Mariam and the Critique of Pure Reason
The young Elizabeth Tanfield was a voracious reader. Linguistically gifted, she mastered Latin, French and Italian as a girl, studied Hebrew and, according to her daughter Lucy, read ‘very exceeding much’. Poetry, theology, classical history and English chronicle all figured significantly in this reading, as did books ‘treating of moral virtue or wisdom (such as Seneca, Plutarch … French Mountaine, and English Bacon)’. Indeed, the future Elizabeth Cary not only translated Seneca’s Epistles, but thoroughly immersed herself in the realm of wisdom literature — and ‘not without making her profit’.1 What that profit was and how it manifested itself are questions one might well desire to ask Cary’s daughter, as are the related matters of precisely when, and in what circumstances and intellectual context, Cary encountered Montaigne and Bacon — and, in the case of the former, whether she read his Essays in French or in Florio’s recent English version. But that Montaigne in particular had a perceptible impact on Cary’s habits of contemplating ‘moral virtue’ seems beyond dispute. The Tragedy of Mariam, published in 1613 but composed between 1602 and 1609, illustrates in varied ways not only that Cary was indebted to Montaigne, but that like the French essayist and many contemporary intellectuals she was intrigued by the complex epistemological relations among knowing, perceiving, seeming and believing.
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