Lady Falkland: Shakespeare’s Equivalent

23rd Apr 2014

Lady Falkland: Shakespeare's Equivalent
This week marks the anniversary of the birth and death of one of the English Language's best known writers; the playwright and poet William Shakespeare. But did you know there was a certain woman writing in Shakespeare's time that we think is equally worthy of celebrating on this day...

In his own time Shakespeare wrote and acted in numerous plays for the public stage and for every class of audience. His works have since been canonised and spread globally, taken to every English speaking corner of the world. Shakespeare’s work has reached higher than any of his fellow writers.

However, one such writer has recently been given more weight in our understanding of renaissance drama. The first woman to publish under her own name in 1613 and with an original composition, Elizabeth Cary née Tanfield, viscountess Lady Falkland.

Born twenty years after Shakespeare, in 1584, Elizabeth Cary was an intelligent young woman, she mastered several language’s, including French, Italian and Hebrew, both written and verbally.

She used to bribe the family servants into giving her extra candles for night time study and is credited with a manuscript translation of one of Abraham Ortelius’ modern maps Le Miroir du Monde, written when she was just 14.

Elizabeth Cary married Sir Henry Cary when she was 17 in a social, political and economical arrangement; prior to this neither had significantly spoken or interacted before.

For the first six years of their marriage her husband was away at court and on the continent. At some point during these years she moved in with her Mother and Sister-in-law.

It was here that Lady Katherine Cary, her Mother-in-law, had all of Elizabeth Cary’s books removed and forbid her from reading. It was then that she began to write.

The Tragedy of Mariam is based upon the story of Herod and Mariam; Cary's version re-places the women at the centre of power and raises the importance of freedom of speech and self-determination.Elizabeth Cary’s only surviving play is The Tragedy of Mariam, which was written some time between 1606 and 1612 and published in 1613.

It is based upon the story of Herod and Mariam, the original by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus but Cary’s version is heavily influenced by the Thomas Lodge translation of 1602.

In it Cary, seizes the opportunities of silence left by Josephus and Lodge to transfer the weight of the play from concerns with forms of tyranny to the resistance of women against patriarchy and monarchy.

The play takes place after Herod has left and supposedly been executed by Ceaser. The first three acts of the play focus on the relationship between the women left behind, Mariam and Solome, and their new-found freedom.

It explores an alternative to hierarchy all together rather than a substitution. Cary’s version re-places the women at the centre of power and raises the importance of freedom of speech and self-determination. However, all is shattered when Herod returns in act four and destroys a liberated and harmonious society; killing six characters by the end of the play.

It is argued that this play was written as a closet drama, a play for recital and not intended for public performance. Cary’s play however includes high points of action, such as a sword fight, and physical gestures that indicates a dramatic awareness.

It is important to remember that women were not expected to aspire to the stage in any respect, because of this it is more likely that the play was constructed with the public sphere in mind but within it’s realistic limits.

The Tragedy of Mariam has since been seen as a bridge between the traditional closet drama and the new emerging style of Tragedies in the Renaissance era.

In 1606 Sir Henry Cary returned to his wife, they set up a home, and she gave birth to eleven children throughout their marriage. By 1622 Sir Henry Cary was made Lord Deputy of Ireland and he moved his family over with him.

One of Sir Henry’s duties was to persecute the Catholic resistance, Elizabeth Cary however focused her attention on community projects across the country. It is here that Elizabeth Cary felt her affinity towards Catholicism grow. She returned to England in 1625 and by 1626 had converted to Catholicism publicly; much to the disgust of Charles I.

Elizabeth Cary was cut-off from her husband, disinherited by her father and removed from her children. During this time she did gain support from highly influential women at court, including the King’s Mother and Sister.

Thanks to her fluency in French she also become acquainted with Queen Henrietta Maria; to whom she dedicated her later translation of The Reply of the Most Illustrious Cardinal of Peron.

After Sir Henry Cary’s death in 1633, Elizabeth Cary determined that her youngest children would be converted to Catholicism. This was not much of a problem for her four daughters who were sent to her and went on to become nuns at the Benedictine convent of Cumbria.

It was only when she tried to convert her boys that problems began. She was examined under the full force of the law and threatened with imprisonment in The Tower of London; luckily this was never carried out. Two of her youngest sons were converted regardless and took Holy Orders by their Mother’s death.

Elizabeth Cary lived to see her work published, her translations circulated and six of her children converted and were accepted into the heart of the Catholic church. She died in 1639 and was given a Catholic burial in Henrietta Maria’s chapel in Somerset House.

Image via Fresh Ink