Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

"Written on My Tainted Brow": Woman and the Exegetical Tradition in the Tragedy of Mariam

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

"Written on My Tainted Brow": Woman and the Exegetical Tradition in the Tragedy of Mariam

Article excerpt

Elizabeth Cary was the first English woman to compose and publish an original five-act play. Cary's The Tragedy of Mariam rewrites women's story not only by inscribing its author's female presence in literary history but also by challenging contemporary notions about the nature of woman. Many discussions of the play have thus focused on the ways in which its titular character destabilizes even as she represents such constructions. As Laurie J. Shannon observed not so long ago, the body of Mariam criticism "emphasizes almost exclusively a reading of the drama that centers upon the character of Mariam, its conflicts, heroism, and ultimate triumph or transcendence" (136). Criticism of the play has continued largely in this vein, offering readings that remain centered on Mariam and her martyrdom; as long noted, Mariam's story is in many ways aligned with Christ's. (1) In its feminization of the Crucifixion story, the play exegetically subverts even as it represents Scripture, and it does so in a way that ultimately redeems the simultaneously culpable and blameless Mariam. Thus feminist readings of Mariam quite rightly focus on the play's title character, invariably recognizing that patriarchal notions about women are questioned through Mariam as a tragic figure. Such analyses, however, typically avoid exploring the play's representation of Salome, whose characterization as the most reprehensible type of woman surely challenges Cary's alleged feminism. Few critics have attempted to offer a redemptive reading of Salome, and many, quite frankly, seem to have no idea what to do with her.

Salome's very presence is surely problematic in a text that dares to align its female protagonist with Christ. Cary's play, in fact, offers two primary female characters who could not be more antithetical; as Elaine V. Beilin puts it, "Mariam is as chaste, loyal, and naive as Salome is lustful, inconstant, and scheming" ("Elizabeth Cary" 55). Beilin's words here are accurate, and they identify some of the important differences between Mariam and Salome. At the same time, however, this critic's description points toward the similar role that both women play within the tragedy's larger context. More specifically, what I am suggesting is that these very different characters equally represent polarized constructions of women that prevailed in early modern culture--that is, the type of Mary and the type of Eve. Reading these characters as types offers a possible solution to the Salome problem, a solution that allows us to see her as Mariam's counterpart rather than her antithesis. As representations of antithetical types of women, Mariam and Salome can be read as Cary's critical commentary on contemporary constructions of women and, more importantly, as this playwright's probing engagement with the kind of scriptural exegesis that was so often invoked to define such types. (2) Cary's revisionist offering of the Crucifixion story is undoubtedly significant, but her questioning of scriptural interpretation is, I think, much broader than Mariam's story alone suggests. (3)

Salome, as the type of Eve, is redeemable because she, like Mariam, represents both conventional orthodox exegesis and Cary's revisionist reading of such exegesis. Rather than privileging Mariam and her martyrdom, Cary uses both characters to complicate prevailing ideas about women: ultimately, Mariam does not affirm these characters' professed opposition but uses both women to question received truths about the nature of woman. Most significantly, the play does not confirm that Salome and other women of her ilk are somehow ontologically and thus irredeemably flawed; rather, seen in relation to Cary's engagement with biblical exegesis, this dramatically represented type of Eve proves to be just as problematic as the paradoxically innocent and guilty Mariam. Granted, Mariam's challenges to exegetical misogyny through the figure of Salome, who surely is a "devilish wife" (4. …

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