Elizabeth Cary, Early English Poet, Dramatist, and Scholar

Elizabeth Cary, Early English poet and playwright

Elizabeth Cary, also known as Viscountess Falkland (1585–1639), was an English poet, dramatist, and scholar. Thought to be the first woman to have written and published a play in English (The Tragedy of Mariam, detailed below), she was acknowledged as an accomplished scholar in her lifetime.

This introduction to Elizabeth Cary’s life and work is excerpted from Killing the Angel: Early Transgressive British Woman Writers by Francis Booth ©2021, reprinted by permission.

According to the biography of Elizabeth Cary (née Tanfield, Viscountess Falkland, written  by one of her daughters after her death, was quite highly educated, though largely self-taught. Although she had some distinguished tutors she taught herself mainly from books.

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Elizabeth Cary, Viscountess Falkland
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Self-education and marriage

Elizabeth did get a tutor in French at the age of five and according to her biographer-daughter she was speaking it fluently just a few weeks later; she then taught herself Spanish, Italian, Latin, and Hebrew.

Elizabeth nevertheless seems to have been an obedient rather than a transgressive daughter and having been married off young, to have been an obedient wife, initially at least; she had eleven children by her husband. She was only fifteen at the time of the marriage and it seems that Henry, Viscount Falkland only married her because she was an heiress.

She had read very exceeding much; poetry of all kinds, ancient and modern, in several languages, all that ever she could meet; history very universally, especially all ancient Greek and Roman historians; all chroniclers whatsoever in her own country, and the French histories very thoroughly; of most other countries something, though not so universally; of the ecclesiastical history very much, most especially concerning its chief pastors.

Of books treating of moral virtue or wisdom (such as Seneca, Plutarch’s Morals, and natural knowledge, as Pliny, and of late ones such as French, Montaigne, and English, Bacon), she had read very many when she was young, not without making her profit of them all. (The Lady Falkland: Her Life)

In her husband’s many absences –  Henry was at various times Gentleman of the Bedchamber, Member of Parliament for Hertfordshire, a Justice of the Peace, Master of the Jewels, Comptroller of the Household, and a Privy Councillor – Elizabeth was forced to live with her mother-in-law, who took away all her books.

Since she was not allowed to read books anymore, she decided to transgress her mother-in-law’s, her husband’s, and society’s will and write her own books instead; according to Her Life, Cary was one of the most prolific female authors of her time. She wrote two plays, a life of Tamburlaine and biographies in verse of Saint Mary Magdalene, Saint Agnes and Saint Elizabeth of Portugal.

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Killing the Angel by Francis Booth

Killing the Angel on Amazon US*
Killing the Angel on Amazon UK*

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The Tragedy of Mariam

Cary’s most famous work is The Tragedy of Mariam, printed in 1613 but written earlier, which may be the first original English play to have been published by a woman. It is what became known as a ‘closet drama,’ implying that it was not intended to be performed on a stage, but perhaps to be read out loud by friends; such things regularly happened in Mary Sidney’s Wilton House circle.

Mariam is written in formal, rhyming iambic pentameter, a relatively new form at the time, and a specifically English form, different from the classical and French metres. Marlowe had first perfected iambic pentameter, followed by Shakespeare, but they mostly used unrhymed lines, known as blank verse; Shakespeare’s Sonnets though, published together in 1609, do use rhyming iambic pentameter.

Mariam is the wife of King Herod from the Bible and the central character; it is very unusual for a play of the time to have a female as the sole title character – very unusual for a play of any time. Even more unusually, there are two strong female leads: Mariam and her sister-in-law, Salome – in this case, Herod’s sister not his stepdaughter as in Oscar Wilde’s play.

As in Wilde’s version, Salome is the bad girl, though not in a lustful, sexual sense; John the Baptist’s head does not appear. Salome here is more like Iago in Othello, 1604, telling lies to a jealous, dark-skinned husband about his pale-skinned wife, seeding suspicion, leading to him having her killed. In contrast, Mariam is the good girl, though she is rather too proud of her own famous beauty and she has earlier taken Herod away from his previous wife, Doris, in adulterous transgression of what was then accepted as the laws of God.


I’heaven? Your beauty cannot bring you thither.
Your soul is black and spotted, full of sin;
You in adultery lived nine years together,
And heaven will never let adultery in.

Although she does not do the dance of the seven veils, Salome is in her own way quite transgressive, plotting against her sister-in-law and insisting on a woman’s equality; the following passage sounds like a cry from the author’s own heart.

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

Again, very unusually for the time – or any time – Cary writes powerful scenes involving two strong, opposed women, with no men involved. Salome resents Mariam for having married her brother; Mariam looks down on Salome for her low birth and resents her interference in her marriage.

At one point in the play, both women believe that Herod has died abroad; Salome thinks Mariam is pleased to be rid of her husband and ‘hopes to have another King; her eyes do sparkle joy for Herod’s death.’


You durst not thus have given your tongue the rein
If noble Herod still remained in life.
Your daughter’s betters far, I dare maintain,
Might have rejoiced to be my brother’s wife.


My ‘betters far’? Base woman, ‘tis untrue!
You scarce have ever my superiors seen,
For Mariam’s servants were as good as you
Before she came to be Judea’s queen.


Now stirs the tongue that is so quickly moved;
But more than once your choler have I borne,
Your fumish words are sooner said than proved,
And Salome’s reply is only scorn.


Scorn those that are for thy companions held!
Though I thy brother’s face have never seen,
My birth thy baser birth so far excelled,
I had to both of you the princess been.
Thou parti-Jew and parti-Edomite,
Thou mongrel, issued from rejected race!


Typical antisemitism and racism

The casual anti-Semitism here is probably no worse than in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, 1590 or Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, first performed in 1605. There were very few Jews living in England at the time, probably all in London and mostly of Mediterranean descent, a small diaspora escaping Catholic France and Spain (the Spanish Inquisition had begun in the 1480s; in 1483, Jews were expelled from all of Andalusia and royal decrees were issued in 1492 and 1502 ordering Muslims and Jews to convert to Catholicism or leave Castile).

In England, Jews were not welcome either, but English Protestants mostly saw Jews as lost souls waiting to be converted rather than burned in autos da fé (not that the English were averse to burning heretics, as we saw with Anne Askew). John Foxe, famous as the author of The Book of Martyrs, 1563 also published A Sermon Preached at the Christening of a Certain Jew at London, 1578.

The introduction says that it contains ‘a refutation of the obstinate Jews, and lastly touching the final conversion of the same.’ Some people in England went even further in their anti-Semitism though: a 1569 book called Certaine secrete wonders of Nature had accused Jews of poisoning Christian wells and in 1594, Queen Elizabeth’s Portuguese Jewish doctor was accused of plotting to poison her in collaboration with the Spanish.

As for the racism that equates Salome’s slipperiness with her dark skin, echoed by her own husband’s comparison of her to Mariam: ‘you are to her as a sunburnt blackamoor,’ Cary was reflecting the racism and xenophobia of her time.

A draft of a Royal Proclamation of 1601 under Elizabeth I commands expulsion of all ‘negroes and blackamoors,’ many of them Muslims who, like the Jews, were escaping persecution in the Catholic countries of Europe; Elizabeth’s government blamed immigrants for their economic problems, as governments will, and a German merchant had been hired to track them down and deport them.

WHEREAS the Queen’s majesty, tendering the good and welfare of her own natural subjects, greatly distressed in these hard times of dearth, is highly discontented to understand the great number of Negroes and blackamoors which (as she is informed) are carried into this realm since the troubles between her highness and the King of Spain . . . These shall therefore be to will and require you and every one of you to . . . taking such Negroes and blackamoors to be transported as aforesaid as he shall find within the realm of England.

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Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

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Conversion to Catholicism

In 1625, Elizabeth Cary herself converted to Catholicism, a deeply transgressive act, against both her husband’s will and the laws of the land; Catholics were still treated with extreme suspicion twenty years after the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

The Act for Restraining Popish Recusants  (Catholics who refused to attend Church of England services) to Some Certain Place of Abode had been passed in 1593; then in 1606 a law had been passed requiring all persons to ‘receive the sacrament in the church of the parish where his abroad is, or if there be no such Parish Church then in the church of the next Parish.’

Elizabeth’s husband took away everything from her, including her children, just leaving her with one servant and tried to divorce her; since she had been disinherited by her father, Elizabeth had to apply to the Privy Council to try to force her husband to maintain her financially, but he refused, hoping to make her recant. She won in the end, though: after his death, she converted most of her children to Catholicism; four of the girls became nuns, and one of her sons became a priest.

Along with Mary Sidney, Elizabeth Cary was praised at length by John Davies – he and Michael Drayton were probably her tutors as a girl – in the dedication to his The Muses Sacrifice, 1612 (before Mariam was printed, implying he had read it in manuscript).

CARY (of whom Minerva stands in fear,
lest she, from her, should get ART’S Regency)
Of ART so moues the great-all-moving Sphere,
that every Ore of Science moves thereby.
Thou makest Melpomen proud, and my Heart great
of such a Pupil, who, in Buskin fine,
With Feet of State, dost make thy Muse to mete
the Scenes of Syracuse and Palestine.
Art, Language; yea; abstruse and holy Tongues,
thy Wit and Grace acquired thy Fame to raise;
And still to fill thine own, and others Songs;
thine, with thy Parts, and others, with thy praise
Such nervy Limbs of Art, and Strains of Wit
Times past ne’er knew the weaker Sex to have;
And Times to come, will hardly credit it,
if thus thou give thy Works both Birth and Grave.

More about Elizabeth Cary

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Contributed by Francis Booth,* the author of several books on twentieth-century culture:

Amongst Those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1960 (published by Dalkey Archive); Everybody I Can Think of Ever: Meetings That Made the Avant-Garde;  Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in the Mid-Twentieth Century Woman’s Novel; Text Acts: Twentieth Century Literary Eroticism; and Comrades in Art: Revolutionary Art in America 1926-1938.

Francis has also published several novels: The Code 17 series, set in the Swinging London of the 1960s and featuring aristocratic spy Lady Laura Summers; Young adult fantasy series The Watchers; and  Young adult fantasy novel Mirror Mirror. Francis lives on the South Coast of England. He is currently working on High Collars and Monocles: Interwar Novels by Female Couples.

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