Loose Notes on Stoicism, Interiority, and Epistemological Crisis in Elizabeth Cary's "Tragedy of Mariam"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2001 17 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



Those minds that wholly dote upon delight,

Except they only joy in inward good;

Still hope at last to hop upon the right,

And so from sand they leap in loathsome mud.

And sad must be their looks, their honour sour,

That care for nothing in their power. [I / 493-6, 527-8][1]

This statement, made by the chorus in Elizabeth Cary’s The Tragedy of Mariam, The Fair Queen of Jewry, expresses a commonplace of Stoicism. While the reader of a Senecan tragedy should not be surprised at coming across some elements of Stoic philosophy, it is curious that critical writing on Mariam appears to have neglected Renaissance neo-Stoicism as a clue to an understanding of the heroine’s self-articulation. Exclusively focussing on gender-related issues, most scholars have interpreted the drama in terms of the patriarchal policing of women’s discourse and self-censoring (Ballaster, Belsey, Ferguson, Kennedy, Quilligan), race and class as categories that may be employed to destabilize the hierarchical opposition of gender (Callaghan, Kennedy), Christian ethics as a means of translating wifely disobedience into heroism (Beilin), and also in relation to the author’s biography (Beilin, Cotton, Ferguson, Krontiris, Travitsky). I admit that, in order to make sense of Cary’s play, one cannot avoid addressing the question of gender. However, this paper presents an attempt at reading The Tragedy of Mariam as a document that deals with a set of problems that, albeit with different implications, concerned both men and women in early seventeenth-century England.

For some time, neo-Stoicism offered an answer to at least one of those problems, namely, the aristocratic dislocation resulting from the absolutist centralization of power. Having lost the privileges of feudal vassalage, which had allowed for a comparatively high degree of political independence, the aristocrat could only reclaim his self-determination by at least partly renouncing his political ambitions. Gordon Braden describes Stoicism as a continuation and systematic elaboration of the Cynic “post-political conception of the self” whose underlying objective was to maintain a sense of self-esteem that could dispense with the approval of one’s actions by others as well as the freedom of autonomous action itself (Braden 16). The Stoic adapts to the hostile external conditions of his existence by adopting an attitude of indifference:

Surrendering the worlds goods, we find them false and learn how to want what we have instead of striving to have what we want … to revise our hopes to coincide with the given. The calculus leads progressively inward, redefining individual freedom as a state of mind; the Stoic’s inviolable privilege is simply his attitude toward the incontestable fate, which has its way with him. (Braden 17)

According to Foucault, the Stoic experience of freedom arises from a sense of self-possession and –mastery that is achieved through a meticulous self-inspection and –correction (Foucault, Care, 58-68). In this process, while quenching his desire for all pleasures whose sources are beyond his control, the individual discovers himself as an object of pleasure. Taking delight in oneself means enjoyment without disturbance, without anxiety. Enjoying oneself with oneself also means taking pride in oneself, notwithstanding one’s social position. As a consequence, the Stoic subject’s harmony with the inner self has precedence over harmony with society. Ultimately, opting for harmony with the self, the subject may refuse to comply with the requirements of its social subjection.

However, with regard to its primary focus on contentment in acceptance of the given, Stoicism indeed appears to be, as T.S. Eliot put it, “a philosophy suited to slaves” (Braden 18). As such, it should also be suited to English noblewomen in the early seventeenth century. Examining courtly literature, Joan Kelly-Gadol shows how the introduction of the Bourgeois confinement of women to the domestic sphere into aristocratic marriage deprived the Renaissance lady of the cultural and political role she had played in feudal society (Kelly-Gadol 137-164). In correspondence with a new poetic discourse on spiritual love and chastity, which treats the lady as if she had no physical existence, the public/private divide effectively barred most women from exercising a direct influence on courtly society. Rendered passive and voiceless in poetry, the ideal noblewoman had a merely aesthetic significance in reality: While actually serving her husband, the lady in Castiglione’s love theory was imagined as being served by the courtier; her function was to provide a symbol of how the courtier’s subjection to the prince might be reversed. According to Kelly-Gadol, however, Castiglione “indirectly acknowledged the courtier’s actual domination of the lady by having him adopt ‘woman’s ways’ in his relations to the prince” (Kelly-Gadol 159). I cite Kelly-Gadol’s argument here to suggest that we keep a wide perspective on The Tragedy of Mariam: While the domestic plot of the play explores the problems of marriage and female subjectivity, it can also be read as a political allegory. Besides, it should be noted that Kelly-Gadol describes the experience of Renaissance noblewomen predominantly in terms of deficiency: Mostly referring to texts written by men to demonstrate what these women had ceased to do or be, she arrives at the conclusion that they did not have a renaissance in the way experienced by men. So the remaining question is, what did these women experience? What happened to them? I assume most of them tried to cope with their situation, exercising self-mastery so as to make their hopes coincide with the given. While trying to please men, they were probably also trying to please themselves. And in this effort, as women were strongly advised not to speak too much and too loudly, they were likely to develop a subjective interiority that they chose to not fully disclose to others. Apparently, this development was not exclusively female; after all, sometimes men had to adopt ‘woman’s ways’ in public life, especially so when dealing with an absolutist sovereign.

The Tragedy of Mariam features a heroine who may be said to present a distinct variation on (neo-)Stoic subjectivity. Already her first soliloquy is an example of self-inspection in order to achieve contentment. Examining her conflicting emotions as well as her memories of Herod and her marriage, Mariam is trying to suit her mind to her present situation. However, although she repeatedly recalls her reasons for joy at the news of Herod’s death, she is unable to “repulse that falling tear / That will against my will some grief unfold” [I / 53-4]. Her attempt at mastering her self, at accepting the new circumstances, fails because these circumstances claim contradictory demands on her: “Ill doth a widowed eye with joy accord,” while at the same time joy is the appropriate reaction to the death of her brother’s murderer.

Braden observes that, in Senecan Stoicism, humility and self-criticism form a peculiar alliance with aggressive arrogance (Braden 22f.): The Stoic’s awareness of his moral superiority inevitably breeds indignitas, a sentiment that – although justified - constitutes his potential weakness; for if he cannot master indignitas, he will be overcome by his anger. Mariam faces the same problem. Perceiving her moral (and also hereditary) superiority over Herod’s family, she considers her scorn permissible. When Salome alludes to her allegedly adulterous behaviour, Mariam is at pains to quench her outrage with the help of rational explanation: “Self-guilt hath ever been Suspicion’s mother, / And therefore I this speech with patience bear …” [I / 153-7]. In her final encounter with Herod, Mariam expresses a Stoic contempt for both worldly pleasures and the murderer of her relatives: “I neither have of power, nor riches want; / I have enough, nor do I wish for more. / Your offers to my heart no ease can grant …” [IV / 109-11]. Though she may not be completely indifferent to the tyrant, her subsequent utterances bear no sign of anger or any other overwhelming emotions (no exclamation marks, no apostrophe, etc.). Her speech appearing calm and rational, Mariam seems to have mastered herself.

For the heroine, harmony with the inner self is apparently more rewarding than harmony with her husband. As I have stated before, the Stoic’s reward is self-esteem and, in a more advanced stage, a sense of superiority that demands outward expression, i.e. pride. Pride is Mariam’s tragic flaw, which, of course, drives her to self-destruction. Yet, her fatal refusal to please Herod is not merely motivated by a proud rejection of his hateful face, an irrepressible emotion whose concealment would unbalance that interior harmony:

Hate doth appear again with visage grim,

And paints the face of Herod in my heart

In horrid colours with detested look.

Then fear would come, but Scorn doth play her part,

And saith that Scorn with Fear can never brook.

I know I could enchain him with a smile

And lead him captive with a word.

I scorn my look should ever man beguile

Of other speech, than meaning to afford. [III / 158-165; my italics]

The last two lines suggest that, rather than giving way to a personal dislike, Mariam announces a more general repudiation: She renounces strategic femininity as a means of obtaining praise from men. Having self-esteem, she can dispense with the unreliable regard paid by others. Considering that a mere smile might have saved the her, we may diagnose her character as suicidal. In the Senecan tradition, according to Braden, suicide constitutes “the ultimate Stoic act: Whatever its external prompting, suicide is the natural fulfilment of the wise man’s life, the point where his drive for control becomes totally and unsurpassably self-referential in a final triumph over the world outside” (Braden 24). Significantly, as The Tragedy of Mariam is informed by Stoic thought in its Early Modern Christian adaptation, the heroine does not actually kill herself. Nevertheless, contemplating the miscalculation that led to her death sentence, she acknowledges her error (yet does not castigate herself for it!) and finally renounces the will to live [IV / 558-74, 626-7]. Moreover, her religious vocabulary as well as the Christian allegories in Nuntio’s report of her death imply that the rewards of her Stoicism exceed the pleasure of self-esteem.[2]

Mariam’s acceptance of her fate is reminiscent of Constabarus’ last dialogue with Babus’ Sons in the third act of the play. Indeed, Constabarus has verbally expressed his distaste for “a pitiful desire to live” before [II / 203]. In contrast to Mariam, however, he adopts an attitude that Marcus Aurelius has described as “exhibiting the ball-player’s carefulness about the game, but the same indifference about the object played with, as being a mere ball. For a man ought by all means to strive to show his skill in regard to some of the external materials, yet without making the material a part of himself … “ (quoted by Braden 21). This rather pragmatic Stoicism was obviously more suitable to the Renaissance courtier than Mariam’s version. It was also more appealing because it provided both an opportunity to work off aggression and the choice to take pride not only in one’s inner self but also in one’s performance. Of course, this presupposes that one was permitted to the game not merely as a spectator.

Besides, relating the spectacle of the heroine’s execution to the tyrant, Nuntio says: “She did as if to die she were content” [V / 85]. He cannot tell whether she really was content to die: From an outsider’s perspective, the Stoic attitude is indistinguishable from the simulation of sprezzatura.


To hear a tale with ears prejudicate,

It spoils the judgement, and corrupts the sense;

It makes us foolish, heady, rash, unjust,

It makes us never try before we trust.

The ground of accidents it never tries,

But makes us take for truth ten thousand lies. [II / 401-2, 405-6, 411-2]

When Babus’ First Son suggests the possibility that “this tale of Herod’s death / At last will prove a very tale indeed,” Constabarus refutes his doubt in “undoubted truth” [II / 147-8, 155]: “For who can think that in Anthonius’ fall, / Herod, his bosom friend, should ‘scape unbruised? / Then, Caesar, we might the an idiot call …” [II / 169-71]. This statement implies the following syllogistic argument: Only an idiot would let his enemy’s friend escape; Caesar is not an idiot; ergo, Caesar did not let his enemy’s friend escape. Constabarus’ reasoning is logically consistent, yet, as Babus’ Second Son informs him, the first premise might be false: “Upon submission Caesar will forgive” [II / 174]. Babus’ son derives this knowledge from careful observation:

I bent mine eye to mark, mine ears to hear.

Methought I saw such mildness in his face

And such a sweetness in his looks did grow,

Withall commixed with so majestic grace,

His physiognomy, his fortune did foreshow.

For this I am indebted to mine eye,

But then mine ear received more evidence,

By that I knew his love to clemency,

How he with hottest choler could dispense. [II / 182, 185-92]


[1] Here and throughout, quotations from Elizabeth Cary’s “The Tragedy of Mariam, The Fair Queen of Jewry” and their respective line numbers follow the text in S. P. Cerasano, M. Wynne-Davies, eds. Renaissance Drama by Women: Texts and Documents. (London; New York: Routledge, 1995).

[2] The employment of Christian allegory in The Tragedy of Mariam is discussed by Elaine V. Beilin in her book “Redeeming Eve” (Beilin 170-1760.


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Humboldt-University of Berlin – Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik
stoicism interiority epistemological crisis elizabeth cary tragedy mariam closet drama Jacobean women's writing seventeenth century Josephus Herod Herodes Salome female voice female speech stoic subject sprezzatura femininity stoic pride stoic anger Foucaultian reading literary criticism gender Renaissance Early Modern



Title: Loose Notes on Stoicism, Interiority, and Epistemological Crisis in Elizabeth Cary's "Tragedy of Mariam"