Editorials 

Article by: Tiffany Rašovic
7/22/99

Dismembering Discourses in The Tragedy of Mariam

The figure of Mariam in Elizabeth Cary's The Tragedy of Mariam has been of tremendous interest to feminist critics who view her as a character embodying the contradictions of female identity in patriarchal culture. The play exposes this culture as conflicted in itself because of contradictory ideas about the proper "performance" of femininity which not only sever the female subject, but also create irreconcilable dilemmas for males. Mariam must choose between speaking as her own "inner" voice dictates, or conforming to the demands of a masculine culture that insists upon females being silent and obedient to the males who control them, in Mariam's case, Herod, her husband. She strives for an integrity of body and mind: to have both under the control of her will, even as the masculine discourses of femininity strive to divide her will from her exterior performance of obedience.

As Catherine Belsey suggests in her discussion of ideology and subjectivity in the essay, Constructing the Subject: Deconstructing the Text, for a woman, the contradictions between competing "subjectivities"-e.g. her own inner voice, her public role, her role as wife-are incredibly problematic and often seem insurmountable, escapable through only sickness or death. Despite Mariam's evident awareness of, and resistance to, the contradictions of her public and private roles, she ultimately is destroyed by them. She never achieves the unity or "integrity" of matching her outward looks and speech to her inner mental or perhaps spiritual state, rather, she dies by a literal and final severing of body from mind, an ultimate dramatization of the impossibility if feminine "integrity." The only option for her at the mercy of the male ideology is a transcendent sort of martyrdom: to leave the contradictions behind by death of the body that, at least in the Judeo-Christian sense, allows the mind/spirit to survive intact and indivisible.

While many critics, feminist and otherwise, would agree with these statements, few have addressed the connections between the dismembering and decapitating imagery of the play and the male ideology of womanhood as a sort of dismemberment or decapitation of her subjectivity and agency. I hope to employ this metaphor of dismemberment to enhance a critique of the competing discourses and the ensuing psychic severing and the failure/death of Mariam. Mariam is not the only victim of competing discourses: in fact, the men themselves become caught in a destructive and "dismembering" game of definitions and contradictory ideology: each one has a slightly different method of discursively decapitating the female, but ultimately the failure to re-draw or reconstruct women as possessors of an autonomous will or agency will undermine their goals also. For example, Constabarus cannot overcome his misogynistic mistrust except by death; the ever moralistic Chorus is rendered answer-less in the final scene, unable to explain the "moral" of the play; and Herod is driven to murder and madness because of his obsession with Mariam's body. These contradictions, coupled with the imagery of psychic, physical, and social dismemberment and destruction make the very plot and theme of the play "deconstruct." Here I somewhat disagree with such authorities as Margaret W. Ferguson who sees both a "radical attack on the Renaissance concept of the wife as 'property' of her husband" and a tendency for the play to "justify, even advocate, a highly conservative doctrine of female obedience to male authority." Rather, in The Tragedy of Mariam, everyone is undone by the "dismemberment" of femininity: the text seems to reveal the ultimate untenability of individual integrity if it must exist amidst such violent contradictions.

The first character to fall under these pressures is Constabarus who is ultimately glad to die after his refuge in male friendship fails to shelter him from the double dealing of his wife, Salome. Ironically, Salome's behavior involves an adherence to one form of prescribed femininity: she is the darling of the Chorus who insist upon the public and outward silence and acquiescence of females-they disparage Mariam for her honest, but public, speech and are oblivious to Salome's private, but corrupt, machinations. Salome acts and speaks appropriately in public, but in private she seeks only to fulfill her will. She knows that her public role is proscribed-for example, she cannot have the right to divorce-so she seeks to achieve her desires by making men such as her brother and Pheroras act in her stead. This might be acceptable to the Chorus, who are contented when the woman is publicly silent, but Constabarus has a somewhat different expectation. Constabarus sees women as hopelessly divided: they are lovely on the outside but rotten on the inside. Salome makes no secret of her desires to him, but he cannot abide her duplicity, for he must be satisfied that her private will is good: "A virtuous woman crowns her husband's head." (1.6, ll. 396.) Even more problematically, Salome is constrained to act duplicitously so that her public actions are approved by the Chorus. As Constabarus goes on to say, the condition for private behavior in the woman is that her actions and speech reflect his own will-obedience over candor: "...Yet boast no more, but by me be advis'd./ A benefit upbraided forfeits thanks:/ I prithee, Salome, dismiss this mood,/ Thou dost not know how ill it fits thy place..." (1.6, 407-410) What he interprets initially as a reversal (of male and female roles) is in fact the logical outcome of Salome's accomplished division of her public and private roles. Unlike Mariam who seeks integrity of inner/private and outer/public behavior, Salome uses an a tactic of conscious personal "dismemberment" to survive and maintain agency in a male dominated society: "for my will I will employ my wits." (1.4, 296) Constabarus' double-bind is that when women are all acting a particular way to please society or husband, that is, hiding or denying their will, of course he cannot know their "minds": "She merely is a painted sepulchre,/ That is both fair and viley foul at once:/ Though on her outside graces garnish her,/ Her mind is filled with worse than rotten bones." (2.4, ll. 325-328)

Constabarus thus abandons the society of women-misogynistically based on the assumption that one "bad" woman means that they are all so-and looks for security and integrity in masculine friendship where he perceives a unity of action and mind. When he fights Silleus, saying: "I hate thy body, but I love thy mind" (2.4, l. 388), it sounds as if he were reversing what he said to Salome. In his friendship with Babas' sons he articulates this new-found integrity through male friendship: "Then is the golden age with them [male friends] renew'd,/ All names of properties are banish'd quite:/ Division, and distinction, are eschewed:/ Each hath to what belongs to the others right." (2.2, ll. 103-106) Unfortunately, Constabarus himself has no means of redress against Salome and all his railing on the scaffold in Act Four, scene six, does nothing to thwart her success because she has the "public" on her side, hence his demand for feminine integrity, like Mariam's, ends in his own dismemberment-literally, in division from life with its unbearable contradictions. Perhaps underlying his death one might read a severing of his sexual body, that has gone from heterosexual to homosocial desire, from his idealistic mind. The similarity between Mariam and Constabarus is upheld by the speech he makes upon the scaffold, and he predicts that her demise will be brought about by the divisive double-dealing of women such as Salome: "You wavering crew: my curse to you I leave,/ You had but one to give you any grace:/ And you yourselves will Mariam's life bereave;/ Your commonwealth doth innocency chase." (4.6, ll. 311-314) Later we shall see again how the failure of the Chorus' public/private rhetoric of femininity fails for Mariam just as it has for Constabarus, who although full of hate, is simultaneously a victim of irrational male prescriptions for feminine behavior.

The Chorus, as hinted at above, although it condemns Mariam's public speech, seems to understand that there is such a thing as the female will. They certainly suspect its origin, calling any public manifestation of it inherently "unchaste." They prescribe that women must submit to the will of their husbands and relegate all ideas and urges they might have to a completely private sphere. Hence, they are severed from public voice or agency. Of course, in the case of Salome, the Chorus seems unconcerned that the woman's will might be tainted, or could be dangerous or "unchaste" even in private, rather, they seem merely concerned that she keep her "tongue" as chaste as her body, but only in the public realm. Thus integrity means different things for men and for women, a dangerous equivocation. In the passage below the Chorus does not claim Mariam's views are corrupt, but that they are inappropriate because they are made public.

That wife [Mariam] her hand against her fame doth rear,
That more than to her lord alone will give
A private word to any second ear,
And though she may with reputation live,
Yet though most chaste, she doth her glory blot,
And wounds her honor, though she kills it not.

When to their husbands they themselves do bind,
Do they not wholly give themselves away?
Or give they but their body, not their mind,
Reserving that, though best, for others' prey?
No sure, their thoughts no more can be their own,
And therefore should to none but one be known. (3.3, 227-238)

Again, the division is made distinctly between the mind and the body of the woman and both of them must be under the dominion of the husband regardless of the content of that mind. This is the fatal flaw of their logic: if chastity is merely a public display then the abuses of Salome are unpunished, and the public slander of Mariam is enough to convince Herod of her transgression. From a legalistic standpoint, women are an impossible subject. Also, Herod and Constabarus are not solely interested in proscribing their wives' public roles, but their private ones as well: the female essentially has no space for utterance or agency; they are both cut off and hidden away. Unfortunately, regardless of the males' attempts to kill them, Mariam's thoughts are still her own-as all thoughts are perhaps the "property" of the thinker-and the fissure of public speech and private speech, that the Chorus cannot anticipate because they assume that private speech will not be problematic, leads to Mariam's corporeal dismemberment-she cannot demonstrate her integrity because it is not admitted into discourse of any realm, public or private.

Mariam's problem is essentially private, although she begins the play by attempting to sway public opinion in her favor by exposing that her husband has killed her kin and has provided for her own murder. Mariam's spiritual/intellectual "dismemberment" then is twofold: she utters what she thinks in public and is condemned by the Chorus, but she is also unable to express herself, "chastely," to her husband because her desire is to separate herself from him also. Her decision to withhold her body is an act of private defiance even though it might prove her worthy in public eyes-or ears. Throughout the play she describes her actions and her body as if they are objects beyond her self. When Herod returns she finally rejects the division of body/will for good: she insists upon withdrawing both from his influence or dominion. She cannot be like Salome. Herod, one might have already guessed, has the totally reverse expectation. Unlike the Chorus, or even Constabarus, he has no concept of Mariam's inner life as an independent force or perspective. He is obsessed with Mariam's surface and his directives to her imply that changing one's outside somehow influences the inner self-(if there is such a thing in women at all.) Mariam tells Herod about her suspicions regarding the murder of her brother and grandfather and Herod circumscribes any challenge to his version of the story saying: "I will not speak, unless to be believ'd,/ This froward humor will not do you good:/...Yet smile my dearest Mariam, do but smile,/ And I will all unkind conceits exile." (4.3, ll. 139-144) Mariam finally discloses her thoughts into his "private ear", like the Chorus' recommendation, but the outcome cannot be as she hoped. Herod wants obedience, not the revelation of her private thoughts. Yet Mariam "...cannot frame disguise, nor never taught/ My face a look dissenting from my thought." (4.3, ll. 145-146)

Mariam's death represents a shift in the purpose of her actions. If she begins by seeking integrity of body and mind, she ends up giving her body to death and letting only her soul continue on "uncompromized." As Ferguson suggests in her essay and in the introduction to her edition of the play, Elizabeth Cary herself might have been concerned with presenting Mariam as a Catholic martyr who chooses death over giving her body to an evil cause. This formulation makes sense if we interpret the alternative construction of femininity in the play as being more Protestant in feeling and connected to Cary's own English Renaissance background. Whatever the case, the drama certainly demonstrates that there is no place for a woman of "integrity" in the terrestrial world or in linguistic representation. The discourses of femininity are so limiting and so narrow as to brook no alternative, and thus, Mariam the integrated subject must die. To view this death as positive, as the play seems to urge us to do with its language of Mariam's innocence and Herod's guilty lamentations, we must ourselves abandon the quest for female subjects' unity and agency and accept a model of (Christian) transcendence and accede the ultimate supremacy of the soul in the afterlife. In this way perhaps the dramatic text itself has collapsed under its own depiction of tangled and irreconcilable discourses; forced instead to choose some other rhetoric to attempt closure.

In addition to the image of Christian martyrdom, there are two other problems at the end of the play which demonstrates its incoherence. First, Herod's realization of Mariam's innocence and his recognition of her integrity-"But now I see Heaven in her did link/ A spirit and person to excel." (5.1, 245-6)-still cannot change the construction of femininity, partly because he now participates in his own martyrdom and wishes to die with no more revelation than this epitaph, Othello-like: "Here Herod lies, that hath his Mariam slain." (5.1, 258) He chastises himself for her death, (not his crimes before hand), and like Constabarus, constructs Mariam more as a saint than as a woman who attempted to be more than her society allowed.

Finally, the last word goes to the Chorus who are left, atypically, with no grand pronouncement or editorial on the action. As explored above, it could be primarily their ideology that created this whole destructive spiral to begin with-it is as if they are Culture itself and emblems of its anti-feminist traditions. They seem, like Edgar at the finale of Lear, expected to close up the loose ends of the drama with some moral or teaching, but instead they are mute-having learned nothing, they have nothing to teach. They recount the events of the play and conclude:

This day's events were certainly ordain'd,
To be the warning to posterity:
So many changes are therein contain'd,
So admirably strange variety.
This day alone, our sagest Hebrews shall
In after times the school of wisdom call. (5.1, 289-294)

At every other appearance of the Chorus they have had a lesson to teach, a course of action to suggest, always against Mariam, and these commands have been more or less faithfully performed by the actions of the other players. Pessimistically, albeit perhaps without intent, in the end they do not examine themselves but rather retreat into vagaries and confusion, relying on "ordination" to explain what they have been implicated in, and agents of, all along. Like Constabarus' escape, Mariam's martyrdom, Herod's guilty longing for punishment, the Chorus also abandons its initial function in the work as social pundits, revealing the point at which this narrative cannot sustain its critique of the discourse of femininity in male ideology. It can reveal the contradiction and the destructiveness of "severing" but it cannot find a coherent way to revise or remedy these conflicts through language or representation-it dismembers without reversal.

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