Conversely, Mariam’s heroism is evident through her newfound composure in the face of adversity. The contrast between Mariam’s earlier aggressive exchange with Salome and her silent death demonstrates her character growth realising that sometimes silence is more powerful than words. This is evident through Mariam’s realisation that she could ‘enchain him Herod with thy smile’ – words are not required to captivate Herod. The power of silence is supported by Matsuoka who argues “silence is meaning without language1.”
The chorus of the play suggests that upon marrying a woman signs away freedom of thought2:
When to their husbands they themselves doe bind
Doe they not give themselves away?
Or give they but their body not their mind,
Reserving that though best, for others pray?
Not sure, their thoughts no more can be their owne.
Through remaining silent, Herod cannot manipulate her thoughts. Mariam’s silence is a lasting action of defiance towards her husband, for not seeing her innocence. Her bravery in remaining silent, is potentially undermined as Mariam’s final words are relayed by a man. However, her role as a heroine is already cemented through her noble death. The association of Silence and an honourable death is not limited to Mariam, it has played a prolific role in religious history. Jesus remained silent in death despite antagonism from his murderers, showing the people how to behave in dignity when facing aversion. Mariam’s rebellion in remaining silent, whilst keeping her dignity is indicative of her heroism.
The concept of a heroine can be further explored through the form of the texts. The Tragedy of Mariam is a closet drama, the first original play by a woman in England3, whilst The Book of Margery Kempe is biographical, the first autobiographical book to be written by a woman4.
A closet drama is a play, not written for the commercial stage, written to be read rather than watched, supported by Andrew Hiscock who states a closet drama offers ‘a reading experience which privileged discussion over dramatization, the word over the deed.’ As it was not to be performed on the stage, closet dramas writers could be more expressive regarding their political and social views. This was particularly important for female writers whose voice was further restricted in the 16th century.
One social expression made is regarding marriage. Connections have been made between Mariam’s insolence towards her husband and Elizabeth Cary’s own marital defiance in converting to Catholism despite her husband’s demands5. Perhaps highlighting a frustrated view regarding the gender hierarchy within a marriage.
Furthermore, another social statement made by Cary, which outside of a closet drama may not have been possible is the decision not to have men present in the first half of the play. Medieval women were expected to “revert to secondary status whenever it was enjoined and hence not threaten the ruling supremacy of their husband6.’ In having exclusively female characters in the first half of the play, Mariam did not have to revert to “secondary status” in the presence of her husband. Mariam is not overpowered in speech by the perceived superiority bought with male gender, instead she is the protagonist and the heroine. Through the decision to have only women on stage, Mariam’s heroism is more prominent.
The biographical form of Kempe’s book further explores the concept of the heroine. Unlike in modern literature where an author is the person who creates, writes and organise a text, writing in the medieval period was collective7. To share her story Kempe had to employ a scribe, possibly because she was illiterate or more likely because the ‘written word of the woman had to be verified by a male author or scribe8.’ Margery’s difficulty was found in finding a scribe, willing to fixe her story in the written form, due to authentication issues of her religious visions. Her first scribe died and the second was bewildered by her illiteracy levels, stating that her book was so evilly written that he couldn’t make sense of it9. Eventually, her scribe agrees ‘trustyng in hire prayers.’ Margery is so passionate that her religious journey must be written down, encouraged in a vision by God, that even her illiteracy does not hold her back and her story is scribed. In the written form her story is cemented in history. Her perseverance is a quality surely to be admired.
Both Margery and Mariam present heroic traits. They are admirable women. Mariam in her determination in her quest to demonstrate her devotion to God, whilst Mariam remains strong and dignified when falsely accused of adultery. Despite having character traits which could infringe their heroism, I would argue these flaws add to the humanistic nature of the characters, as like the reader they are imperfect. What is for sure, is they are stories cemented within the Literary Canon of female writing for their unique nature: the first female autobiography and the first original play written by a female.
1 Mitsuharu Matsuoka, ‘Gaskell’s Strategies of Silence in ‘The Half Brothers”, The Gaskell Society Journal, 17, (2003), (p.50).
2 Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama (New York: Routledge, 1985).
3 Naomi Miller, ‘Domestic Politics in Elizabeth Cary’s The Tragedy of Mariam’, Studies in English Literature, 37.2, (1997), 353-369.
4 Felicity Riddy, Kempe née Brunham, Margery (2017)
5 Miller, (1997), p. 358.
6 Linda Pollock, ”Teach her to live under obedience’: The Making of Women in the Upper Ranks of Early Modern England,” Continuity and Change, 4.2, (1989).
7 Jennifer Summit, ‘Women and Authorship’, in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women’s Writing, ed. by Carolyn Dinshaw and David Wallace(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 91-108.
8 Lynn Staley Johnson, ‘The Trope of the Scribe and the Question of Literary Authority in the Works of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe’, Speculum, 66.4, (1991), 820-838.
9 Karma Lochrie, Margery Kempe and Translations of the Flesh(Pennsylvania: Univeristy of Pennsylvania Press, 1992).