`Plays and Poetry by early modern women are primarily concerned with negotiating a position from which women could speak. A concern for ideas of gender, language and silence is, therefore, central, though its expression is sometimes open, sometimes covert.' Discuss with reference to Aemilia Lanyer and / or Elizabeth Cary.
The Tragedy of Mariam focuses on Elizabeth's Cary's desire to develop a platform from which women can speak, thereby offering a fuller understanding of women as individuals. By examining issues of public and private language, Cary shows her interest in female voices. As an early-17th-century female playwright, Cary was described by the Earl of Clarendon as `a lady of a most masculine understanding, allayed with the passions and infirmities of her own sex'. This description could be interpreted as a complement to Cary, although the Earl adheres to the patriarchal boundaries placed upon both men and women. The connection that he makes between Cary and masculinity reinforces the stereotype of male authority. This essay will examine Cary's exploration of gender, language and silence in The Tragedy of Mariam. The play's expression of these themes is sometimes open, and at other times covert. By concentrating on the issues of public and private speech, this essay will determine the effects that crossing patriarchal boundaries had on women in early modern England.
The title page offers an immediate insight into the patriarchal constraints placed on women in early modern England. Although The Tragedy of Mariam is the first known English play to be authored by a woman, the fact that Cary is unable to give her full name is indicative of the limitations on women writers of the period. This semi-anonymous authorship reveals the limitations on female public speech that also had a hand in Mariam's tragic fate.
The Tragedy of Mariam is often categorized as a Senecan closet drama; Cary, it seems, had no intention of taking the play to the public stage. This allowed Cary to distance herself from the popular theatres associated with lower social classes and associate herself with elite, aristocratic groups of writers. Prior to 1660, women had no role in public theatre; even the simple act of writing pushed the boundaries of acceptable female behaviour. By creating a closet drama, Cary becomes a perfect example of how early women dramatists created acceptable spaces for their dramatic voice, using theatrical settings, which helped them to justify female self-expression. Marta Straznicky (2004) uses the following statement to underscore the advantages of private play reading: `Not only does private play reading secure corporeal boundaries, it also enables the subject to pass by all obscene or amorous passages, all profane or Scurrill Jests, all heathenish oaths and execrations, thus restoring moral control over theatrical allusion'. Straznicky explains how the closet drama allows for the discussion of radical issues that would be...