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Theatre / The Tragedy of Mariam

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'Tis not enough for one that is a wife
To keep her spotless from an act of ill,
But from suspicion she should free her life,
And bare herself of power as well as will.
3 Chorus

The Tragedy of Mariam (or, The Tragedie of Mariam, the Faire Queene of Jewry) is a 1613 play written by the noblewoman and poet Elizabeth Cary. It is known as the first extant English play by a female author.

The story is centered on Mariam, the second wife of the Biblical King Herod, and her immediate family. It begins during a period when Herod has traveled to Rome to appear before the new emperor Octavian, who, it is rumored, has had him executed. Mariam finds herself torn by this news: her alliance with Herod was political, and he arranged the murder of her brother and grandfather to secure his own rule—moreover, it turns out that he has selfishly left orders for Mariam to be killed should he himself die—yet she cannot keep herself from grieving.

The first three acts explore hers and various other characters' reactions to Herod's supposed death—before he unexpectedly returns alive in the fourth act, to discover Mariam still alive and having developed a new will to resist him. Complicating matters are Herod's vengeful former wife Doris, whom he forsook for Mariam, and Herod's sister Salome,note  whose long-standing conflict with Mariam and her mother threatens to come to a head with tragic consequences.


Cary largely based the plot on historical accounts by the Roman-Jewish writer Josephus, using the previously unexplored perspective of Mariam to tackle such themes as marriage, duty, familial lineage, and women's rights. Unlike many other well-known plays of the time, The Tragedy of Mariam is a closet drama—a play written to be read rather than performed. However, it has recently been 'rediscovered' as a performance piece and has been staged by various companies and festivals.

Since this play is over four hundred years old and is available in the public domain, all spoilers will be unmarked.


Tropes appearing in the play:

  • Aggressive Categorism: Before his execution, Constabarus delivers a long rant against women in general.
    Constabarus: You creatures made to be the human curse,
    You tigers, lionesses, hungry bears,
    Tear-massac'ring hyenas! ...
    You were the angels cast from heav'n for pride
  • An Aesop: The "Chorus" (representing the wisdom of the common people of Judea) offers one at the end of each act, sometimes with dubious bearing on what has actually happened.
  • Arranged Marriage: Mariam's marriage to Herod was arranged by her mother Alexandra, to no one's benefit as it turned out.
  • Audience Monologue: The play begins with Mariam delivering one. Later, in prison, she soliloquizes again. Salome also gets one before confronting her husband.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: In her first soliloquy, Mariam confesses that she has wished many times for Herod's death, but now that it has occurred she finds herself strangely distraught.
  • Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Salome intends to be the first woman to procure a divorce from her husband, despite that privilege being exclusive to men.
    Salome: I'll be the custom-breaker, and begin
    To show my sex the way to freedom's door
  • The Caligula: When Herod returns from Rome, the reason for the other characters' trepidation becomes evident: he's crazy, impulsive and suggestible in the extreme.
  • Central Theme: Being versus seeming.
  • Dedication: The play is prefaced with a sonnet to Cary's sister-in-law, also named Elizabeth, comparing her to the goddess Artemis.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: Silleus pledges to be Constabarus's friend and ally after he defeats him in a duel.
  • Double Standard: Salome calls out the law stipulating that a man can divorce his wife but a woman cannot divorce her husband.
    Salome: Why should such privilege to man be give?
    Or, given to them, why barred from women then?
    Are men than we in greater grace with heaven?
    Or cannot women hate as well as men?
  • Dream Reality Check: After Herod turns against her, Mariam wonders aloud if she is dreaming.
  • Driven to Suicide: The servant whom Salome sends to bring a supposedly poisoned drink to Herod (to make him think Mariam is trying to kill him) later hangs himself, stricken with grief for his role in Mariam's death.
  • Duel to the Death: Silleus, Salome's new lover, challenges Constabarus, her former husband to one. Subverted when they become friends while fighting instead of killing each other.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: As the last Chorus points out, the entire play has taken place over the course of only a single day.
    Chorus: Whoever hath beheld with steadfast eye
    The strange events of this one only day
    How many were deceived, how many die
    That once today did grounds of safety lay—
    It will from them all certainty bereave,
    Since twice six hours so many can deceive.
  • Fatal Flaw: According to Sohemus:
    Sohemus: Unbridled speech is Mariam's worst disgrace.
  • Gender-Neutral Narrator: The Chorus (usually represented by a group of actors).
  • Greek Chorus: The "Chorus," in Senacan style, commentates on the action of the play at each act's conclusion in a few rhyming stanzas.
  • Grew a Spine: When Herod returns, Mariam resolves not to be a doormat any longer and to hold him accountable for his murder of her family members. This backfires horribly when, unwilling to be challenged, he has her killed.
  • The Hero Dies: The play ends with Mariam's execution by Herod, after which he bitterly regrets his decision.
  • Hypocrite: Mariam begins the play by calling herself one for having criticized Julius Caesar for weeping over his rival Pompey after defeating him, now finding herself in a similar position in lamenting the death of her hated husband.
  • If I Can't Have You…: Herod had ordered Sohemus to kill Mariam if he should die, to prevent any other man from possessing her. Mariam was only spared by Sohemus's pity.
  • Inter-Class Romance:
    • Salome's brother Pheroras marries a servant girl, Graphina. Salome disapproves of the match, as Herod would, and makes a deal with him whereby he will inform on Constabarus and Salome will petition Herod to allow the marriage.
    • Salome frequently reminds her estranged husband Constabarus that he was of lower class than her and owes her his current social status.
  • Lineage Comes from the Father: This is one of the problems plaguing the women of the play, who for the most part can only access power through strategic alliances with powerful men. Mariam actually has a stronger birthright to the throne of Judea than does Herod, but she can only claim it through marriage.
  • Madonna–Whore Complex: One of the play's major themes are the ever-shifting standards of "chastity" for wives. The Chorus at one point argues that it is not enough to actually be chaste (as in faithful); a woman must be completely pure in thoughts as well as actions. Other characters argue that simply speaking with anyone besides her husband violates a woman's chastity.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: Prior to the play, Herod's henchmen drowned Mariam's brother and made it out to be a swimming accident.
  • Merciful Minion: Sohemus was left with Herod's orders to kill Mariam should he die, but felt sorry for her and spared her life.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Herod's reaction to Mariam's death.
    Herod: Me accurst,
    To slay my better half and save my worst!
  • Not Quite Dead: Herod turns out to be this, despite popular rumor saying he had been executed.
  • One Steve Limit: Averted. Mariam is the daughter of Alexander and Alexandra, and her son is also named Alexander. This gets confusing.
  • Peaceful in Death: Mariam, according to Nuntio.
    Nuntio: She died as if to die she were content.
  • Revenge:
    • Alexandra is satisfied by Herod's apparent death because he murdered her father and son.
    • Salome encourages Herod to kill Mariam as revenge for Mariam and Alexandra's cruel treatment of her.
    • Doris wants revenge on both Herod, who left her, and Mariam, whom he left her for.
    • Herod ultimately has Mariam killed for disobeying him and speaking her mind.
  • Speech-Centric Work: In keeping with their genre, all of Mariam's characters are extremely long-winded and tend to express themselves in intricate ten- to fifty-line chunks.
  • Tampering with Food and Drink: Salome arranges for a "love potion" to be sent to Herod, supposedly from Mariam. Already in a jealous rage, he assumes that Mariam is trying to poison him.
  • A Tragedy of Impulsiveness: Herod rashly decides to have Mariam killed and regrets his quick judgement after her death.
  • Tragedy: Mariam is killed, and Herod's sanity is left degenerating rapidly.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: There was a historical Queen Mariam (Mariamne I) who was killed by her husband Herod, but the characters and circumstances of the play are largely fictionalized.
  • Widow's Weeds: When Herod returns, Mariam greets him dressed in all black in mourning for her brother and grandfather, whom he killed.


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