Grieving Women in Hamlet and The Tragedy of Mariam
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I explore how two early modern plays, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Elizabeth Cary’s The Tragedy of Mariam, depict grief as feminized emotion. I consider how Shakespeare uses women as mediums for grief and how Cary gives female characters power through their subversive emotional expression. First, I contextualize my two case studies by providing historical information about grief in its various forms, including contemporary medical theories, philosophical views, religious tracts, and cultural perspectives. I expand current scholarship by focusing on how women are feminized through their emotions and how those emotions enable transgressive behavior, impacting what early modern grief is and does. By engaging six powerful female characters across two early modern tragedies, I challenge scholars who argue that early moderns had a strictly scientific evaluation of emotion. By exposing the various forces at work in early modern grief, I contend that grief emboldens women in subversive ways that distinguish them from men and empowers them through expression. I then focus on Hamlet’s feminized insults towards women as evidence of his own repressed grief regarding his father’s death. Finally, I shift emphasis from women as prototypes for male grief and look at the emotional capabilities of two female characters, Mariam and her mother Alexandra, who demonstrate emotional agency in The Tragedy of Mariam. By centering my research on grief, an emotion that was most commonly restricted to women, I contribute to this significant research area by arguing that women actively proscribed the early modern notions of grief, even as they were limited to this allowed outlet. Paradoxically, women redefined grief prescribed to them by men as an active, empowering emotion. Male characters look to women as authorities on grief and view women as mediums for their grief; however, women often embody grief to transgress cultural norms. Ultimately, I cast grief not as a passive emotion, but a strongly active response to tragedy, exposing women’s often overlooked, hidden power on the early modern stage and in the pages of closet drama.
Gray, Jordan A. (2017). Grieving Women in Hamlet and The Tragedy of Mariam. Master's thesis, Texas A & M University. Available electronically from