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"Teaching The Tragedy of Mariam:
To High School Students and Beyond"

by Wisam Kh. Abdul-Jabbar, University of Alberta

(June 2014 Issue / PDF)

With relative adherence to the Senecan model of the closet drama and close adaptation to Thomas Lodge’s translation of Jewish history by Josephus, Elizabeth Cary, in constructing the plot of The Tragedy of Mariam, centres her version round questions of conformation and social behaviour. The playwright raises issues related to patriarchal power, gender roles and the threats of female utterance. In an age where teaching Shakespeare is the norm in high school classes, teaching other Renaissance plays entails a shift in direction away from the narrow horizon of teaching the cannon into the open terrain of pedagogical trials. This essay proposes thematic parallels and instructive methods in an effort to explore the pedagogical possibilities of teaching Cary’s play to high school students.

The very idea of teaching Renaissance drama to high school students is not unheard of. School teachers rarely shy away from teaching plays by Shakespeare or Marlowe, however, they rarely venture beyond that canonical realm despite the general supposition that teaching Shakespeare has been an uphill battle for teachers. Leah Marcus (1994) argues that not only must teaching Shakespeare become an enjoyable experience but students should be able to “carry more than just Shakespeare with them” (112).  Rex Gibson (1998) believes that teachers must be given the chance to devise their own teaching tactics: “The professional teacher’s skill lies in the subtle and thoughtful adaptation of content and method to suit the actual circumstances and the unique nature of his or her own students” (xi). In this context, teaching another Renaissance text that speaks more to students’ circumstances and current realities seems like a worthy undertaking. Cary’s The Tragedy of Mariam can be a good case in point. It can be used by teachers through “adaptation of content,” which is referred to here as thematic parallels, and “method” which will be addressed in terms of possible exercises for both teachers and students to dynamically enact in class.

Thematic Parallels:

The Tragedy of Mariam can be appealing to high school students who are always tempted to transcend social boundaries. Arguably, Mariam’s downfall is mostly self-imposed because of that urge to transcend The heroine’s outspokenness and her assumed audacity of sharing her thoughts about her husband in public, hence, defying the socially approved role of the female as a dutiful wife, are personality attributes that young students may find quite eye-catching since these character traits may incite resistance against moral authority. Moreover, the play is one of the few distinctive Renaissance plays that may provoke issues of racial discrimination, a concern that has a tremendous influence as students in multicultural schools and societies straddle the cultural divide (Shariff 457) and negotiate social justice education.

Mariam is condemned for her verbal and social actions as she goes against the codes of wifely conduct. Upon hearing the rumours of Herod’s death, Mariam soliloquizes about her negative emotions towards her husband. She starts with a rhetorical question that initiates the whole problem of the play: “How oft have I with public voice run on?” (1.i.1). This evokes the question of defiance, free expression and its inherent dangers. It foreshadows punishment due to “transgression at the verbal part [as] proper women did not speak in public” (Quilligan 224). Students here need to notice that speaking in public about her true feelings towards her husband becomes inadvertently alarming and detrimental. According to Margaret W. Ferguson (1988), “it is precisely because Mariam speaks her mind - not only to others but also, and above all, to her husband - that she loses her life … the problem is that she both speaks too freely and refuses to give her body to Herod, its rightful owner” (296). Self-expression here can be linked to students who struggle to be vocal in class or to cases “in which the intimate becomes intimidating and the personal seeks to hide itself, which is characteristic of the ambivalent nature of communication” (Abdul Jabbar 311) as some students are reluctant to share their own personal experience in class.

Mariam finds herself in a tough situation when he suddenly reappears in Act III. She coldly receives her husband and is reluctant to have him back into her life. Unable to disguise her feelings, Mariam insists that she “cannot frame disguise, not never taught/My face a look dissenting from thought” (IV.iii.58-59). She swears, “I will not to his love be reconciled, /With solemn vows I have forsworn his bed” (III.iii.15-16). Her refusal to share her husband’s bed as she declares it in public is her gravest mistake: “she censors the wrong thing: his phallus ego rather than her tongue” (Ferguson 296). She refuses his sexual advances and rebukes him for ordering her murder. Not only does Mariam denounce her husband, but she denies him his conjugal rights and by doing so she disrupts the inscribed code of moral authority.

Similarly, the conflict between high school students in particular and educationalists or teachers falls within the paradigm of moral authority: “The examination of the relationship between obedience and authority is not new ... authority relationships in schools have changed as a result of a variety of social factors, including changes in cultural norms as well as specific court challenges to traditional school disciplinary practices” (Arum 167). In this respect, this play offers an opportunity for students to negotiate the decisions and the personal behaviour of the protagonist in relation to cultural, political and regulatory norms and how these forces function in their personal lives and shape their views about school in general as an institutionalized body. On the other hand, it offers teachers the chance to clarify misunderstandings about school regulations, policies and the use and abuse of authority and power.

The struggle between obedience and conformity should be essential in teaching Cary’s play. Mariam’s unruly attitude negates the notion that a wife is her husband’s property. In refusing her husband, Mariam is blamed for a “usurpation of authority [and] contradict[s] ideals of feminine subjection” (Raber 153). Her crime is not that of public speech per se, but it is noncompliance that is equally disruptive. Ironically, however, Mariam runs a similar ruthless exercise against Salome based on unfair assumptions in the name of authority. Although seen as a sinister presence who plots Mariam’s downfall, Salome becomes a victim to the metaphysics of class, gender, genealogical differences and racial prejudices. In a confrontational argument, Mariam addresses her as a “base woman” (I.iii.17) declaring that even her servants have a purer lineage than Salome. Mariam arrogantly compares her royal descent to Salome’s inferior background. Herod also sets her into sharp contrast with Mariam. He brings in the paradox of colours as a test of morality and since white or fair is taken to indicate virtue and black is vice then this white/black distinction stands as Salome’s “Paintings cannot equal Mariam’s praise,/Her nature is so rich, you are so poor” (IV.vii.107-108). In Herod’s mind, therefore, the binary is obvious: Salome is “oversexed,” and black, while Mariam is “fair, pure, white and chaste” (Hall 469). Moreover, Mariam’s hair and fairness is contrasted with the “sunburnt blackamoor” (IV.vii.106) evil-looking face of Salome. This racialized discourse reduces Salome’s moral worth and increases her antagonistic feelings of jealousy and hatred towards Mariam. Hall points out that those moments of social and racial implications in Renaissance drama “offers teachers a way to open up discussion of race in women’s writings as well as in the writings of male authors such as Shakespeare” (461).

These thematic parallels bring the text closer to the students’ lives and make the language more tangible. As a closet drama, however, Cary’s text read more like an essay than a drama due to the very nature of its genre and, therefore, students may not see it as a dynamic play which raises the question of the accessibility of the text. In response to that challenge, Probst argues that exercises and activities that are reader-text oriented could be quite useful in this respect: “If you keep in mind that their purpose is not to teach the technicalities of genre analysis but to bring students and text together in emotionally and intellectually productive ways, then worries about the technicalities will diminish.” (146). The second part of this essay explores in class methods that pull the text from its generic structure as closet drama into the realm of performance.

Pedagogical Techniques:

In “Teaching Cary’s The Tragedy of Mariam through Performance,” Laurie Maguire explains how it “may seem strange to talk about teaching Mariam – a closet drama – as performance, but critics frequently comment on the dramaturgical sophistication of this play” (95). Maguire points out how Margaret Ferguson and Barry Weller agree that “whether or not Mariam was intended for performance, it seems to have been written with an ear for dramatic inflection, variety and emphasis (153). Although she teaches Cary’s play in a fourth-year honors seminar, some of the pedagogical activities that she suggests are transferable to high school orientations. In her description of how the first scene is redolent with “ambivalence” and “changes of opinion” and how “the structure of Mariam’s language reveals her conflicted mind” (96), Maguire argues that this sceneis “both actable and self-oriented” (96). In this sense, a discussion of location in scene one can be performed: “Mariam needs privacy. Where would she go? Where can a queen go to be alone? A palace courtyard? A dressing room? ...  In one class I use modern props – photographs, a handmirror, handkerchiefs – to help the students see how Mariam’s wildly changing emotions could be cued by props in her vicinity” and how “wedding photographs” or “loved family photos” could be used to enact emotions and change of attitude. Students can also perform such scenes of emotional turmoil by modernizing both props and language while maintaining the intended theatrical effect.

In “Teaching Literature and Language through Guided Discovery and Informal Classroom Drama,” Gina DeBlase argues in favor of teaching literature through performance: “Classroom drama affords teachers and students opportunities to study literature by getting out from behind their desks, engaging in mutual discovery and figuring out together ‘what it all means!’” (30). The “soundscape” strategy which was implemented by one teacher with her eighth grade language arts class can be quite effective to better illustrate Cary’s text: “A soundscape is a series of sounds (using voices without words, hands, several voices speaking together, repetitions, and echoes) that collectively create a background to set or suggest a scene” (31). Students in this context can visualize and experiment with “noises, pitch, and volume to learn about the significance of tone and mood in setting a scene” (31). This “soundscape” strategy can be employed to voice Mariam’s attempts to discover her complex feelings about her husband (1.1) or when she shares them spontaneously with Sohemus (3.3.127-80). It can be used when Mariam utters an agonized cry on hearing of Herod’s return, “And must I my prison turn again?” (3.3.151). Students can rewrite these scenes using sound, fury and body language.

Drawing on a collaborative model, Brown, Slights and Terry offer certain pedagogical techniques for the students to challenge Renaissance drama: “The most obvious method is group work, which allows students to collaborate with one another to produce a (presumably) coherent presentation for the rest of the class” (61). These presentations can address thematic aspects “such as issues of abuse and victimization ... or issues of criminality” (61). This strategy can be utilized to discuss Cary’s play as each group of students shares its insights and views about clear-cut matters such as deciding who the abused and the abusers are.  A more creative approach for students to undertake is to have them present their parts and delineate their roles by painting every detail with their own brush. In other words, an effective strategy to create a link between script and performance is to ask the students to challenge the text and try to stage one scene: “Mostly it’s a matter of liberating the words from the page, hearing them and what they create ... These impromptu performances can help students realize how many decisions even the simplest of performances require” (Bamford 11). These pedagogical exercises help the students to animate Cary’s text and therefore innovatively acquaint themselves with it.

Apropos, a more inventive pedagogical strategy to approach the play is to involve students in a creative exercise which is based on “a group dramatization of scenes from the play” (Brown, Slights and Terry 61). The strategy invites students to “improvise scenes” and therefore offer the students the opportunity to become second authors: “For example, students can be given a photocopied scene from the play with the dialogue of one of the characters blanked out (scenes with fast-paced dialogue between two characters work best) and asked to write lines of dialogue for the blanked out character without referring to the play” (Brown, Slights and Terry 62). However, since the students have already read the play and presumably know the general context of the dialogue, teachers may invite the students to change one of the involved characters in these photocopied scenes, paraphrase the text using informal, spoken English and then read it to the class, or even change the tone and words of the speaker to suit their own dispositions. Another creative pedagogical activity is “a theatrical exercise in intuitive analogues” which sharpens the students’ imaginative ability by urging them to use analogy: “What would Mariam be if she were an animal? a color? food? wine? a car? an event? a musical instrument? a season? Etc? ... The intuitive exercise gets the students talking – even those who have found the play difficult – and makes them realize that they have often understood more than they realized” (Maguire 97). This is an opportunity for students to employ verbal and visual language to accentuate how the text informs the students’ worldviews.

In Approaches to Teaching English Renaissance Drama (2002), Alexander Leggatt describes how a survey has been conducted in which instructors have to respond to certain questions about teaching Renaissance drama at the undergraduate and graduate levels. When asked which aspects of Renaissance drama their students find appealing the most, issues of “race, gender ... outrageous plots and characters, sex and violence” (Bamford and Leggatt 4) were overriding, and it would be a fair assumption to trust that these same aspects will be equally engaging for high school students. On the pedagogical level, teachers can fairly be pluralistic in terms of which teaching approach to use. The eclectic method can be effectively productive and cautions against “getting too fixed in one approach or applying any approach too narrowly” (Bamford and Leggatt 4). The historical context of the play, on the other hand, can be introduced through mini student research projects that can be done in groups and then presented in class by showing video clips, making posters or through brief power point presentations. Some of these presentations can be tailored to suggest parallels between pop culture sources such as graphic novels, movies, narratives, images or self-referential artifacts and the play itself.

In “Reader-Response Theory and the English Curriculum,” Robert E. Probst (2001) stresses the importance of recognizing the link between the text and the reader:  “The literary text must not be reduced to exercise or drill but must be allowed to live as a work of art, influencing the reader to see and think and feel” (42). Cary’s play offers a pedagogical opportunity to veer the discussion of a literary text from the relatively narrow horizon of character traits and textual analysis into the wider terrain of daily issues such as racial discrimination, feminism and social norms. Moreover, teaching Cary’s play should be seriously considered because “gender imbalance” is another issue that needs to be addressed in selecting texts to be taught in high schools. Often lists of suggested texts to be taught in secondary schools are dominated by male authors and critics. In this respect, female students “develop a male perspective of understanding the women characters ... the readings need to be balanced to give young women a better sense of the value of their own experiences” (Maxwell and Meiser 234). Gender-balanced literature curriculum provides both variety and fresh perspective. In effect, given the thematic and pedagogical practices and implications, the play presents high school teachers with the prospect of taking the discussion of Cary’s text beyond the walls of the classroom.

Works Cited

Abdul Jabbar, Wisam Kh. (2012). "Suppressing Memory and Knowledge: A Self-taught Pedagogy." Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education. 19(3).  307-312.

Arum, Richard. Judging School Discipline: The Crisis of Moral Authority. Harvard College, 2003.

Bamford, Karen and Leggatt, Alexander. (Eds.) Approaches to Teaching English Renaissance Drama. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2002.

Brown, Jayson B., Slights, William W. E. and Terry, Reta. “The Witch of Edmonton: A Model for Teaching Collaboration in the Renaissance.” In Approaches to Teaching English Renaissance Drama. Karen Bamford and Alexander Leggatt (Eds.) New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2002.

DeBlase, Gina. “Teaching Literature and Language Through Guided Discovery and Informal Classroom Drama.” English Journal. 95. 1(Sep 2005): 29-32.

Ferguson, Margaret W. “A Room Not Their Own”. In The Comparative Perspective on Literature: Approaches to Theory and Practice. Eds. Clayton Koelb and Susan Noakes. London: Cornell University Press, 1988.

Gibson, Rex. Teaching Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.  

Hall, Kim F. “Beauty and the Beast of Whiteness: Teaching Race and Gender.” Shakespeare Quarterly 47.4 (Winter 1996): 461-475.

Maguire, Laurie. “Teaching Cary’s The Tragedy of Mariam through Performance.” In Approaches to Teaching English Renaissance Drama. Karen Bamford and Alexander Leggatt (Eds.) New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2002.

Marcus, Leah. “Disestablishing Shakespeare.” In Teaching with Shakespeare: Critics in the Classroom. Eds. Bruce McIver and Ruth Stevenson. London: Associated University Presses, 1994.

Maxwell, Rhoda J. and Meiser, Mary Jordan. Teaching English in Middle and Secondary Schools. New York: Pearson, 1997.

Probst, Robert E. “Reader-Response Theory and the English Curriculum.” In Daniel Sheridan Ed. Teaching Secondary English: Readings and Applications. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 2001.

Quilligan, Maureen. “Staging Gender: William Shakespeare and Elizabeth Cary”. In Sexuality and Gender in Early Modern Europe: Institutions, Texts, Images. Ed. James Grantham Turner. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Raber, Karen. Dramatic Difference: Gender, Class and Genre in Early Modern Closet Drama. London: Rosemont Publishing Corporation, 2001.

Shariff, Farha. “Straddling the Cultural Divide: Second-Generation South Asian Identity and The Namesake.” Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education. 15.2, 2008: 457-466.

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