Dark Moon Rising:

Reading the Psychology of The Tragedy of Mariam

by Kerin G. Rose

There's in my mind a woman/of innocence . . ./kind and very clean. . ./but she has no imagination./And there's a turbulent moon-ridden girl/or old woman, or both/. . ./who knows strange songs --/but she is not kind. (Denise Levertov, "In Mind")

English Renaissance drama presents a remarkable array of female characters who pose an interesting dilemma for the modern reader. Before we can make any observations about the nature of woman represented by these characters, we must remember that most of them exist only as the literary constructs of male imaginations. Lisa Jardine cautions in Still Harping on Daughters:

When the critic tells us that the Jacobean dramatist shows peculiar insight into female character, and even into female psychology, we should pause for a moment. What he or she means is that a convincing portrayal of female psychology is given from a distinctively male viewpoint . . . .the female character traits to which the critics give such enthusiastic support are almost without exception morally reprehensible: cunning, duplicity, sexual rapaciousness, 'change-ableness,' being other than they seem, untrustworthiness and general secretiveness (Jardine, 69-70).

Why would a modern critic support the depiction of predominantly negative qualities as an accurate "discernment of the minds of women" (Jardine, 69, quoting U. Ellis Fermor)? Clearly, Jardine would not.

Of course "morally reprehensible" may be a relative term. In delineating appropriate education for women, the Renaissance humanist Thomas Salter emphasized the need for female students ". . .to acquire the virtues of chastity, piety, and humility," to learn to be "modest and temperate, and given to truthfulness, courtesy, and discretion in speech." He insists that "philosophy, poetry, and rhetoric are inappropriate studies for a woman who would be thought chaste and modest, as these studies may lure one away from simple Christian truths and promote a dangerous, even wanton, self-expression. . . . Even reading per se may put the feminine soul at risk" (Holm, p. 200-201).

If feminine virtue, as defined by men, necessitates such severe constraints might it not seem more admirable to defy these constraints, even at the price of being judged evil? Could we reframe "morally reprehensible" to indicate resistance to such externally imposed standards? Might we not recast what a male dominated culture considers negative female behavior as, in fact, positive qualities of womanly power? This brings me to the question: How would a female dramatist, writing from a distinctively female viewpoint, have portrayed the psychology of her female characters?

Let's turn our attention away from considering whether or not "a convincing portrayal of female psychology is given" in plays written by male Renaissance dramatists and look instead at the main female characters in The Tragedy of Mariam. Published in 1613, Elizabeth Cary's play gives us a unique opportunity to consider female character and psychology in Renaissance drama from the point of view of a woman writer. I intend to consider Cary's portrayals of Mariam and Salome to inquire into some of the ways in which a woman dramatist shapes the anima shadows and projections carried by her female characters. Does a different schism between good and evil emerge from the pages of a woman writing about women? Does a woman's relationship to herself, as a woman, give her a distinct perspective on the dark aspects of the feminine psyche?

In The Tragedy of Mariam, Elizabeth Cary presents a portrait of a mature feminine consciousness struggling against an oppressive patriarchal environment. Twice, Herod has departed for Rome, leaving instructions that should he die, Mariam is be killed as well. When Mariam learns of his attempt to bind her life so inexorably to his, she is understandably appalled and begins to reclaim her heart from his affections. Mariam is, in this respect, a woman defining her sexuality in defiance of her husband's claims on her. Her revolutionary act is to declare:

I will not to his love be reconcil'd,
With solemn vows I have forsworn his bed (III,iii,133-4),
to which Sohemus responds, all too accurately,
Unbridled speech is Mariam's worst disgrace
And will endanger her without desert (183-4).

Although Mariam has not transgressed against her marriage vows, because she speaks publicly, Herod makes the assumption, "she's unchaste/Her mouth will ope to ev'ry stranger's ear" (IV,vii,433-4). Here, Herod is calling on the commonly held Renaissance notion that a woman who opened her mouth to speak in public (and "public" was often defined as anyone outside of her immediate household) was comparable to the promiscuous woman who opened her vagina to any man other than her husband. Loquaciousness in a woman was considered to be a precursor and indicator of lustfulness (Rose, 12).

Not sexually, but verbally promiscuous, Mariam is innocent of adultery but guilty of talking too much. Further, she is guilty of talking too honestly, of refusing to dissemble. She realizes that she can continue to live as wife to Herod only if she lives a lie. In her speech to Sohemus she acknowledges that "feminine wiles" would serve her as protection from her tyrannical husband, but she makes a stand against such hypocrisy.

I know I could enchain him with a smile:
And lead him captive with a gentle word,
I scorn my look should ever man beguile,
Or other speech than meaning to afford (163-6).
This is an extremely dangerous stance for Mariam to take. But, as Margaret Ferguson notes, "Transgressive speech, defined as non-hypocritical speech. . . is not, however the whole problem: Mariam also contributes to her downfall by refusing to sleep with Herod. She censors the wrong thing: his phallus rather than her tongue" (Ferguson, 242). Herod interprets Mariam's decision to abstain from sexual relations with him as further evidence of her adulterous nature and orders her death.

As Mariam attempts to define for herself a moral way of being in the world, she comes into greater conflict with her world, a world circumscribed by Herod's despotic rule. Marta Straznicky reads The Tragedy of Mariam as an example of stoic discourse.

Cary's play stages the reorientation of female desire from earthly to spiritual goods and fashions this reorientation as the prerequisite for female heroism. However, while the stoic ethic in Mariam does deliver the female hero from oppression into death, it also delivers to her a personal power that is not scripted by any of Cary's predecessors. In the fifth act of the play Cary reverts to a male-like stoic discourse, representing Mariam as effectively subversive and Herod as utterly debilitated. . . . The Tragedy of Mariam reappropriates for the disempowered female the political power of stoic heroism as an effective means of redress (124).

I don't see Mariam's fate with quite the same stoic optimism as Straznicky. Nor do I see her use of "male-like stoic discourse" as automatically marking her attainment of personal power. She isn't empowered in the fifth act. She is dead. Herod may be wallowing in remorse and regret at her loss, but I doubt that this will translate into any changes in his means of governance. At most, I can imagine Mariam achieving a sort of beyond the grave "I told you so" satisfaction at Herod's guilt-stricken remorse:

I am the villain that have done the deed,
The cruel deed, though by another's hand;
My word, though not my sword, made Mariam bleed.
It remains highly questionable to me whether her death will actually serve to benefit anyone.

While Mariam eschews the tactics of her oppressors, trying vainly to live within a tyrannical system and still maintain the patriarchy's values for feminine morality, Elizabeth Cary's Salome has no such scruples. I find Salome a fascinating character. She may be a scheming, murderous harridan according to Constabarus, but faced with the realities of a world ruled by despotic tyranny, she has learned to have her will be done. Salome appropriates the dominant masculine culture's values for her own purposes. When she can't do that she decides to act in direct defiance of the law and set a new precedent.

Unlike Mariam, Salome refuses to be a sacrificial lamb slaughtered on the altar of patriarchal self-preservation. She gets what she wants and she survives. Looking at her as a representation of the feminine psyche, from a distinctively feminine viewpoint, her "evilness" may be interpreted as a refusal to repress initiative, sexuality, and vital energy.

When we are able to contact the genuine nature of the Dark Goddess within us, we feel as if we are in our power. We are strong, assertive, psychic, prophetic, creative, sexual, unrestrained, and free. Her fiery darkness is the power of the womb, exertive, active, and transformative. Patriarchal culture rejects these aspects of a woman's nature that arise from her red energy of the dark moon, sensing them as dangerous to male domination, and thus labels them as unfeminine (George, 227, emphasis added).
Were the channels clear for these forces of the female psyche to move in the world, Salome's mode of operating might be very different indeed.

In their Introduction to the 1994 edition of The Tragedy of Mariam, Barry Weller and Margaret W. Ferguson note that Salome,

frankly claiming for women the prerogatives of divorce and asserting the preeminence of will over law and tradition, . . crosses millennia of boundaries, and like Alexander cutting the Gordian knot suggest a strikingly direct alternative to Mariam's careful (and finally unsuccessful) negotiation of conflicting imperatives. Salome is . . . the active double of Mariam's passive resistance to patriarchal power and to definition by the male (39-40).

Unlike her literary sisters, from Eve to Lady Macbeth, Salome's lustfulness and manipulations go unchecked, unpunished, unrepented. She refuses to submit to patriarchal restraint on her behavior, wielding its determinants to her own advantage. I would argue that Salome can be read as a woman writer's projection of the anima's vitality. Salome is an archetype of the feminine psyche's activating principle in a culture antagonistic to its existence. She embodies the anger and resentment of suppressed female aggression and enacts a deeply embedded revenge fantasy few women, in Renaissance or contemporary society, would be willing to consciously admit they harbor.

Tanya Modleski points to mass-produced fantasies currently marketed for woman as exemplary of this internalized violence. The world of Harlequin Romances,

. . .like the real one, insists upon and rewards feminine selflessness. Indeed . . . the heroine of the novels can achieve happiness only by undergoing a complex process of self-subversion, during which she sacrifices her aggressive instincts, her 'pride,' and -- nearly -- her life (37).
At the same time Modleski develops a convincing analysis that this self-obliteration "conceals a deep-seated desire for vengeance," that the self-sacrificing woman "'. . .will not notice how much of her own hostility, hidden vindictiveness, and aggression are expressed through her attitude'" (45, quoting from Karen Horney, Feminine Psychology, p. 108).

In Salome, Elizabeth Cary has created a female character unwilling to tender any degree of self-sacrifice. She openly claims the right to express herself sexually. Refusing to be constrained by reputation or honor, she asserts her right to take and dismiss lovers (albeit still within the sanctioned institution of marriage) as she chooses. Although Moses' Law does not give women the privilege of divorce, Salome does not let that stand in her way. When she tires of Josephus and is attracted to Constabarus, Salome secures her freedom by informing Herod of Josephus' "treachery." Adding to this the insinuation that Josephus and Mariam have been adulterously involved with each other, Salome guarantees that Herod will have Josephus put to death. She thus releases herself from the unwanted marital bond and avoids the fate of playing a role to which she is particularly ill suited -- "I to him had liv'd a sober wife" (288). When faced with a choice between her husband's well-being and her own, Salome chooses her own.

Later, when she tires of Constabarus and desires Silleus, believing that Herod is dead, she dares to challenge the law itself.

I'll be the custom-breaker: and begin
To show my sex the way to freedom's door,
And with an off'ring will I purge my sin;
The law was made for none but who are poor (309-12).
To assert herself as "custom-breaker," she takes a much greater personal risk than she does in manipulating her husband's execution. . . . Unlike Mariam, Salome aims her will at effecting political change, and is for this reason perceived to be much more formidable a threat to the ideology that feminizes passivity. Fittingly, it is her husband who utters the familiar doomsday predictions symptomatic of threatened male privilege:
Are Hebrew women now transform'd to men?
Why do you not as well our battels fight,
And weare our armour? Suffer this, and then
Let all the world be topsie turved quite (ll. 435-39)
(Straznicky, 127).
Plotting to have her husband killed is one thing, divorcing him is quite another. Constabarus was less appalled by the murder which placed him in Josephus' stead, than by Salome's proposal to divorce him. To allow her such an action would disrupt the whole social order.

Ultimately, Salome fancies Silleus more than the status of social reformer (and its attendant dangers; it remains doubtful that she would have proceeded unhindered in her divorce.) When Herod's return is announced, she displays uninhibited joy, realizing " . . . she is able to pursue an easier, if even more sinister, path to her freedom" (Travitsky, 191).

Now Salome of happiness may boast.
I shall enjoy the comfort of my life.
Joy, heart, for Constabarus shall be slain.
Smile, cheeks, the fair Silleus shall be mine (III,ii,53-9).
She also sees in Herod's return an opportunity for her to free herself from another source of aggravation -- Mariam.

Within the dramatic action of the play, Elizabeth Cary develops an overt rivalry between these two characters. Herod's wife and sister, whom he merges through a "slip of the tongue" in Act IV, ii, 84-5, compete for his attention, and cannot coexist peacefully. The only time these two women appear in the play together, the tone of the scene is one of petty nastiness and jealous rivalry. For all of Mariam's self-righteous insistence on her virtue, she is not above trading insults with Salome.

Granted, Salome starts it with her comment to Alexandra,

If noble Herod still remain'd in life:
Your daughter's betters far, I dare maintain,
Might have rejoic'd to be my brother's wife. (I,iii, 221-2)
Mariam, however, enters whole-heartedly into the verbal fray by attacking Salome's and Herod's heritage:
My birth thy baser birth so far excell'd
I had to both of you the princess been.
Thou parti-Jew and parti-Edomite,
Thou mongrel: issu'd from rejected race. (233-6)
Salome dismisses these insults; she's heard it all before.
Still twit you me with nothing but my birth,
What odds betwixt your ancestors and mine?
Both born of Adam, both were made of earth,
And both did come from holy Abraham's line. (239-42)
Not satisfied to let the argument go, Mariam comes round on a different tack, unable to resist specifying Salome's degenerate behavior.
I favour thee when nothing else I say,
With thy black acts I'll not pollute my breath:
Else to thy charge I might full justly lay
A shameful life, besides a husband's death. (243-6)
Again Salome undercuts Mariam's accusations with a pragmatic response.
'Tis true indeed, I did the plots reveal
That pass'd betwixt your favourites and you:
I meant not, I, a traitor to conceal. (247-9)
The pattern of parry and retort in this linguistic duel is one of 4-4-4-8, 4-4-4-8; that is, Salome speaks four lines; Mariam responds with four; Salome counters with four more; and Mariam runs on with eight. While Mariam becomes more aggressive in her condemnation of Salome, Salome maintains a blasˇ indifference to her accusations. It is imaginably only Alexandra's
Come, Mariam, let us go; it is not boot
To let the head contend against the foot, (259-60)
that puts an end to Mariam's increasing ire and prevents the scene from degenerating into one of direct physical attack.

It is no wonder to Cary's reader, then, that when Herod inclines toward rhapsodizing over Mariam's speech, Salome strikes an attitude of deflating contempt.

Herod: But have you heard her speak?
Salome: You know I have.
Herod: And were you not amaz'd?
Salome: No, not a whit (IV, vii, 425-6).
The whole exchange, in which Salome prompts Herod to resolve in killing Mariam, is a brilliant depiction of Salome's own abilities to "amaze" through her use of language. While Herod agonizes over whether, and the means by which, Mariam should be executed, Salome proposes simple, one-line solutions:
Why, let her be beheaded.
Why, drown her then.
Then let the fire devour her. (361, 371, 377)
When Herod wavers and decides he must see Mariam one last time before her execution, Salome insidiously agrees.
You had as good resolve to save her now,
I'll stay her death; 'tis well determin'd:
For sure she never more will break her vow,
Sohemus and Josephus both are dead. (501-4)
This arouses Herod's greatest fear--that he will again be seduced by the spell of Mariam's beauty and wit, overcome by her power, and she will "again" betray him, as he is convinced she already has with Josephus and Sohemus. Compared to the bulk of lines given to Herod in the scene, Salome doesn't have to say much, to say exactly what she needs to accomplish her goal -- Mariam's death.

I would suggest that within the psychology of The Tragedy of Mariam, Mariam and Salome represent opposing forces of the anima that cannot be reconciled. Such a reading would posit Mariam as the "shadow self," whose insistence on the values of chastity, modesty, and finally silence (in that she meets her death with minimal comment) threatens the vital force of sexual spontaneity that Salome symbolizes. Conversely, if Salome is read as the shadow, her only means of survival is to neutralize the ineffectual positive anima. There is no place for psychic integration.

If Elizabeth Cary's play is The Tragedy of Mariam, it might also be said to be The Triumph of Salome. The ambivalent attraction and repulsion Salome exerts over the reader's imagination is perhaps an unconscious recognition of the virtual impossibility for female aggression to be given any positive expression in a male dominated culture. I am not proposing Salome as a role model for female behavior. I'm not even totally comfortable admitting my admiration for her. She is, after all, the instigator of four deaths. But at least she does something and manages not to become another victim of patriarchal abuse, chewed up, spit out, and left to die on the shores of masculine brutality.

'Tis not a year or two shows us a man.
They are all but stomachs, and we all but food;
They eat us hungerly, and when they are full
They belch us. (Emilia in Othello, III, iii, 103-6)

Salome evokes in me much the same response as a scene in the film "Thelma and Louise." I am both exhilarated and horrified by their use of violence against the trucker who has been so verbally assaultive and disrespectful towards them. Philosophically, I can't advocate the use of violence for any purpose. Nonetheless, I can't help admiring how these women unequivocally get across the message that they won't acquiesce to a man's attempts to assert his power over them. Tellingly, Thelma and Louise opt for suicide at the end of their story, rather than submit themselves to male authority. Salome at least lives.

For a writer to create female characters who embody both positive and negative anima material, she must imagine beyond the constraints of cultural definitions of womanhood and into her own psyche's truths. Likewise, for a woman to create herself as an integrated consciousness, she must seek a balance between the dark and light aspects of anima expression, not sacrificing one to the other. Living as a woman, without acceptance of the "dark" aspects of femininity, exacts a desperate price on the soul. Coming to terms with these qualities, and finding ways to manifest them in the world that are healing, compassionate, and loving is a difficult path.

. . . we often experience [the Dark Goddess] as a tempest. She wells up from deep inside of us in a frenzy of hysteria that in ancient times we would have honored as a shamanic visitation. But to the extent that we have forgotten her intrinsic nature, we see her as actively destroying all of our life structures and relationships that are based on our acceptance of the patriarchal "nice, submissive, and pleasing" feminine image. Or if we are successful in holding back and suppressing this monumental red energy peaking inside of us, we will experience the Dark Goddess as the depression, despair, and unbearable pain of the bleakness, subjugation, and meaninglessness of our lives (George, 228).

Elizabeth Cary, too, seems to have confronted this despair within her own life. She was 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" (Lady Falkland, Her Life, 195). And, when she separated herself from her husband, she asserted her right to define herself beyond the orthodox confines of marriage. In both life and letters, Elizabeth Cary offers us a glimpse of a Renaissance woman struggling to express the totality of her being against a culture that had little tolerance for images outside the constructs of "the patriarchal 'nice, submissive, and pleasing' feminine image." Her writing and her biography bear witness to both the difficulty and the courage of that struggle.


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