E.C.'s Tragedy or Triumph?
Guyant, Valerie L.
University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, College of Professional Studies
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Conclusion: The effects of Elizabeth Carey's bid for intellectual freedom and freedom of expression for all women are difficult to assess. Certainly, she was not the only woman writing about such concepts during her era. Nor was she the only author to publish her thoughts, even though she was the first Englishwoman to publish an original drama. However, it is certainly possible to see the same beliefs reflected in Aemilia Lanyer's often quoted, "If Eve did erre, it was for knowledge sake" ("Eve's Apology" line 37). After all, one of the things that Elizabeth Cary seemed to believe in strongly was a thirst for knowledge and the right for anyone to seek it. It is certainly not difficult to believe that Elizabeth Cary might have influenced, even indirectly, the concepts that began appearing in literary endeavors later in the 1600's. For instance, The Mothers Legacie, To her vnborne Childe, which was published in 1624, openly declares that women are not only capable of learning and wisdom, but that: I desire her bringing vp may bee learning the Bible, as my sisters doe, good houswifely, writing, and good workes: other learning a woman needs not: though I admire it in those whom God hath blest with discretion, yet I desired not much in my owne, hauing scene that sometimes women haue greater portions of learning, than wisdorne, which is of no beter vse to them than a main saile to a flye-boat, which runs it vnder water. But where learning and wisdome meet in a vertuous disposed woman, she is the fittest closet for all goodnesse. She is like a well-ballanced ship that may beare all her saile. (qtd. in Tebeiux and Lay 203). Nor was this the only time that such concepts were put into print after the publication of The Tragedy of Mariam. In fact, it is possible that the knowledge that other women, such as Elizabeth Cary, were writing and publishing their thoughts gave women such as Rachel Speght and Ester Sowernam the fortitude to publish their responses to the virulent spew that Joseph Swetnam published in 1617. Not only did Sowernam intelligently counter all of Swetnam's arguments, she also closed her pamphlet with a witty, well thought out poem attributed to "Joan Sharp" that shows the progress women were making in their attempts to articulate their opinions in a public arena: The humors of men, see how froward they bee; We know not to please them in any degree: For if we goe plaine we are sluts they doe say, They doubt of our honesty if we goe gay; If we be honest and merrie, for gig lots they take vs, If modest and sober, then proud they doe make vs: Be we housewifly quicke, then a shrew he doth keepe, If patient and milde, then he scorneth a sheepe. What can we deuise to doe or to say, But men doe wrest all things the contrary way. 'Tis not so vncertaine to follow the winde, As to seeke to please men of so humerous minde. Their humors are giddy, and neuer long lasting, We know not to please them, neither full nor yet fasting. Either we doe too little, or they doe too much: They straine our poore wits, their humors are such. They say, women are proud, wherein made they trial I? They moou'd some lewd suit, and had the deniall: To be crost in such suites, men cannot abide, And therupon we are entitled with pride. They say we are curst and froward by kinde, Our mildnesse is vnchanged, where raging we finde, A good lacke sayes the prouerbe, doth make a good Gill, A curst froward Husband doth change woman's will. They vse vs (they say) as necessary euils, We haue it from them, for they are our deuils. When they are in their rages and humerous fits, They put vs poore women halfe out of our wits. Of all naughty women name one if you can, If she be prou'd bad, it came by a man. (Sowernam 26-7) This is certainly not the type of opinionated diatribe that would have been allowed a scant decade earlier when Elizabeth Cary's Tragedy of Mariam was first published. True, the instances of female authorship continued to be exceptionally rare. However, women were more often listening to the advice of Marie de France, advice that Elizabeth Cary had proven she believed in: Ki Deus ad dune esc"ience E de parler bon' eloquence Ne s'en deit taisir ne celer, Ainz se deit volunters mustrer. [Whoever has received knowledge and eloquence in speech from God should not be silent or secretive but demonstrate it willingly.] (37) A willing demonstration of knowledge and eloquence is something that women have had to fight for the right to exhibit. Elizabeth Cary was a general in that war. She presented a play to the public that had depth, multiple layers, and an integral call to arms to the women of her era to participate in a subtle war to win freedom of expression. She may not have experienced the horrors that Virginia Woolf described for Shakespeare's sister. She may not have had a talent equal to Shakespeare's. However, she was definitely Shakespeare's literary sister, both chronologically and contextually. I told you that Shakespeare had a sister. She died young-alas, she never wrote a word ... Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the crossroads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh. If we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; ... if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare's sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down. Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners, as her brother did before her, she will be born. (Woolf 197-199) Elizabeth Cary's The Tragedy of Mariam was a triumph not simply because it was the first original drama by a female Englishwoman to be published. It was a triumph because Elizabeth Cary embraced the essence of what Virginia Woolf refers to as "Shakespeare's sister" and had the courage to write exactly what she thought. It was a triumph because Mariam was the martyr that enabled future generations of women writers to do the same. Elizabeth Cary and her contemporaries helped to blaze a trail of freedom of expression that women in modern society take for granted. In the hands of Elizabeth Cary, the character of Mariam provided a key for women to unlock the freedom to express themselves in print. It was, without a doubt, a literary triumph.