Cary, Elizabeth Tanfield, Viscountess Falkland Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Elizabeth Tanfield Cary, Viscountess Falkland 1585/6–1639

English dramatist, translator, and biographer.

Elizabeth Tanfield Cary was the first woman to publish a full-length original play in English, The Tragedie of Mariam, Faire Queene of Jewry (1613). Considered her most important work, the play was widely circulated during her lifetime, and may have influenced such works as Othello and The Second Maiden's Tragedy. Although few of the works Cary is purported to have written still exist, modern critics have found in Cary a unique response to Renaissance England informed by her lifelong struggle against religious, political, and domestic tyranny.

Biographical Information

According to The Lady Falkland, Her Life (1861), a biography of Cary commonly attributed to one of her daughters, Elizabeth Tanfield was born in 1585 or 1586 to Elizabeth Symondes and her husband Lawrence Tanfield, a successful Oxford lawyer and later Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer. At a young age, the precocious child taught herself French, Spanish, Italian, Latin, Hebrew, and Transylvanian, and translated Seneca's Epistles and Ortelius' Le Miroir du Monde. Her rebellious view of Protestantism began during her youth; at the age of twelve she allegedly found internal contradictions in Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion.

When she was sixteen, Elizabeth Tanfield married Sir Henry Cary, a knight's son and member of the Privy Council. Cary was ten years her senior, and some critics contend that their marriage was socially motivated: Cary's title raised the Tanfields from the upper middle class to the gentry and the Tanfield fortune raised Cary from the gentry to the peerage. Immediately following the marriage, Henry Cary served in military expeditions abroad while Elizabeth lived with her mother-in-law. Forcefully deprived of books by her mother-in-law, Elizabeth began writing recreationally; she completed several works during this period, including two plays, a life of Tamburlaine, and The Tragedie of Mariam.

In approximately 1607, Henry Cary returned from his military service abroad. He and his wife began living together for the first time and Elizabeth eventually gave birth to eleven surviving children. In 1620, Henry Cary was named viscount of Falkland and shortly afterward was appointed Lord Chief Deputy of Ireland. In order to finance the move to Dublin so that her husband could

assume his post, Elizabeth Cary mortgaged her jointure, which caused her father to disinherit her in favor of her son Lucius. Cary's marriage began to disintegrate shortly thereafter. While her husband tried to force Anglican rule on a large population of Irish Catholics, Elizabeth Cary's Catholic sympathies became more pronounced and she flaunted Protestant authority. When her conversion to Catholicism, which had taken place secretly in 1604, became public in 1626, Henry feared she would damage his career as a courtier and he abandoned her, taking custody of their children and stripping her of their wealth. Cary lived in semi-starvation and eventually appealed for an allowance before the Privy Council in 1627. Although the Council instructed Henry to give her 500 pounds per annum, seven months later he still had not complied with the order.

Still, Cary continued writing, including verse lives of Mary Magdalene, Agnes Martyr, and St. Elizabeth of Portugal; hymns to the Virgin Mary; The History of the Life, Reign, and Death of Edward II (1680); and translations of Cardinal du Perron. Published in France in 1630, Cary's translation of The Reply of the Most Illustrious Cardinall of Perron, to the Answeare of the Most Excellent King of Great Britaine was smuggled into England but was suppressed by Archbishop Abbot and ordered to be publicly burned. Cary was jailed by Charles I in hopes that she would recant, but after her imprisonment she kidnapped her two youngest sons, Patrick and Henry, and, defying the Star Chamber, smuggled them to the continent. By the time of her death, six of her children had converted to Catholicism and were living in France. Toward the end of her life, Cary began translating the writings of Blosius, some of which may be extant in manuscript. She died of lung disease in 1639 and was buried in the chapel of Queen Henrietta Maria.

Major Works

Cary is primarily recognized for her drama The Tragedie of Mariam, Faire Queene of Jewry. A Senecan tragedy that draws on Josephus' Antiquities, The Tragedie of Mariam depicts the relationship between King Herod and his wife Mariam. In the play, Mariam reacts to a rumor that her husband has been executed: while she regrets his death, she rejoices in her newfound freedom from tyranny. Later in the play, however, Herod returns and is convinced by his sister Salome that Mariam had been unfaithful. In a fit of anger, Herod has her executed, only to regret his action and lament Mariam's death. The Tragedie of Mariam circulated in manuscript form for years and, although the play was never performed onstage, many leading literary figures of the time were aware of its publication. Despite the popularity of The Tragedie of Mariam, only two of Cary's other writings survive: a translation of Jacques Davy du Perron's The Reply of the Most Illustrious Cardinal) of Perron, to the Answeare of the Most Excellent King of Great Britaine, a defense of Catholicism and criticism of Anglicanism; and the drama/ biography of Edward II and his wife Queen Isabel, The History of the Life, Reign, and Death of Edward II.

Critical Reception

Cary's contemporaries held her in high regard and dedicated several works to her: England's Helicon, John Marston's Works, Michael Drayton's England's Heroicall Epistles, and the sixth book of Richard Belling's continuation of Sidney's Arcadia. In addition, Cary is the subject of verses by William Basse and John Davies of Hereford. Although Cary scholarship waned somewhat following her death, recent manuscript discoveries and feminist critical perspectives have revived an interest in Elizabeth Cary, and she is now considered an important figure in the history of women's literature.