Elizabeth Cary was born in the mid-1590s at Burford Priory in Oxfordshire. She was educated at home, mostly in ancient languages including Hebrew. She was married in 1602 to the soldier John Davies and amid giving birth to ten children and following her husband’s promotion to Ireland, she became highly regarded in the community launching an apprenticeship scheme for poor and orphaned children. She would later return to England but after a short spell of imprisonment due to her conversion to Catholicism, and estrangement from her Protestant husband, poverty overwhelmed her and she died, penniless in 1639.
Ironically given the relative obscurity of her work outside academic circles then and now, our understanding of her life has been enhanced beyond most of her contemporaries because a decade after her birth her daughter Lucy penned a biography. If only one of Shakespeare’s children had been as interested. This work is also a reason why we know that during her already full life, she also became an accomplished scholar, with a strong published history which included historical texts, poetry and drama, including The Tragedy of Mariam, now published by Arden’s Early Modern Drama.
Billed as the first early modern play written by a woman, this dramatises the sixteen year relationship between notorious Herod and his wife Mariam “telescoped” into twenty-four hours retaining the classical unity of drama and synthesising as the cover synopsis describes a decade and half's worth of “family intrigues, missing monarchs and extra-marital liaisions” as well as “madness and martyrdom”. One of a number of plays in the that period working from religious subjects, this is widescreen epic four hundred years before Cecil B De Mille picked up a camera played amongst a cast of few within a private setting.
In contrast to the other texts in the series, Cary’s play is an example of closet drama written either to be read or performed within a private setting perhaps by amateurs (though there's no evidence of Mariam having been acted in her lifetime). As Wray’s blistering introduction indicates, that’s diminished its reputation and stifled academic consideration of the work; she mentions originally having greeted the play at college through a nearly unreadable version photocopied from microform. As I’ve said before, that’s why Arden’s work is so important, and that of New Mermaids too: producing readable copies of otherwise obscure plays, revealing a variety of drama from the period beyond the usual suspects.
But more recent editions have led to reappraisals and as Wray's discussion elucidates, Cary’s writing is as rich as any of her contemporaries with diverse literary allusions and a solid thematic apparatus investigating as sections of the introduction indicate, Jerusalem as a modern city, the tyranny of empires in this case Rome, the role of women in that society exemplified by Mariam treatment at the hands of her husband with her ensuing martyrdom and how beauty and sexuality are codified through her relationship with her sister Salome not to mention the parallels the story has with Cary's own biography.
As is customary, there’s a thorough discussion of the contemporary text, in this case a single Quarto publication in 1613, so there’s little need for the investigation into textual difference seen in other Arden, barring printing errors and sections omitted when the play entered the public realm. There’s also surprisingly a short production history which charts the efforts of colleges and the odd semi-professional theatre company to mount productions of Mariam the general consensus being that its entirely possible to produce an exciting, thoughtful evening with some ingenuity. As Wray suggests, it’s about time a professional theatre company took the work on board and revealed it to the wider public.
The Tragedy of Mariam (Arden Early Modern Drama). Edited by Ramona Wray. Methuen Drama. 2012. RRP: £9.99. ISBN: 9781904271598. Review copy supplied.