The Irony of Having a Woman’s Voice and Expectations: Themes in the Tragedy of Mariam
Innocent Mariam’s execution shows how little society valued women’s testaments due to the triumph of Herod’s rash tyranny and Salome’s false accusations. The powerlessness of women in this society is inescapable, even for the righteous and royal blooded queen of Judea. Even though Herod had a jealous and obsessive love for his wife, he still decided to execute Mariam for fear of her impurity. A prominent theme from The Tragedy of Mariam is “women’s voice and expectations.” The irony is that the actual chaste woman’s voice (Mariam, when defending herself) is disregarded, whereas the voice of the thoroughly wicked and deceitful Salome in Herod’s ear plays a powerful role in the deaths of Josephus, Sohemus, and Mariam.
There are two points in Mariam’s journey where the theme of “women’s voice” shines through very brightly. The first is when she speaks with Herod’s advisor, Sohemus, and he informs her that her husband is still alive and of Herod’s decree to kill her if he were to die. Mariam becomes extremely angry upon hearing this secret death sentence, then asks Sohemus not to speak of her outburst. Sohemus denies her request, stating that he cannot stay silent. He then claims, “Unbridled speech is Mariam’s worst disgrace, And will endanger her without desert” (3, 3, 65-66). Whether he is referring to public speech or uncontrolled speech is unclear, yet the message is clear: women should not speak freely, speak their minds, or show (even justified) anger towards men. At its most basic form, the theme is revealed: women’s voices (even the just, royal queen of Judea) simply are not valued in this tyrant-ruled society. The second instance where this theme is prominent is while Mariam attempts to defend herself to Herod against false allegations, and he does not believe her at all- he responds to his wife’s defenses indifferently, “It is as plain as water, and denial Makes of thy falsehood but a greater trial” (4, 4, 39-40). Herod makes a complete turn from expressing his love to Mariam to claiming she never was chaste. Much like the first scenario pinpointing the theme of “women’s voice” this scene shows just how little weight Mariam’s words carry. Her obsessive husband completely disregards her denial and frames her as a “painted devil.” Mariam’s honest defenses mean nothing to Herod when he has heard from another man (the butler) that the cup contained poison, so now his mind is resolved. Once again, a woman’s word is valued at nothing in The Tragedy of Mariam, especially when compared to a man’s.
Mariam’s development from the beginning to the end of the play reveals men’s anxiety about women’s behavior in the play. Mariam begins in the play as unconstant. She soliloquizes, “Now do I find, by self-experience taught, One object yields both grief and joy” (1, 1, 9-10). She is conflicted over Herod’s death because he was her husband, yet at the same time he murdered her brother and grandfather. By the end of the play, Mariam has become constant- she greets Herod with callousness, even as he professes his love for her. Perhaps the irony of Mariam’s development is that as she grows in constancy and self assurance, it is read as inconstancy by the male characters, especially Herod. Mariam’s development also serves to depict the corruption of the system where a tyrant is in power. Herod has absolute power over everyone in his area of rule, yet cannot even reach an absolute decision when deciding Mariam’s fate- he heavily regrets ordering her execution after she is dead, then touts her purity that he previously doubted so vehemently. Herod’s erratic executions to anyone that opposes him or angers him reflects upon his rule in Judea: unstable and weak.
Mariam’s eventual alienation from her husband presents society’s expected moral values for women: purity and obedience. As Mariam shows herself to Herod as a woman who will not bend to his desires, he is quick to believe the conclusion that Mariam had attempted to poison him. The alienation reinstates the fact that a woman’s voice is worth nothing in the society as Mariam’s attempts to defend herself against slander were completely disregarded. It shows that society values a woman who proves herself to be silent, obedient, and chaste. Mariam was only one of these, so she was eventually brought to her doom. Mariam even acknowledges this as she is lead to her death when she soliloquizes, “Had I but with humility been graced, As well as fair, I might have proved me wise” (4, 8, 35-36). She admits if she had just accepted Herod’s love and accepted the expectations of a woman of the time, she would not be sentenced to death. Mariam becomes alienated and executed because of society’s moral values- since a silent woman is valued, when Mariam speaks her mind on any issue or speaks publicly, it is seen as wrong no matter what. When she is accused of attempting to poison her husband, her word is not effective and her husband immediately begins cursing her (directly after attempting to gain her affection.) Mariam’s alienation also reflects how powerless women are in the society- Mariam is virtually already dead with no means to defend herself once Herod believes her to be unchaste.
Some poetic and literary devices we can use to analyze Mariam with are allusion and hyperbole. Mariam uses an allusion during her squabble with Salome to deride her origins. She says, “Thou mongrel, issued from rejected race,” (1, 3, 30) to Salome, referencing Esau in the Bible giving away his birthright. Mariam uses this allusion to show her contempt for Salome not only for her actions, but for her non-royal bloodline. Whereas this literary device hints at Salome’s impurity, hyperbole is used to exemplify Mariam’s purity. Sohemus praises Mariam by saying, “The darkness palpable and rivers part, The sun stand still- nay, more, retorted be- But never woman with so pure a heart” (3, 3, 88-90). This hyperbole lists events that simply cannot be and claims that they are more likely to happen that a woman existing with a purer heart than Mariam. We are informed by Mariam and her mother of her purity, yet this praise from another character is a stronger hint for the audience.
Mariam’s true innocence, despite the allegations throughout the play, and her eventual death reflect that women are essentially powerless in the society. Even the voice of the Queen of Judea means nothing once the king receives the slightest notion that she breaks the stereotype the traditional woman. As shown in the play, Mariam is an image of purity and chastity, even refusing to remarry another man after hearing the news of Herod’s death. Yet because of Salome’s accusations and claims made by other characters in the play, Mariam is sent to her death. She was the only truly honest character in the play, especially when juxtaposed to her foil Salome, and she is also one of the characters who faces the ultimate punishment based solely on slander. The end of the play, where Mariam is constant in her words and actions, and her voice is disregarded, then permanently silenced. This is the final ironic twist of the play: the unroyal-blooded king who makes instantly regrettable decisions stays alive, and the royal-blooded queen who maintains her chastity and soundness throughout her predicament is sent to her death.
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