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Eloquent silence

“Talk you of killing?”: Rhetorical Construction of Tragic Femininity in William Shakespeare’s Othello, Elizabeth Cary’s The Tragedy of Mariam and John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi

Aurélie Griffin et Sophie Lemercier-Goddard

Résumés

Depuis les années 1980, la critique visant à rétablir la voix des femmes dans le théâtre de la première modernité a paradoxalement souligné le silence et l’absence des héroïnes tragiques féminines, qui s’apparentent le plus souvent à une forme de résistance (Callaghan 1989, 2007, Jankowski 1992, Luckyj 2002). Cependant, avant d’être condamnées au silence ultime, les héroïnes tragiques défendent leur innocence et accusent leur meurtrier avec éloquence. C’est le cas de Desdémone, Mariam et la Duchesse de Malfi qui, entre 1603 et 1613, à la scène et sur la page, partagent un destin commun : innocentes et accusées d’infidélité, elles meurent à cause d’un mari ou d’un frère fou et jaloux. Nous proposons ici de revoir l’opposition classique entre le silence et la parole pour suggérer que les deux se recoupent souvent chez ces héroïnes stoïciennes, dans la façon dont elles essaient de manipuler les contraintes morales et sociales strictes de l’époque pour pouvoir exister. La grammaire, la syntaxe et les modes rhétoriques employés dans leur plaidoyer stoïque définissent une poétique de la voix tragique féminine. Une série de tropes communs relevés dans le discours liminal des trois héroïnes produit un effet de réverbération et d’interthéâtralité qui unit leurs voix individuelles au-delà des performances et crée un modèle tragique féminin.

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1In The Duchess of Malfi, while the Duchess is secretly giving birth, Bosola thinks he hears “a woman shriek” but revises his judgement: “It may be it was the melancholy bird, / Best friend of silence and solitariness, / The owl, that screamed so.” (II.3.7-9). Antonio then enters and similarly remarks, “I heard some noise” (10). The passage perfectly encapsulates some of the misogynistic stereotypes about women and their voices, their high pitch, loudness and animality. Their voices are presented as excessive by nature, associating them with the natural world while dehumanising them, as any potential meaning is reduced to “noise”. At the same time, the passage highlights the protean quality of women’s voices, not only because of the different images they are identified with, but also because of the male character’s repetitive hesitation about the sound he has heard. Women’s voices resist definition because they exceed the norms of male speech set by patriarchal societies.

  • 1 Othello’s first performance is generally dated to 1602-1603; The Tragedy of Mariam was composed bet (...)
  • 2 All three matches are unequal either socially or racially, or both in Cary’s play: Mariam is a Hasm (...)
  • 3 The women’s murderers also hold the same morbid fascination with the means of death they will settl (...)
  • 4 Michelle M. Dowd and Lara Dodds, “Happy accidents: Critical Belatedness, Feminist Formalism and Ear (...)

2Othello, The Tragedy of Mariam and The Duchess of Malfi were created within a short temporal frame (between 1603 and 1613)1 and they share a common plot line: a virtuous woman marries down,2 an evil schemer pulls the strings of jealousy in the background, accusations of lechery follow.3 The three heroines are outspoken women who are elevated to a tragic status as they respond to mental torture and physical pain with stoic abnegation. What are the characteristics defining the tragic feminine voice on the early modern stage? One possible answer is that the playwrights strove to create an impression of femininity by privileging certain rhetorical modes and tropes for their female characters. But rather than revealing an essential female nature, it is through the subversion of these modes and tropes that the playwrights presented female heroines who moved from submission to transgression. As we contrast and compare the eloquence and tragic pattern of our three heroines, we will also keep in mind that the parts of Desdemona and the Duchess were written by male playwrights and destined for the commercial playhouse, while Mariam is the creation of a female author and a character who did not make it to the public stage. In so doing, we hope to produce a case of feminist formalist practice, examining whether a female author’s formal and rhetorical choices diverge – or not – from her male counterparts’. Our intention is to contribute to writing “more inclusive narratives about early modern literary history”,4 showing the centrality of The Tragedy of Mariam in the construction of tragic femininity in early modern drama. We will first see how in their stoic resistance to aggression, heroines manipulate a series of rhetorical tropes and modes – especially in their use of the mode of complaint – and then turn to their death speech to see how women talk back to their oppressors. Ultimately our aim is to reveal the “deadly accents” (The Duchess of Malfi, 5.3.21) that tie the three heroines together.

The tragic feminine voice

Rhetorical modes

  • 5 Sarah C. E. Ross and Rosalind Smith, ed., Early Modern Women’s Complaint: Gender, Form and Politics(...)
  • 6 Op. cit., p. 20.
  • 7 Op. cit., p. 19. See also Lawrence Lipking, Female Abandonment and Poetic Tradition, Chicago, Chica (...)
  • 8 Danielle Clarke, “‘Form’d into words by your divided lips’: Women, Rhetoric and the Ovidian Traditi (...)

3In Othello, The Tragedy of Mariam and The Duchess of Malfi, complaint seems to be the heroines’ favoured choice of address, especially when they state their initial predicament or contemplate an unavoidable fate. Sarah Ross and Rosalind Smith note in the introduction to their collection that complaint, “a powerful and ubiquitous rhetorical mode in the Renaissance”, is “very often female-voiced, foregrounding the voice and body of a lamenting woman”.5 Complaint is also defined as “a primary site for the early modern subject to express experiences of grief, protest and loss”,6 which is mostly influenced by Ovid’s Heroides.7 While Danielle Clarke has shown that Renaissance complaint was generally “written, translated and adapted by men for the consumption of men”,8 the use of the mode in a play written by a woman constitutes a female response to a male tradition and suggests that it was generally and generically construed as a specific locus for constructing female interiority.

4The Tragedy of Mariam opens with a soliloquy in which the eponymous heroine regrets her past behaviour and interrogates her feelings for Herod, who is presumed to be dead:

How oft have I with public voice run on
To censure Rome’s last hero for deceit
Because he wept when Pompey’s life was gone,
Yet when he lived, he thought his name too great?
But now I do recant, and, Roman lord,
Excuse too rash a judgement in a woman.
My sex pleads pardon; pardon then afford;
Mistaking is with us but too too common.
1.1.1-8

5Early on in the play, the Duchess of Malfi also bemoans the drawbacks of her social status:

The misery of us that are born great!
We are forced to woo, because none dare woo us;
And as a tyrant doubles with his words,
And fearfully equivocates, so we
Are forced to express our violent passions
In riddles and in dreams, and leave the path
Of simple virtue, which was never made
To seem the thing it is not. Go, go brag
You have left me heartless! Mine is in your bosom […].
1.1.430-437

  • 9 Herod had Mariam’s brother and grandfather killed so as to secure his own position to the throne. S (...)

6In both cases, the heroine’s speech exposes her social fragility and allows the audience to enter her mind. Both the Duchess and Mariam (a queen) are women of power who let down their defences to reveal their passions, using apostrophe, rhetorical questioning and reflexive interrogation. The difference in personal pronouns indicates that the Duchess’s predicament is tied to her social and political status as the ruler of a dukedom, while Mariam’s is more individual. However, the problem exposed by the Duchess is also inseparable from her femininity, as her political role forces her to exceed gender norms even in love, and to woo rather than be wooed. She thus finds herself in an impossible position. Similarly, Mariam is torn between her lingering feelings for her husband and resentment for his evil deeds.9 She identifies the erring of her heart as a deficiency of reason due to her female gender, ironically replicating some of the misogynistic prejudices of the time. Complaint is the perfect mode in which to express such quandaries as it signals women’s powerlessness about situations which both have to do with their female identities, though in different ways. However, both Mariam’s and the Duchess’s complaints function as triggers for action or decision-making: the Duchess proposes to Antonio and Mariam then chooses her fidelity to her family over her husband. Complaint, therefore, offers a moment of meditation which mirrors the apparent submission of the heroine to her fate and inability to overcome it, but then precisely allows her to transcend stasis so as to begin a course of action.

  • 10 See Aristotle, Rhetorics I. 3.3, ed. and trans. J. H. Freese, Cambridge and London, Harvard Univers (...)

7A similar phenomenon occurs with another mode frequently used by the female characters of the three plays, i.e. epideictic oratory, one of the three branches of rhetoric defined by Aristotle, which aims at praising, blaming or more generally instructing the audience about a particular topic.10 In The Tragedy of Mariam, Salome resorts to that mode to denounce the unfairness of a law which only allows divorce for men, as she wishes to leave her husband Constabarus for her lover Silleus:

He [Silleus] loves, I love; what then can be the cause
Keeps me from being the Arabian’s wife?
It is the principles of Moses’ laws,
For Constabarus still remains in life.
If he to me did bear as earnest hate
As I to him, for him there were an ease;
A separating bill might free his fate
From such a yoke that did so much displease.
Why should such privilege to man be given?
Or, given to them, why barred from women then?
Are men than we in greater grace with heaven?
Or cannot women hate as well as men?
I’ll be the custom-breaker and begin
To show my sex the way to freedom’s door […].
1.4.37-50

8The rhetorical questions force the audience to contemplate the absurdity of the situation, which justifies Salome’s willingness to defy the laws and codes of conduct of her society. This soliloquy (which mirrors Mariam’s initial one) makes the audience not only privy to Salome’s decision, but a witness to the truthfulness of her words and the validity of her reasoning. As a woman, she may not be able to change the laws, but she can call on the audience to win them over to her argument.

9In a famous passage from Othello, Emilia similarly denounces a double standard:

But I do think it is their husbands’ faults
If wives do fall. Say that they slack their duties
And pour our treasures into foreign laps;
Or else break out in peevish jealousies,
Throwing restraint upon us; or say they strike us,
Or scant our former having in despite,
Why, we have galls: and though we have some grace
Yet have we some revenge. Let husbands know
Their wives have sense like them: they see, and smell,
And have their palates both for sweet and sour
As husbands have. What is it that they do
When they change us for others? Is it sport?
I think it is. And doth affection breed it?
I think it doth. Is’t frailty that thus errs?
It is so too. And have not we affections?
Desires for sport? And frailty, as men have?
Then let them use us well; else let them know,
The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.
4.3.85-102

  • 11 Thomas Wilson, The arte of Rhetorique (1553), London, by George Robinson, 1585, p. 203. Pascale Dro (...)
  • 12 Michel Foucault, Fearless Speech, ed. by Joseph Pearson, Los Angeles, Semiotext(e), 2001, p. 19.
  • 13 For a detailed analysis of Emilia as a parrhesiastes in her last confrontation with her husband, se (...)

10Emilia is all the more helpless as she is a servant, but like Salome, she makes the audience a witness to the truth of her assertions. By speaking plainly, she embodies free speech, or parrhesia, “when we speake boldly, & without feare, euen to the proudest of them, whatsoeuer we please, or haue list to speake”.11 Her fearlessness is emphasized by her social position, which could easily make her afraid to speak her mind. Emilia’s taking a stand for women here is consistent with Foucault’s definition of parrhesia as an ethical positioning: in Greek oratory, parrhesia is not only frankness but “a verbal activity in which a speaker expresses his personal relationship to truth, and risks his life because he recognizes truth-telling as a duty to improve or help other people”.12 The ethical dimension of Emilia’s free speech is further confirmed in act 5 when she finds Desdemona’s dead body and accuses Othello of having murdered his wife, against Iago’s attempt to silence her and at her own peril.13 Her frankness is no longer the licentious speech of an impertinent shrew, but the expression of her sense of duty that compels her to reveal the truth.

  • 14 On parrhesia, its political uses and potential for hesitation between frankness and flattery, see D (...)
  • 15 Eileen Abrahams emphasizes the “freedom” achieved by Emilia in her distanced acceptation of the nor (...)
  • 16 A similar point is made by Christina Luckyj in her recent The Politics of the Female Voice in Early (...)

11Both Emilia and Salome force the audience to face facts that interrogate the lay of the land.14 They also both use rhetorical questions to state the obvious and involve the audience in their disclosure of injustice. Epideictic rhetoric thus allows them to construct a discourse that is compatible with their socially inferior positions as women, and as a servant for Emilia, while overturning that inferiority by carrying conviction.15 In other words, using modes such as complaint or epideictic rhetoric enables the playwright to construct the character’s female identities through their distinctive voices, not as the inalterable expression of an essentialist femininity, but because these build up the possibilities for social transgression by moving them from conformity to rebellion.16 The construction of a female identity through voice is thus inherently gender-fluid, a tendency that is confirmed in more explicit examples.

Gender-fluid voices

  • 17 Critics often emphasise the femininity of the Duchess’s body: see for instance Theodora A. Jankowsk (...)

12Several of the female characters in the three plays openly challenge their gendered identity, and especially the social constraints ascribed to women, by adopting explicitly male features in their cues. When Bosola arrests the Duchess of Malfi, she imagines herself as a member of the opposite sex:17

                                 Were I a man,
I’d beat that counterfeit face into thy [Bosola’s] other. [...]
Say that he was born mean:
Man is most happy when’s own actions
Be arguments and examples of his virtue.
3.5.112-116

  • 18 The Cheek by Jowl 1995-1996 production of The Duchess of Malfi chose to underline the androgynous a (...)

13The hypothesis highlights the impossibility of such a wish, but at the same time, these lines ironically refer to the male actor taking on the role. Especially given the Duchess’s male status as political ruler, owing her power as she does to her deceased husband, they might seem to take on a temporarily performative function that symbolically turns the Duchess into a man. She then switches to a general “mankind” which includes women. She had already used a similar strategy earlier when she told Ferdinand: “whether I am doomed to live or to die, / I can do both like a prince” (3.2.70-71). The masculine obviously refers to the political status of the monarch, but its choice reinforces the gender-fluid status the Duchess has occupied since the beginning of the play.18 Gender fluidity has also allowed the Duchess to overlook female modesty in her sexual taunting of Antonio (1.1.366, 378, 395-402). Her political status contaminates her being to make her masculine despite her female body both in public and private circumstances.

Figure 1: Duchess (Anastasia Hille) and Bosola (George Anton), The Duchess of Malfi, Cheek by Jowl, Dir. Declan Donnellan, 1995-1996.

Figure 1: Duchess (Anastasia Hille) and Bosola (George Anton), The Duchess of Malfi, Cheek by Jowl, Dir. Declan Donnellan, 1995-1996.

Photograph John Haynes.

14Though they do not perhaps phrase it as explicitly, the other heroines take on a similarly transgressive attitude when they confront their husbands. When Herod returns to Jerusalem and is reunited with his wife in 4.3, Mariam challenges him with a cold welcome and a dark attire:

HEROD.                      What ails my dear?
Thou dost the difference certainly forget
’Twixt dusky habits and a time so clear.
MARIAM. My lord, I suit my garments to my mind,
And there no cheerful colours can I find.
4.3.2-6

  • 19 The play’s denunciation of patriarchal authority has garnered much critical interest. See Naomi J. (...)

15The sentimental rift between the characters is emphasized by the difference between Herod’s romantic tone and Mariam’s plain speaking. While his greeting “my dear” sounds sincere, her response, “my lord”, ironically underlines her refusal to obey him. When Herod’s affection turns to anger, Mariam denounces his inconstancy: “I cannot frame disguise, nor never taught / My face a look dissenting from my thought. [...] / I will not build on so unstable a ground [his love]” (59-62). In this scene, the heroine gives the hero (or rather anti-hero in this case) a lesson in morality: she exemplifies the values of courage, honesty and fidelity, in other words the virtus expected of the male protagonist, who in return appears as weak and controlled by his passions.19

16A similar confrontation occurs in Othello, when Othello accuses Desdemona of cheating. As in The Tragedy of Mariam, the passage begins like a love scene with the characters exchanging terms of endearment (“my lord”, “chuck”, 4.2.24). Yet Othello aggressively questions his wife to make her confess to a crime she has not committed (just as Herod will do with Mariam in the following scenes). His garrulousness contrasts with her few words, signifying both her amazement and acceptance of the submissiveness that is expected of her, but she gradually rises to the occasion. She first answers with a meek “I hope my lord esteems me honest” (66) and ends with a defiant rejection of his insults:

OTHELLO. Impudent strumpet!
DESDEMONA.                          By heaven, you do me wrong.
OTHELLO. Are you not a strumpet?
DESDEMONA. No, as I am a Christian.
If to preserve this vessel for my lord
From any hated foul unlawful touch
Be not a strumpet, I am none.
4.2.82-87

  • 20 Eamon Grennan notes that even when she sings the Barbary song in the next scene, “Desdemona is neve (...)

17Desdemona’s transformation from submissive wife to defiant woman may be slower than Mariam’s, but they both transcend female modesty and choose to stand their ground in a masculine way – both embodying parrhesia. Their plain speech,20 which is reinforced by the audience’s knowledge of their innocence, signals their honesty and makes them paradoxically appear as voices of reason faced with male passions. Male virtues have changed sides to become the prerogative of the female character who reclaims them through her defiant speech. This transformation of female vulnerability into strength is nowhere more apparent than in the protagonists’ death scenes: the moment of death is indeed a crucial one in which to explore the construction of the female voice on stage.

Talking Back : Dissent and Accusation

  • 21 The anaphora, “To see”, in the next lines (22, 23, 24) is didactic in tone, conveying the Nuntio’s (...)
  • 22 Mariam prays silently (5.1.84), Desdemona lets out a short prayer, “O, Lord! Lord! Lord!” (5.2.82-8 (...)
  • 23 Ramona Wray compares the description of Mariam “unmoved” to Anne Boleyn on the eve of her execution (...)

18Mariam, Desdemona and the Duchess meet their death in very different circumstances: in Cary’s closet drama, Mariam dies an off-stage public death on the scaffold, surrounded by a “curious gazing troop” of eager spectators (5.1.21),21 while the death of Desdemona and that of the Duchess, occurring on the commercial stage of the Globe or the Blackfriars, take place in their private apartments, in the intimacy of Desdemona’s bedroom and in the Duchess’s lodgings turned into a prison. Mariam’s bloody death is reported by the Nuntio, while the deaths of Desdemona and the Duchess, respectively smothered and strangled, are performed before our eyes. And yet in spite of these different settings and methods, the heroine’s tragic path is very similar in all three plays. The three women forgive their murderers; they pray; they put on display patience and forbearance.22 In terms common to martyrological descriptions, Mariam is “unmoved” (5.1.55),23 Desdemona implores the Lord’s mercy (“Then Lord have mercy on me”, 5.2.57) and promises to be “still” (46-47), and the Duchess’s constancy is undented by fear: “I am Duchess of Malfi still” (4.2.131; see also 4.2.201). But in these death scenes, the move from soliloquy and complaint to dialogue allows the heroine to respond to accusations and defend herself in her own words.

19The dilemma for the tragic heroine is that she is to show resistance and pugnacity as proof of her innocence and self-righteousness, and yet a combative stance before death must not verge on rebellion – which would invalidate her protest of guiltlessness: a bellicose and insolent attitude would precisely demonstrate the plausibility of the accusations against her, namely that women are loud, unruly and unchaste. Their last conversations are thus set against a background of noise to further distinguish them from such clamorous excess: Mariam’s last words immediately follow the “loudly rail[ing]” (5.1.36) of her mother Alexandra; Emilia who bangs on the door to be let in seconds after Othello has killed Desdemona, is called a noise (“What noise is this?”, 5.2.85), just like Cariola who, after she calls for help when Bosola recites his death speech to the Duchess, is reduced to the same category of non-verbal sound: “remove that noise” (4.2.186) – a noise which, as we have seen, is initially construed as feminine. The three tragic heroines, neither silenced nor loudly railing, thus walk a thin line between a strong-willed defence and rebellion.

The Duchess’s rhetorical superiority

20The three women resort to the conventional trope of modesty: they are obedient, compliant and restrained. When her mother Alexandra publicly defames her so as to protect herself and escape Herod’s wrath, Mariam responds to her abuse with a silent smile, “A dutiful, though scornful smile” (5.1.52). In the final confrontation with Othello, Desdemona seems to show little resistance (“Talk you of killing? […] Then heaven have mercy on me”, 5.2.38); as for the Duchess, she welcomes death as a gift, ironically cutting her final death speech short lest her female loquacity should inconvenience her male listeners: “I would fain put off my last woman’s fault, / I’d not be tedious to you.” (4.2.212-213). However, their display of female moderation and obedience is double-edged as they manage to upturn their obvious unfavourable position: though they are ultimately defeated by their husband or persecutor, they manage to demonstrate their rhetorical superiority in this last confrontation.

21In her pre-mortem banter of sorts with Bosola, the Duchess resorts to logos, ethos and pathos to defend her reputation. She seemingly complies with Bosola’s requests but her repeated use of the imperative form (“Let me be a little merry […] Let me know fully therefore the effect […] Let me see it […] Pull, and pull strongly”, 140-216) and her rhetorical questions either awaiting no answer (“Who would be afraid on’t, / Knowing to meet such excellent company / In th’other world?”, 197-99) or exposing Bosola’s inconstancy when he presents himself as a bellman rather than as a tomb maker (162), show her dialogical superiority. Her carefully constructed speech on death’s “ten thousand several doors” (205) resorts to ornamental amplification, sententiae, interrogation and exclamation (apostrophe). When she addresses her executioners, her polite civility (“Dispose my breath how please you; but my body / Bestow upon my women, will you?”, 214-215) strikingly contrasts with the crime they are about to commit. This creates effective pathos, which is strengthened by her use of energeia when she sets them to action: “Pull, and pull strongly, for your able strength / Must pull down heaven upon me” (216-217). Obedience is turned back on its head and becomes a form of accusation against her male persecutors: she has “so much obedience in [her] blood / [she’d] wish it in their veins to do them good” (157-158), thus accusing her brothers of being depraved and sick. She uses the same strategy in her final lines: “Go tell my brothers, when I am laid out, / They then may feed in quiet” (222-223, our emphasis). With her last words, she conforms to the social feminine injunction of quietness and motherly devotion, while of course clearly exposing the barbarity of her brothers, now painted as cannibalistic monsters – her envoy will turn out to be prophetic as Ferdinand is later described digging up dead bodies in a fit of lycanthropia.

Reversing the charge

  • 24 However Desdemona is almost too smart in her response: while her line has the gnomic force of evide (...)

22In a similar manner, when Othello asks Desdemona to get ready to die, reframing his murder into an act of justice (5.2.17), Desdemona quietly but decisively exposes his fallacy. She emphasizes how Othello, and not herself, is governed by a “bloody passion” (44). She describes the physical symptoms of his affliction (his rolling eyes and a bitten lip, 38-43) and corrects his speech. Whereas Othello conceals the nature of his crime behind euphemistic phrases (“for that thou diest”, 41) and circumlocutio (“I would not kill thy soul”, 32), Desdemona speaks directly and effectively: “That death’s unnatural that kills for loving” (42). She clearly reframes her death as murder, and murder absurdly committed towards a loving wife.24

  • 25 See A. D. Cousins and Daniel Derrin, eds., Shakespeare and the Soliloquy in Early Modern English Dr (...)

23Interestingly, when the preferred form of male tragic expression is that of the soliloquy,25 the heroines of Cary, Shakespeare and Webster are elevated to their tragic status in a dialogue exchange between the victims and their murderer (or murderer by proxy). Their tragic eloquence is neither an effusive outpouring of grief that is associated with the feminine form of lament, nor an expression of anger. Mariam, in her dialogue beyond the grave with Herod, subtly reverses her sentence. Her last words, which the Nuntio reports to Herod, convey a sense of humble compliance but still hold a veiled threat:

NUNTIO. “Tell thou my lord thou saw’st me lose my breath.”
HEROD. Oh, that I could that sentence now control!
NUNTIO. “If guiltily, eternal be my death”—
5.1.73-75

24Her hypothetical structure (expressing a theoretical acceptance only to reject it immediately) expresses her innocence and assertiveness. It also conversely implies Herod’s guilt: if she is not guilty, then Herod is, and he will be condemned to an eternal death. Thus the “sentence” that Herod could not control, or overrule, has been turned back on its head and Mariam prophesizes Herod’s upcoming agony: he will later “muffle up [himself] in endless night” to expiate his crime (5.1.247).

“Deadly accent[s]”: a tragic female model

  • 26 Cary may have had among her tutors poets Michael Drayton or John Davies of Hereford (Wray, The Trag (...)
  • 27 Theatregrams consist in the “transformation of units, figures, relationships, actions, topoi, and f (...)

25The three female tragic voices of Desdemona, Mariam and the Duchess reveal a continuity of form and tropes, which is rather unsurprising in a genre that relied so much on the rhetorical training that young boys received at their local grammar schools – a classical education that Elizabeth Cary also received in her own privileged milieu.26 But beyond this sort of female tragic “theatregram”, consisting of a common narrative framework together with common rhetorical strategies,27 these tragic heroines, who rely on their eloquence to defend their character and integrity, also form a sorority as several cross-references are made between the three plays.

Ghostly voices

  • 28 Michael Neill, Introduction, The Duchess of Malfi, p. xxiv.
  • 29 Namely Richard Robinson and Richard Sharpe, both apprenticed to the King’s Men, who played the Duch (...)

26When Bosola announces his dismal task to the Duchess (“I am come to make thy tomb”, 4.2.110), the Duchess is defiant: “Ha! my tomb! / Thou speak’st as if I lay upon my death-bed, / Gasping for breath” (112). The Duchess’s scoff is also a metadramatic nod at the spectators who are encouraged to compare her with Desdemona, who a few years before did die on her death-bed (as Othello points out when he finally confronts his wife, “Thou art on thy death-bed”, 5.2.51) and who did gasp for breath as her husband smothered her. Webster’s dismal in-joke is symptomatic of his “magpie method of composition”,28 but here, not only does he deflect accusations of borrowings with his tongue-in-cheek cross-reference, but he also places the Duchess in a line of tragic heroines, all the more so as the Duchess and Desdemona might have been played by the same boy actor between 1613 and 1623.29 Visually, the Duchess combines the parts of Mariam and Desdemona: she is “stately” like Mariam on her way to the scaffold (The Tragedy of Mariam, 5.1.26, 57) and yet her physical appearance, sleep-deprived and “clad in grey hairs” (4.2.125-27), is also reminiscent of the intimate setting of Desdemona’s death, when she is woken up in her bed by Othello.

  • 30 Harley Granville-Barker, quoted by E. A. J. Honigmann, Othello, p. 312.
  • 31 E. A. J. Honigmann in Arden and Norman Sanders for the New Cambridge Shakespeare (2018) opt for the (...)
  • 32 In support of the Folio “Judean”, we may add Emilia’s mention of a very profane form of pilgrimage (...)

27Echoes and reports have a structural and poetic importance in Shakespeare’s play – to give but one example, when Emilia in the last scene calls to be let in the bedroom, her words (“My Lord, my lord! what ho, my lord, my lord!”, 5.2.84) echo and often merge in performance with Desdemona’s own cry to God “O Lord! Lord! Lord!” (83), in a “macabre duet”.30 But these echoes resonate beyond the play and let us see the ghostly presence of Mariam in Othello. In the Quarto text, Othello compares himself with the base “Indian” who threw a pearl away (5.2.345) – which became the oft-debated “base Judean” in the Folio edition.31 The “base Judean” may be read as a reference to Herod, who in Cary’s play, calls Mariam his “one inestimable jewel” (5.1.119).32 In the graveyard scene in The Duchess of Malfi, the ghostly voice of the Duchess is heard beyond her death with “A very deadly accent” as Antonio’s words are repeated by the Echo. Though here Antonio remains deaf to the Echo’s sombre warnings (5.3.21), a perceptive audience could have heard the deadly accents of Mariam, Desdemona and the Duchess intermingling in each tragedy. The disembodied voices of Mariam and the Duchess are both heard in act 5 of the two tragedies, beyond their death which occurred in act 4; though Desdemona’s murder is staged in act 5, she momentarily becomes a ghost too, when her agonizing voice is heard from behind the curtains and she gathers enough strength to exonerate her murderer husband.

Mariam and tragic legacy

  • 33 “Had not myself against myself conspired” (4.8.9). When asked by Emilia who has done the deed, Desd (...)

28A final example seems to confirm that Cary saw Mariam as belonging to a sorority of tragic heroines. In her soliloquy in prison, the queen eventually acknowledges she is the one to blame: pride inflated her confidence into thinking that Herod would always love her.33 However, her soliloquy is a masterpiece of mock-modesty. She admits her lack of humility but the passive form partly absolves her as she seems to have had little agency in the matter, and owning up to her fault is counterbalanced by her claim to beauty: “Had I but with humility been graced / As well as fair I might have proved me wise” (4.8.35-36). Mariam’s candid confession indeed weighs lengthily on her beauty, which is superior to that of Cleopatra, the wanton queen who could not make Herod fall in love with her:

That face and person that in Asia late
For beauty’s goddess, Paphos’ queen, was ta’en:
That face that did captive great Julius’ fate,
That very face that was Antonius’ bane,
That face that to be Egypt’s pride was born,
That face that all the world esteemed so rare
Did Herod hate, despise, neglect and scorn
When with the same he Mariam’s did compare.
4.8.21-28

  • 34 Doctor Faustus, 5.1.90-91, Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus and Other Plays, ed. David Bevington (...)

29In fact, as she regrets her pride, Mariam again reasserts her superiority over three of her most famous predecessors, Cleopatra, but also Venus (“Paphos’ queen”), and Helen of Troy, as Mariam’s words call to mind Faustus’ famous speech when the magician sees Helen appear before his eyes: “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships / And burnt the topless towers of Illium”.34 Mariam’s Marlovian echoes can be interpreted as an example of her hypocrisy – her proud lament appears to confirm that she may not be what she seems, as Herod suspected. But Mariam can also be seen securing her literary legacy here: she is to be ranked alongside these famous figures, and she even exceeds them as she did not launch a war. As Mariam claims her place in this literary pantheon, so does Cary claim hers in the pantheon of her contemporary male playwrights.

Conclusion

  • 35 See Lisa Hopkins, The Female Hero in English Renaissance Tragedy, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2002; (...)
  • 36 1602 is the probable year for the play’s first performance according to Honigmann (Othello, p. 350) (...)
  • 37 Gina Bloom, Anston Bosman and Will West, “Ophelia’s Intertheatricality, or, How Performance is Hist (...)

30These three tragedies thus exemplify the rhetorical construction of femininity as they put centre stage an outspoken, decisive and emotional female voice. Whether written by a man or a woman, and designed either for public performance or not, these plays illustrate how rhetoric can be used to embody a female identity that is conceived as resistance to tyranny through an authoritative and incisive voice. The three heroines’ rhetorical superiority does not derail their tragic path, which can only lead to death, but the complex web of echoes woven between them creates an enduring voice. Though Mariam, Desdemona and the Duchess are three different examples of the surge of defiant female voices on stage and on page in the early Stuart period, the close accents in their voices reverberate to form one single assertion of female power and independence.35 Our objective here was not to trace potential sources or suggest borrowings – though Cary was described by her daughters as a devoted lover of the stage in her youth and she might have attended an early performance of Othello in 1602.36 Putting The Tragedy of Mariam back into the spotlight, however, stresses the intertheatrical nature of Mariam, Desdemona and the Duchess and shows how these tragic heroines form a sorority that rely on their eloquence to defend their character and integrity. The dissemination and reverberation effects that constitute intertheatricality37 exceeds each role and creates a complex web of echoes between the three plays. Interestingly enough, though Cary’s Mariam as a closet drama character was not constrained to the limitations of the commercial stage that required women to be performed by boy actors – she may have been performed in private venues by girls and boys, by women and men – Cary yet reproduces the commercial theatre model as her heroine is eventually voiced by the male Nuntio : the Nuntio does not only report her death and describe her martyrdom, but with the removal of the quotative frames in his dialogue with Herod, he truly ventriloquizes her part, like a boy-actor on the stage, minus a female dress.

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Notes

1 Othello’s first performance is generally dated to 1602-1603; The Tragedy of Mariam was composed between c. 1603 and c. 1606, and printed in 1613, while The Duchess of Malfi was first performed at the Blackfriars in 1613. All references to the plays are to Othello (The Arden Shakespeare Third Series), ed. E. A. J. Honigmann, with a new introduction by Ayanna Thompson, London, Bloomsbury, 2016; The Tragedy of Mariam, ed. Ramona Wray, Arden Early Modern Drama, London, Bloomsbury, 2012; The Duchess of Malfi, ed. Michael Neill, New York, W.W. Norton, 2015. The quotation in the title is from Othello, 5.2.38 (see below).

2 All three matches are unequal either socially or racially, or both in Cary’s play: Mariam is a Hasmonean princess who shows her contempt for Herod’s sister Salomé when she calls her a “base” Edomite (1.3.16-20, 29).

3 The women’s murderers also hold the same morbid fascination with the means of death they will settle on (“But for the means, the means!”, The Tragedy of Mariam, 4.7.2; compare with Othello’s discussion with Cassio in 4.1 and Ferdinand’s fantasies of burning or suffocating the Duchess in 2.5). All three men behave erratically and eventually show signs of different mental disorders: Herod is delusional when he thinks he sees Mariam alive again (5.1.138), Othello suffers an epileptic trance (4.1.35-43) and admits he is “perplexed in the extreme” (5.2.344); Ferdinand is diagnosed with lycanthropia (5.2.5-6).

4 Michelle M. Dowd and Lara Dodds, “Happy accidents: Critical Belatedness, Feminist Formalism and Early Modern Women’s writing”, Criticism 62.2, 2020, 169-193, p. 177.

5 Sarah C. E. Ross and Rosalind Smith, ed., Early Modern Women’s Complaint: Gender, Form and Politics, Cham, Palgrave Macmillan, 2020, p. 18.

6 Op. cit., p. 20.

7 Op. cit., p. 19. See also Lawrence Lipking, Female Abandonment and Poetic Tradition, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1988.

8 Danielle Clarke, “‘Form’d into words by your divided lips’: Women, Rhetoric and the Ovidian Tradition”, in “This Double Voice: Gendered Writing in Early Modern England, ed. Danielle Clarke and Elizabeth Clarke, Basingstoke, Macmillan, 2000, p. 61.

9 Herod had Mariam’s brother and grandfather killed so as to secure his own position to the throne. See 4. 3. 25-30.

10 See Aristotle, Rhetorics I. 3.3, ed. and trans. J. H. Freese, Cambridge and London, Harvard University Press, 1926, accessible online at: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0060%3Abook%3D1%3Achapter%3D3%3Asection%3D3, last accessed 12 July 2022. See also Eugene Garver, “Aristotle on the Three Kinds of Rhetorics”, Rhetorica: A Journal of the History of Rhetoric 27.1, Winter 2009, 1-18.

11 Thomas Wilson, The arte of Rhetorique (1553), London, by George Robinson, 1585, p. 203. Pascale Drouet, noting that Emilia’s speech, which poet Yves Bonnefoy calls a feminist manifesto, is absent in the first edition of the play and present only in the second edition in the 1623 Folio, wonders if Emilia’s words were ever delivered by a boy-actor (“‘Sure he hath killed his wife’: Faire taire sa femme dans l’Angleterre de la Renaissance (le cas d’Othello)”, Les Archives du féminicide, dir. Frédéric Chauvaud et Lydie Bodiou, Hermann, 2022, p. 173).

12 Michel Foucault, Fearless Speech, ed. by Joseph Pearson, Los Angeles, Semiotext(e), 2001, p. 19.

13 For a detailed analysis of Emilia as a parrhesiastes in her last confrontation with her husband, see Drouet, op. cit., p. 167-169.

14 On parrhesia, its political uses and potential for hesitation between frankness and flattery, see David Colclough, “Parrhesia: The Rhetoric of Free Speech in Early Modern England”, Rhetorica: A Journal of the History of Rhetoric 17.2, Spring 1999, 177-212, p. 195-209.

15 Eileen Abrahams emphasizes the “freedom” achieved by Emilia in her distanced acceptation of the norms of marriage: “‘I Nothing Know’: Emilia’s Rhetoric of Self-Resistance in OthelloSEDERI 14, 2004, 179-188, p. 187-188.

16 A similar point is made by Christina Luckyj in her recent The Politics of the Female Voice in Early Stuart England about the diversity of rebellious female speech: “If Othello’s Emilia and Desdemona use free speech to express their virtue and contest male authority, Pauline in The Winter’s Tale plays the shrew to call out domestic and political tyranny, while Webster’s Duchess of Malfi and Vittoria speak truth to power”, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2022, p. 20. This use of epideictic rhetoric also testifies to the play’s engagement with the Querelle des femmes, as Anny Crunelle Vanrigh has shown: “La Duchesse d’Amalfi et la Querelle des femmes”, Sillages Critiques 26, 2019, accessible online at: https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/sillagescritiques.6910, last accessed 12 July 2022.

17 Critics often emphasise the femininity of the Duchess’s body: see for instance Theodora A. Jankowski, “Defining / Confining the Body: Negotiating the Female Body in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi”, Studies in Philology 87.2, Spring 1990), 221-245; Judith Haber, “‘My Body Bestow upon my women’: The Space of the Feminine in The Duchess of Malfi”, Renaissance Drama New Series, 28, “The Space of the Stage”, 1997, 133-159; and more recently Ladan Niayesh, “Feminine Endings in The Duchess of Malfi”, Sillages Critiques, 26, 2019, accessible online at: https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/sillagescritiques.7182, last accessed 12 July 2022. What we would like to suggest here is that the femininity of the character, which is indeed frequently referred to in the play (especially through her children and pregnancy), goes hand in hand with a fantasy of masculinity that highlights her political role as well as the body of the male actor on stage – making the character transgressive in its embodiment and voicing of gender.

18 The Cheek by Jowl 1995-1996 production of The Duchess of Malfi chose to underline the androgynous attraction of the Duchess in the death scene: see Figure 1. Elizabeth I also famously called herself a Prince in several of her speeches to Parliament.

19 The play’s denunciation of patriarchal authority has garnered much critical interest. See Naomi J. Miller, “Domestic Politics in The Tragedy of MariamSEL 1500-1900, 37.2, Spring 1997), 353-369; Karen L. Raber, “Gender and the Political Subject in The Tragedy of MariamSEL 1500-1900, 35.2, Spring 1995, 321-343; Miranda Garno Nesler, “Closeted Authority in The Tragedy of MariamSEL 1500-1900, 52.2, Spring 2012, 363-385.

20 Eamon Grennan notes that even when she sings the Barbary song in the next scene, “Desdemona is never out of touch with the naturalness of normal speech”, “The Women’s Voices in Othello: Speech, Song, Silence” Shakespeare Quarterly, 38.3, Autumn 1987, 275-292, p. 279-280.

21 The anaphora, “To see”, in the next lines (22, 23, 24) is didactic in tone, conveying the Nuntio’s task to make the audience visualize the offstage climax of the tragedy, but it also highlights the morbid attraction of public executions.

22 Mariam prays silently (5.1.84), Desdemona lets out a short prayer, “O, Lord! Lord! Lord!” (5.2.82-83) in spite of Othello refusing to give her more time, and the Duchess kneels to enter “heaven gates” (4.2.217).

23 Ramona Wray compares the description of Mariam “unmoved” to Anne Boleyn on the eve of her execution, The Tragedy of Mariam, Arden Early Modern Drama, p. 192.

24 However Desdemona is almost too smart in her response: while her line has the gnomic force of evidence, “loving” may be misconstrued by Othello as a general rather than exclusive disposition, and indeed he next mentions Cassio and the handkerchief.

25 See A. D. Cousins and Daniel Derrin, eds., Shakespeare and the Soliloquy in Early Modern English Drama, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2018; in her chapter in this volume though, Catherine Bates locates the tradition of the soliloquy in the female tradition of complaint, “Shakespeare and the Female Voice of Soliloquy”, 56-67, p. 60.

26 Cary may have had among her tutors poets Michael Drayton or John Davies of Hereford (Wray, The Tragedy of Mariam, p. 3). For the use of rhetorical composition and declamation in the classroom, see Lynn Enterline, Shakespeare’s Schoolroom: Rhetoric, Discipline, Emotion, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.

27 Theatregrams consist in the “transformation of units, figures, relationships, actions, topoi, and framing patterns”, Louise George Clubb, Italian Drama in Shakespeare’s Time, New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 1989, p. 6.

28 Michael Neill, Introduction, The Duchess of Malfi, p. xxiv.

29 Namely Richard Robinson and Richard Sharpe, both apprenticed to the King’s Men, who played the Duchess’s part between 1613-1616 for the former, and from 1616 for the latter, together with other leading female roles. See Roberta Barker, “‘The spirit of greatness or of woman’: The Duchess of Malfi in the Repertoires of her First Players”, in John Webster’s Dismal Tragedy: The Duchess of Malfi Reconsidered, ed. Sophie Chiari and Sophie Lemercier-Goddard, Clermont-Ferrand, Presses Universitaires Blaise Pascal, 2019, 49-66.

30 Harley Granville-Barker, quoted by E. A. J. Honigmann, Othello, p. 312.

31 E. A. J. Honigmann in Arden and Norman Sanders for the New Cambridge Shakespeare (2018) opt for the “base Indian”; G. Taylor, J. Jowett and G. Egan in The New Oxford Shakespeare (2016) stick to the Folio “Judean”.

32 In support of the Folio “Judean”, we may add Emilia’s mention of a very profane form of pilgrimage to Palestine (“I know a lady in Venice would have walked barefoot to Palestine for a touch of his nether lip”, 4.3.37-38) and Othello’s own allusion to the Arabian trees in his last speech – reminiscent of Silleus in Cary’s tragedy, who is compared to an Arabian “tree” by Salome (1.4.10). About the Q and F hesitation between “Indian” and “Judean”, we are tempted to see two options that address a different audience: the Q “Indian” (based on the playwright’s foul papers and printed in 1622) could target an audience familiar with The Tempest (first performed in 1611) and Caliban, while the F “Judean” could have been preferred for the more sophisticated readers of the Folio, more likely to be familiar with Lodge’s translation of Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews (1602), one of Cary’s sources.

33 “Had not myself against myself conspired” (4.8.9). When asked by Emilia who has done the deed, Desdemona answers with a similar sense of contrition, duty and self-blame: “Nobody. I myself. Farewell.” (5.2.122).

34 Doctor Faustus, 5.1.90-91, Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus and Other Plays, ed. David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen, Oxford, 1995.

35 See Lisa Hopkins, The Female Hero in English Renaissance Tragedy, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2002; see also Christina Luckyj’s political reading of free-speaking women during the early Stuart period, op. cit.; in particular her analysis of Emilia and Paulina (p. 33-37) and her chapter on The Tragedy of Mariam which she replaces in the context of the debate over property and freedom of speech in the Jacobean period (p. 86-111).

36 1602 is the probable year for the play’s first performance according to Honigmann (Othello, p. 350) and Wray favours 1603-1606 for the composition of The Tragedy of Mariam. A later date for Othello’s composition (early 1604, as proposed by the New Oxford Shakespeare) could conversely make Mariam Desdemona’s forerunner. For Cary’s youth and her love of the theatre, see her daughters’ biography, Heather Wolfe ed., Elizabeth Cary, Lady Fakland: Life and Letters, Cambridge, Renaissance Texts from Manuscript, 2001, p. 155-156.

37 Gina Bloom, Anston Bosman and Will West, “Ophelia’s Intertheatricality, or, How Performance is History”, Theatre Journal 65, 2013, 165-82. West and Bloom, in their definition of intertheatricality, have stressed the openness of performance, thickened by other past and future performances; see in particular p. 167.

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Titre Figure 1: Duchess (Anastasia Hille) and Bosola (George Anton), The Duchess of Malfi, Cheek by Jowl, Dir. Declan Donnellan, 1995-1996.
Crédits Photograph John Haynes.
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/shakespeare/docannexe/image/8084/img-1.jpg
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Aurélie Griffin et Sophie Lemercier-Goddard, « “Talk you of killing?”: Rhetorical Construction of Tragic Femininity in William Shakespeare’s Othello, Elizabeth Cary’s The Tragedy of Mariam and John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi »Actes des congrès de la Société française Shakespeare [En ligne], 41 | 2023, mis en ligne le 19 décembre 2023, consulté le 03 mars 2024. URL : http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/shakespeare/8084 ; DOI : https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/shakespeare.8084

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Auteurs

Aurélie Griffin

Sorbonne Nouvelle – PRISMES

Sophie Lemercier-Goddard

ENS de Lyon – IHRIM

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