Elizabeth Cary (c1584-1639)

A Biographical Sketch

by Kerin G. Rose

Born in 1584 or 1585, Elizabeth Cary became the first woman dramatist to be published in England, when her play The Tragedy of Mariam appeared in 1613. During the years of her childhood, she read voraciously, bribing servants to supply her with candles for night-time study. Having learned to read, write, and speak several languages, Elizabeth translated other writers work as well as composing original texts.

Although she was married to Henry Cary when she was seventeen or eighteen, because they did not establish a shared home for another six years, Elizabeth was able to enjoy a relatively independent time of young womanhood that might have otherwise been focused on householding and familial occupations. It is likely that this is when she wroteThe Tragedy of Mariam, and possibly other plays. (See also: "Dark Moon Rising: Reading the Psychology of The Tragedy of Mariam ".)

Between the ages of 23 and 39, Elizabeth gave birth to, nursed, cared for, and either directly taught or arranged for the education of eleven children (one of whom died in infancy). She was also active in what we would call social work, especially in Ireland where she used her own money to organize a program to train poor children to learn the skills of various trades. She seems to have been prone to periods of depression, the worst episodes occurring during her second and fourth pregnancies when she was in "so deep a melancholy that she lost the perfect use of her reason, and was in much danger of her life" (The Lady Falkland, 195). Her biographer, probably either her daughter Anne or Lucy, notes that having overcome this dark night of the soul:

She seemed so far to have overcome all sadness that she was scarce ever subject to it on any occasion (but only once), but always looked on the best side of everything, and what good every accident brought with it. . . and she could well divert others in occasions of trouble, having sometimes with her conversation much lightened the grief of some, suddenly, in that which touched them nearliest (196).

In 1625, Elizabeth's last child was born and her first child died. She separated herself from her husband and her conversion to Catholicism was publicly announced. The year of her fortieth birthday was a monumental one, a series of cataclysmic events intertwined and inextricably affecting one another. Elizabeth's oldest daughter Catherine, at the age of sixteen, died in her mother's arms, after the premature birth of a baby girl who lived only three hours. In the same year, Elizabeth was formally reconciled to the Church of Rome and put under house arrest by the King until she refuted her conversion. After six weeks, the Crown was convinced that she would not return to the Church of England and she was allowed to come and go at will. Her father disinherited her and her husband refused her financial assistance.

In the years that followed she lived in varying degrees of poverty and though she saw her children frequently, they rarely lived in her house. Nonetheless, she was able to work on a history of Edward II, and publish the translation of a religious treatise as well as attend more increasingly to her inner, devotional life. During the two years before her death, her four youngest daughters were received as nuns into a Benedictine convent in Cambray, France -- with Elizabeth's blessings, encouragement, and assistance. She died in 1639.

The above information is taken from Elizabeth Cary: The Tragedy of Mariam, The Fair Queen of Jewry with Lady Falkland, Her Life, by One of Her Daughters, Barry Weller and Margaret Ferguson, editors. Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1994.

Additional biographical and critical information about Elizabeth Cary and her work, as well as both literary and historical general readings of women's roles in the Renaissance, may be found in the following works.

Kerin Rose (rosek@ucs.orst.edu)
Oregon State University,
Department of English,
238 Moreland Hall,
Corvallis, OR