In this our land we have an ancient use, Permitted first by our law-giver’s head: Who hates his wife, though for no just abuse, May with a bill divorce her from his bed.—Cary, The Tragedy of Mariam 1
When a man hath tak’n a wife and married her, and it come to passe that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanesse in her, let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house, & c.—Milton, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce 2
Qui nescit Dissimulare, nequit vivere, perire melius. [He who does not know how to dissemble, is unable to live, and is better off dead.]—Cary, The History of the Life, Reign, and Death of Edward II 3
The best Composition, and Temperature is, to have Opennesse in Fame and Opinion; Secrecy in Habit; Dissimulation in seasonable use; And a Power to faigne, if there be no Remedy.—Bacon, “Of Simulation and Dissimulation” 4
In a range of texts and in a range of ways, John Milton and early modern dramatist Elizabeth Cary grappled with and wrote about established gender categories, received views of marriage and woman, competing assumptions about female silence and speech, as well as the fit and unfit wife. Significantly, and while occupying what were arguably [End Page 553] opposing subject positions, both writers addressed themselves to Mosaic divorce law (a problem to which Henry VIII had recently enough directed national attention)—Milton rather painstakingly in four polemical tracts devoted to the matter, Cary quite dramatically (but only most apparently) in the bold and iconoclastic speeches of The Tragedy of Mariam’s Salome, a woman who would pose her “will” (M, 1.6.454) against male “privilege” (M, 1.4.305) and “precedent” (M, 1.5.453), “employ [her] wits” (M, 1.4.296) against established “custom” (M, 1.4.309) and “Law” (M, 1.6.454). Notably, too, Milton and Cary, working in the same dramatic form, wrote neoclassical tragedies (Samson Agonistes and The Tragedy of Mariam) that take up the problem of mixed conjugal ties between “bordering [t]ribes,” classes, blood lines, or peoples. 5 Closet dramas based on Hebrew narratives (both recounted by first-century historian Flavius Josephus), these tragedies are punctuated throughout by the pronouncements of a Hebrew Chorus uttering conventional (and not so conventional) wisdom about women.
Like the dramas they composed, Milton’s and Cary’s life stories also invite comparison. Demonstrating precocious intelligence as children (with a capacity for reading that would get Milton up well before dawn and keep Cary up well into the night), each enjoyed a lifelong passion for learning; an extraordinary talent for languages (including, even for Cary, French, Italian, Spanish, Latin, and Hebrew); a fierce, always controversial, engagement with matters of religion. Indeed, both were capable of disputing any number of authoritative texts and traditions. 6 Perhaps equally noteworthy, for the purposes of this essay, Milton and Cary experienced difficult marriages strained by differences in age, social status, political loyalties, and religious sympathies. They were marriages which began (almost from the outset and quite possibly before consummation) with the lengthy separations of husband and wife—the years in which Milton would produce his four tracts on divorce, Cary a play that interrogates what Milton himself might have called “fit” and “unfit matrimony,” “fit” and “unfit” wives. 7 Not so surprisingly, then, and as I can only begin to establish here, the juxtaposition of Milton and Cary—the one male, the other female; the one an anti-Catholic Protestant temporarily left by his first wife, the other a Catholic convert from Protestantism eventually and, in effect, “dismissed” by her husband—can yield fresh insight and new debate both about and between the texts these authors write, the stories they tell, and the very different perceptions they formulate about male suspicion and headstrong female behavior, about male privilege and the “unconjugal” (by definition, always female) “mind” (D, 244). [End Page 554]
While I will not here be arguing that Milton knew or was influenced by Cary (a not altogether unlikely possibility), I...