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Case 11 - Literary Ladies as Playwrights

All of the women in this case were established literary figures from the upper classes for whom writing plays was another form of creative expression, meant to be shared primarily in private readings at home. Lady Mary Sidney and Viscountess Elizabeth Falkland drew on classical and biblical subjects through which they explored political and moral issues. Later in the century, Margaret Cavendish, duchess of Newcastle, wrote plays in a very personal style that explored the social roles of both women and men. She thought they might be performed, but preferred that they be read. And Katherine Philips was encouraged by the earl of Orrery to translate Pierre Corneille’s play on Pompey the Great, which was then acted in Dublin.

Robert Garnier. The tragedie of Antonie. London, 1595

Elizabeth Cary. The tragedie of Mariam. London, 1613

Katherine Philips. Poems by the most deservedly admired Mrs Katherine Philips, the matchless Orinda. London, 1678

Katherine Philips. Copy of Poems. Manuscript, ca. 1670

Margaret Cavendish. Plays, never before printed. London, 1668


Mary Sidney’s translation of Robert Garnier’s French classical tragedy Marc Antoine marks the first time the story of Antony and Cleopatra was dramatized in England. It was intended as a closet-drama, a play to be read rather than acted. Although she followed the French closely, Sidney also based her work on Plutarch’s prose Life of Anthony. The Stoic philosophy of Garnier’s play foregrounds reason over emotion, which may have appealed to Sidney, as did Cleopatra’s verbal skill and knowledge of languages. It is likely that Shakespeare knew Sidney’s translation when he wrote Antony and Cleopatra around 1606.


Like Sidney, Elizabeth Cary’s closet history drama The Tragedie of Miriam takes the reader back to classical times. Written around 1605 and set in Judea under Roman rule, this play tells the story of Mariam, wife of the tyrant Herod. She is beautiful and chaste but also outspoken and is set against other female characters, such as Salome, who have been corrupted by the political system. Believing that Mariam has been unfaithful to him with his officer Sohemus, Herod has her put to death, but grievously mourns her afterwards. Scholars have noted similarities between the jealous-husband plot of Cary’s play and the plot of Shakespeare’s Othello, written around the same time. Cary’s Mariam is the first published original play by an English woman.


Better known today for her poems, Katherine Philips also translated two plays, including Pompey, a translation of Pierre Corneille’s La Mort de Pompée that she made while visiting Ireland. It was successfully performed at the Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin in February 1663. Conflicting political ideals are represented by two strong heroines, Cornelia and Cleopatra. The play cultivated French heroic drama, popular at the English court, and also served to identify and unite the diverse Anglo-Irish and English communities with whom Philips associated. Her plays and poems were so popular that they continued to circulate in manuscript even after appearing in print. On display is both a 1678 printed edition and a manuscript edition copied out from an earlier printing.


Margaret Cavendish wrote poems, letters, fiction, and over a dozen plays. Her plays were written as conversations, and meant to be read in groups, rather than performed on stage. In them, Cavendish satirizes conventions of love, marriage, and the court, and examines many aspects of women’s lives and behavior. In her preface, Cavendish becomes the first Englishwoman to publish dramatic criticism. She praises Ben Jonson for his wit and classical learning, and Shakespeare for writing according to “Nature’s light.” Echoing the introductory poem to Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623) she writes:
I covet not a stately, cut, carv’d Tomb,
But that my Works, in Fames house may have room:
Thus I my poor built Cottage [her plays] am content,
When that I dye, may be my Monument.

When preparing this copy for exhibition, we were excited to find a hidden presentation inscription: “Mary [?last name] Her Booke Giuen by her Grace the Duches of Newcastle.” We know that Cavendish gave a number of her books as presents to friends, and also made corrections in the text, so this volume will provide new opportunities for research by scholars. Learn more about this discovery.


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