eloquence, which triggered his admiration for her and even caused his submission: "Wife, I am come an humble Petitioner to you…" (5.32). As the sociable virgins implicitly comment upon Monsieur Malateste's treatment of Madame Bonit: "Husbands think a cross and contradicting Wife is witty; a bold and commanding Wife, of a heroick spirit…And for those good qualities he loves her best, otherwise he hates her; nay, the falser she is, the fonder he is of her" (1.7). Through her representation of Madame Bonit's and Soeur's fates and through the choric voices of the sociable virgins Cavendish thus implies that a woman who employs her eloquence and wit will fare much better in life than a woman who observes a feminine modesty of expression.

  15. Cavendish underlines her point that the ideology of feminine silence serves as a tool through which men can disempower women through a conversation between two gentlemen in the play, who aim to listen to the discussions of the virgins. One of these gentleman argues that he would never marry one of the sociable virgins: "No, no, I will choose none of them; for they are too full of discourse: for I would have a Wife rather to have a listning ear, than a talking Tongue" (4.29). The gentleman's rejection of the sociable virgins appears to confirm the idea that a good wife is silent. However, this lip service to the dominant ideology is undermined by the lust for power that underlies this gentleman's wish for a silent wife. As the gentleman claims further on, he desires a silent wife that she may "by her Ear… receive wise instructions, and so learn to practise that which is noble and good; also to know my desires, as to obey my will" (4. 29). Put differently, the gentleman's intention to marry a speechless woman is exposed as his urge to exercise control over his spouse.

    Cavendish's "unnatural" reconstruction of tragic conventions: tragic error and transcendence

  16. The title of Cavendish's tragedy not only aptly refers to the incestuous relationship that is central to the play, but also illustrates Cavendish's position as a dramatist: although a previous generation of women writers, such as Elizabeth Cary and Lady Mary Wroth, had engaged with drama, it was still considered to be "unnatural" for a woman to write a play. Cavendish may have been considered "unnatural" by her contemporaries because of her challenge to and revision of dominant views on female self-expression. However, Cavendish's tragedy would have been thought of as "unnatural" in another respect. Although Cavendish clearly establishes her plays as closet dramas in her preface to the Playes (1662), arguing that her plays were sent "forth to be printed, rather than…concealed in hopes to have them first Acted…out of the fear of having them hissed off from the Stage" (A3v), The Unnatural Tragedy clearly responds to and rewrites the tragic generic conventions of Pre-war drama performed on the public stage.

  17. In most English Renaissance tragedies the once outspoken, witty female characters lose their former discursive power at the tragic closure, being reduced to silenced objects by the male characters and/or by death. Furthermore, before dying, these female dramatis personae are denied transcendence over their deaths: they are usually not granted a last moment of self-assertion and self-representation before their identities are obliterated by death; they lack control over their fate and do not obtain a lasting presence in memory after death. For instance, in Titus Andronicus Tamora has no control over her life, being killed by Titus, and she is not allowed to respond to Titus's revelation that her two sons were "baked in that pie; Whereof their mother daintily hath fed" (5. 3. 60-61), for she is immediately stabbed to death by him. By contrast, before he is put to a stake to be famished to death, the villain Aaron voices protest against his submission, and thus, attains a moment of self-assertion while facing the threat of elimination. Aaron raves that he is "no baby," that he refuses to repent of "the evils I [he] have [has] done," that he would perform "if I might have my will…Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did" and that he would regret "If one good deed in all my life I did" (5.3.185-190). In this way Aaron clearly sets himself apart from the outside world. Michael Neill's statement that Renaissance tragedy offered a fantasy "to overcome…fear of erasure of identity, by representing death as a moment of distinction and self-assertion" (Neill 32) appears to be true of the tragic villain rather than the villainess. In addition, the transgressive woman, Tamora, is denied the rituals of reminiscence: "No funeral rite, nor man in mournful weeds/ No mournful bell shall ring her burial/ But throw her forth to beasts and birds of prey" (5.3.196-198). Since her body is to be eaten away and no monument is erected for her, the wanton, wordy Tamora is relegated to the realm of absolute oblivion. Thus, the threat that she poses to the gender norms is appropriately eradicated.

  18. Similarly, Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore displays the conventional tragic pattern according to which the threat of the verbally assertive, wanton woman to masculine power and identity is eliminated. Annabella is denied any transcendence over death. The scene in which Giovanni stabs her is marked by absence of a final moment of self-assertion. Her final speech counts only a few lines, and consists of an imploration to heaven rather than a statement of her identity: "Forgive him, Heaven- and me my sins; farewell….Mercy, great heaven" (5.5.92). Although Annabella voices regrets at her deed and thus in a sense overcomes her transgression, the scope of transcendence that she is granted in the play is limited. In this respect, there is a contrast with her brother Giovanni, who, despite his villainy, is granted a last moment of glorious self-assertion:

    Soranzo: …Hadst thou a thought
    T'outlive thy murders?

    Giovanni:                Yes, I tell thee yes;
    For in my fists I bear the twists of life. (5.4.71-74)

    The conclusion of The Unnatural Tragedy creates the impression that Cavendish confirms the tragic conventions concerning characterisation and plot, according to which male characters enjoy more command than the female characters at the tragic closure. Having been raped by her brother, Soeur exclaims that death is "welcom" to her. Although she asserts that if death comes not by her brother's hand, she herself "shall give a passage unto life" (5.42), she is slain by her brother rather than by her own hand. This points to her lack of autonomy. Frere's control over his sister's life is emphasised by his representation of his plans as a fate that she cannot avert:

    …from the first time I saw you, since I came from Travel, I have been in love with you, and must enjoy you; and if you will imbrace my love with a free consent, so, if not, I'll force you to it….Sister I must die, wherefore you must not live…(5.42)

    Having secured that "none can enjoy her after me," Frere extends his control over Soeur beyond the grave, similar to Ford's Giovanni, whose possession of Annabella's heart transcends death. While Frere obtains autonomy over his life through his suicide, following his sister in death at the same time enables him to make his morbid fantasy of an eternal union with Soeur come true: "And as we came both from one Womb, do joyn our Souls in the Elizium, our Bodies in one Tomb" (5.42). Furthermore, there is a contrast in the degree to which Soeur and Frere achieve transcendence, in that Soeur dies without a final moment of assertion. By contrast, Frere enjoys the possibility to establish his identity before he dies: "Let me tell you, Sister, I am as I was, and was as I am" (5.42).

  19. However, Cavendish's tragedy does not repeat the conventional tragic plot entirely, for in contrast with most English Renaissance tragic drama, the ending that is normally reserved for the outspoken, witty woman is now assigned to the silent women. The fact that Soeur is granted neither autonomy over her existence, nor a last moment of self-assertion appears to be related to Cavendish's criticism on feminine silence in the play. When Soeur's death in The Unnatural Tragedy is compared to Lady Sanspareille's dying moment in Youth's Glory and Death's Banquet, it becomes clear that Lady Sanspareille displays control over how she wants to be buried and remembered. Although Lady Sanspareille is powerless against the mortal disease that has overcome her, she gives directions for the scenario of her burial: "let spotless Virgins bear me to my grave, and holy Anthems sing before my Herse…and one my Coffin spread upon a covering of smooth Sattin, white, to signify here how I lived a Virgin, pure I lived and dyed...and let my works, which I have wrought, and spun out of my brain, be given to times Library, to keep alive my name" (Part II. 14). Yet, there is not just a contrast between Lady Sanspareille's self- representation and narrative command on the one hand, and Soeur's controlled and silent death on the other hand. Whereas Soeur's conduct is frequently marked by a modest silence, Lady Sanspareille is a female orator who holds public speeches in front of a male audience, and who refuses to have her talents buried in silence. If the two female characters are compared and contrasted, once again the conclusion can be drawn that Cavendish depicts woman's speech as an empowering quality through which women can achieve a greater degree of autonomy over their lives. [13]

  20. Cavendish also questions and reconstructs the conventional tragic representations concerning memorialisation. In most seventeenth-century English tragedies the chaste and silent women are commemorated. In Titus Andronicus the memory of Lavinia's "delightful engine of her thoughts/ That blabb'd them with such pleasing eloquence" (3.1.83-84) is kept alive by her uncle. Likewise, in Tourneur's The Revenger's Tragedy (1607) Antonio has a monument built for his once modest, virtuous wife: "Her funeral shall be wealthy, for her name/ Merits a tomb of pearl" (1.4.69-70). The wife's embodiment of the feminine ideal of voicelessness is stressed by her appearance as a dead body, while she never is a speaking presence in the play. Cavendish undermines this tragic plot in which the silent woman reaches transcendence through memorialisation. For one thing, she questions the social respect for the feminine voiceless woman by showing that such a woman is soon forgotten by her husband when she has died. Monsieur Malateste remarries shortly after Madame Bonit has passed away, and does not shed many tears in her memory.

  21. Furthermore, Cavendish challenges the idealisation of feminine silence by suggesting that although silent women may be commemorated when they have died, they were neglected while they lived. Because of social expectations Monsieur Malateste pretends to devote himself to his wife's memory, whereas during her life he ignored her feelings by sleeping with their maid Nan, and abusing her goodness. Therefore, the first sociable virgin ironically remarks: "Faith, that is some kindeness in Husbands, that they will remember their wives when they are dead, although they forget them whilst they live" (3.23). In addition, noticing the hypocrisy of men's memorialisation of dead women, the virgins conclude that women had best secure their own lasting presence in memory by aiming for greatness during their lives. They argue that women should attempt to achieve fame during their lifetime, since they cannot expect any respects to be paid to them when they are in their graves:

    2 Virgin. And if I were a King, or had a Royal Power, I would create such Ceremonies, as I would be Deify'd, and so worship'd, ador'd, and pray'd to whilst I live.
    1 Virgin. So would I, rather than to be Sainted or pray'd to when I were dead. (2.13)

    Eternal commemoration and fame appear to be in store for the assertive sociable virgins rather than the reticent women in the play, who are confined to oblivion by society. Thus connecting the conventional tragic plot to the silent women rather than to the outspoken female characters, as was common, Cavendish further endorses her point that a woman's wit is the instrument for survival in a patriarchal world.

  22. Apart from reversing the tragic conventions of transcendence, Cavendish also reconsiders tragic error. The women who perform the part of the tragic heroine in seventeenth-century English tragedies have generally two errors in common: they come to their downfall as a result of their transgressive lust and their unfeminine assertion of voice. For example, the tragic heroine in Beaumont and Fletcher's The Maid's Tragedy (1610), Evadne, commits two tragic errors: her seduction by the king into an extramarital affair as well as her determination to cover up her sexual transgression by marrying the honest Amintor; and her transgression of the norm of feminine modesty, by asserting her voice most forcefully. When Amintor criticises her for marrying him when she was no longer spotless, Evadne defends herself by claiming the right to save her honour through marriage. She openly voices her determination "never to be acquainted" (2.1.218) with Amintor's bed in spite of his fierce protestations, and explicitly dares to mention the fact that she is no longer intact: "I am no virgin"' (2.1.293). Margaret Cavendish's representation of tragic error implies a complete reversion of the conventional pattern: in her play, it is not woman's unfeminine outspokenness, but her feminine reticence that leads to her downfall. As has been explained, Madame Bonit and Soeur become the tragic victims of men's cruelty because they will not publicise the ways in which they are wronged. Thus, woman's tragic error is represented as her compliance with the norm of feminine silence.

  23. In this reconstruction of tragic error and tragic transcendence, Cavendish takes things a step further than women playwrights before her. In The Tragedie of Mariam (1613) Elizabeth Cary also rewrites the tragic concept of transcendence. Unlike the tragic heroines commonly found in seventeenth-century drama who end up as defined, controlled, silenced objects, Mariam exercises authority over her speeches and her representation at the end of The Tragedie of Mariam. Before she is led off to be executed, Mariam stoically defies Herod's power over her by asserting her identity: "Therefore can they but my life destroy/My soul is free from adversaries' power" (4.3.1782-83). Although Herod has controlled her fate by having her executed, he cannot control her discourse, since Mariam decided who was to serve as the person to pass on her voice and messages and to create the narrative of her death. As the Nuntio makes clear, Mariam "picked me out from all the crew" (5.1.1937), selecting him as the person to narrate her account. Thus, Herod is excluded from his function of discursively controlling and creating Mariam, as becomes clear from his indignant claim: "Thou dost usurp my right, my tongue was framed/ To be the instrument of Mariam's praise" (5.1.1907-08). Mariam's voice can still be heard through the Nuntio, and she is still in control of her representation. Therefore, she achieves transcendence over death which was meant to annihilate her personality. Whereas Cary's Mariam achieves discursive control in death, Cavendish portrays the "sociable virgins," whose self-assertion renders them powerful in shaping their own ideas, and in securing fame during their lifetime. Cavendish's vision that women may become powerful speaking subjects without having to die is more optimistic than Cary's.

  24. Cavendish also provides a further revision of tragic error than Cary. Mariam's tragic error is that she fails to create the illusion that she is a chaste wife by constraining her voice. This is underlined by her expression: "Am I the Mariam that presumed so much/ And deemed my face must needs preserve my breath?" (4.8.1739). Mariam believed that her innocent face would have convinced Herod of her chastity, but this does not prove to be the case: it is her failure to be modest in speech that determines Herod's judgement of her character. The Tragedie of Mariam thus suggests that women who fail to appear silent and submissive in society, make a mistake for which they can be punished. In Cavendish's drama Soeur's and Madame Bonit's tragic error are their failure to speak up. In other words, in Cary's play the heroine's tragic error is represented as the failure to meet social expectations, whereas in Cavendish's play the heroine's fault is her devotion to the ideology of feminine silence.

  25. The fact that Cavendish expresses a more radical view on female utterance than Cary is underlined by the function of the chorus in the two plays. In Cary's play the chorus consists of a company of Jewish men who appear to speak in one voice, and thus represent the community. They comment negatively on Mariam's verbal assertion and endorse the common association of woman's speech with lasciviousness: "Then she usurps upon another' right,/That seeks to be by public language graced…For in a wife t' is no worse to find,/ A common body than a common mind" (3.1. 243-44). Through this role of the chorus in the play, the tension between a woman's desire to express herself and the socially imposed gender norms is intensified. By contrast, in Cavendish's tragedy the "sociable virgins" appear to perform the part of the chorus. Yet, as we have seen, this all female chorus displays a negative attitude towards the female characters' silence and criticises the dominant ideology which constrains women's voices. Thus, the chorus represents more radical viewpoints on issues of gender.[14]


  26. The fact that The Unnatural Tragedy was one of the few plays of which Cavendish specified the genre does not seem to be a coincidence. Cavendish seems to have rewritten the conventions of tragic closure, tragic transcendence and tragic error rather consciously; in doing so exposing the traditions of the tragic genre as "unnatural", that is as cultural constructions that endorse the social disempowerment of the female sex. In pointing to the "unnatural" nature of the ideology of feminine silence, Cavendish produced a tragedy that may have been considered "unnatural" in the eyes of her contemporaries, because of its reconstruction of gender representations and generic codes. In revisioning tragic conventions, Cavendish proves to be more radical than previous female dramatists, in that she overtly links her transformations of tragic error and transcendence to a criticism of the idealisation of female voicelessness. Rewriting the tragic genre in order to make it compatible with alternative gender discourses, Cavendish may have made the genre less "unnatural," that is more compatible with a growing proto-feminist consciousness, to the later generation of women playwrights, who started to write tragedies for the public stage.


1. In Harbage's Annals (1964) the plays are listed as written between 1653 and 1658.

2. Shaver also argues that Cavendish's dramatic "work often challenges traditional categories" (184).

3. In the preface to her Playes (1662) Cavendish rejects performance of her drama, arguing that "most of my Playes would seem tedious upon the Stage, by reason they are somewhat long" (A3V). Yet, she also blames the social conditions as one of the reasons why she only had her drama printed. As she contends, staging her plays would make them lose their power. Under the Protectorate, English youths did not have the opportunity to learn acting, and it would take a long time before any skilful actors would be available again. On the other hand, the instructions that Cavendish gives to the reader in her "General prologue to all my Playes" seem like stage directions for a performance of her texts: "for Scenes must be read as if they were spoke or Acted…and as for Tragedies, or Tragick Scenes, they must not be read in a pueling, whining Voice, but a dash, serious Voice, as deploring or complaining" (A6v-A7r).

4. Linda Payne argues: "Not only can Cavendish 's heroines envision life without marriage, but they can also envision life without men" ("Dramatic Dreamscape," 25).

5. In this respect there is a parallel between the sociable virgins and Lady Sanspareille in Youth's Glory and Death's Banquet, who delivers long speeches in front of a male audience, and stands for sexual purity: "For I will never be so dishonourable, perjurious, and impious, to break the holy Laws, and pull the Virgin Altars down" (Part II, 1.4).

6. At the same time, Cavendish's use of the metaphor of the garden appears a playful allusion to the past reign of the Stuarts. As Vaughan Hart explains in Art and Magic in the Court of the Stuarts, during the reign of the Stuarts much attention was paid to garden design. It was thought that the courtly gardens should become "the paradigm of natural perfection and original setting of humankind's unity with God" (92), and thus exemplify the harmony of the Garden of Eden. The courtly gardens were therefore laid out in formal patterns, such as concentric circles representing the Pre-Copernican cosmos, in order to present an image "not merely of royal harmony with nature but of absolute royal control over the floral world as a corollary of the absolute monarch's magical power over the heavenly realm and its flora, the stars" (95). This representation of the courtly gardens as symbol of the bond between God and humanity in Eden was often referred to in drama, as, for instance, in Ben Jonson's masque Love's Triumph through Callipolis (1631): "this/ The temple of all beauty is…The centre of proportion…sweetness…grace" (458). By alluding to the image of the garden, Cavendish therefore seems to recall an idealised past in which the monarchy brought social harmony.

7. Cavendish also used the image of the garden in relation to herself as a poet. In Poems and Fancies (1653) one finds a poem called "Similizing the Braine to a Garden" in which she compares her creative writing with gathering flowers from her garden: "And from that garden Flowers of Fancies take" (S2v).

8. As Gweno Williams states, in contrast with Ford's Annabella, "significantly… the sister in Cavendish's play is raped, and never consents to the incest. This is a further example of Cavendish's refusal to create female characters who are commodified as whores" ("'No Silent Woman,'" 117).

9. A similar attitude towards men's speech is expressed in Bell in Campo (printed in 1667). The women are commanded by Victoria not to speak with men: "The reason of this is, that men are apt to corrupt the noble minds of women, and to alter their gallant, worthy, and wise resolutions, with their flattering words, and pleasing and subtil insinuations" (Part I. 14).

10. Deborah Burks states that "Cavendish appeals to her readers' expectation that noble Ladies are inherently chaste. In the same sentence, however, she appeals to her readers' knowledge that the chastity of noble men is not to be depended upon" ("Margaret Cavendish: Royalism and the Rhetoric of Ravenous and Beastly Desire," 85).

11. Due to a miscalculation or misprint two scenes in Act IV are numbered as "25." The references here are to the "second" scene 25.

12. It is notable that William Cavendish's bedchamber at the Cavendish family estate Bolsover Castle, was connected to two closets, each with a differently decorated door. The first closet, on the left of the fireplace, representing the path of virtue, is called "Heaven" and depicts events of Christ's life. The other closet, representing the path of pleasure, is called Elysium and ornamented with paintings of pagan gods and goddesses. One may wonder whether Cavendish had the two closets in mind when she was rewriting the play upon her return to England.

13. Bernadette Andrea argues that "Cavendish's characters, like Cavendish herself, seem caught in a particularly brutal double bind: for every feminist victory in her plays there exists a female defeat. If one woman wins a battle, another must die. If one woman reigns supreme over empires, the rest must be subdued by their husbands" ("Coming out in Margaret Cavendish's Closet Dramas," 223).

14. The sociable virgins do not speak in one voice, but in the form of debate. Representing the chorus as a group of individuals rather than as a collective group, suggests a distance between the chorus and the playwright: "the chorus is then seen as a group formed of several people, and thus cannot represent for example the poet himself, as in non-dramatic lyrics" (Kaimio, The Chorus of Greek Drama within the Light of the Person and Number Used, 240). Thus, Cavendish creates the impression that the chorus's viewpoints are different from her own opinions.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2004-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).