Elizabeth I looms in the background of Shakespeare’s early-to-mid work like the spectre at the feast.
It isn’t solely the question of censorship: she is, I think, the yardstick for every depiction of monarchy, leadership or indeed of strong women. Remember, too, that after a frantic period when the monarch (and ruling religion) changed every few years, she assumed the throne before Shakespeare was born, and was perhaps one of the few constants in that dangerous, fluid age, until she died in 1603.
She was also a real anachronism – a woman ruler in an incredibly patriarchal society. But was she a feminist? Should she be regarded as a feminist icon now?
Marianne Novy‘s excellent Shakespeare & Outsiders provides my Quote of the Week, but in fact set in train a line of thought which required me to go searching through some of my other books. Here’s Novy:
‘Were women outsiders or insiders in Shakespeare’s time? They were both. Queen Elizabeth was officially the most powerful person in England, but she had to calculate her rhetoric carefully: in one of her most famous speeches, she declared, ‘I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a King.’ Presenting herself as specially chosen by God, she did nothing intended to benefit other women.’ [a]
I think that’s my first point. It would be foolish to describe Elizabeth in any way as feminist. Whilst there were undoubtedly moves towards ‘companionate’ rather than ‘kinship’ marriage (and this is something she was ready to exploit, herself), Elizabethan society was nowhere near ready for the emergence of a co-ordinated movement of emancipated, politically engaged women. In fairness to the Queen, she had enough to deal with in maintaining her own position, let alone considering the plight of the ordinary woman. That said, there’s evidence that she wouldn’t entertain any female competition:
She had to perform a certain kind of feminine identity, describing herself as one married to England, mother to her people and mistress to her courtiers. [b]
I’m not just thinking of Mary, Queen of Scots here, nor of Elizabeth’s ‘Golden Speech’ in 1601. Consider her displeasure when one of her favourites married: Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester got a right royal rollicking [as The Sun might say] for marrying Lettice Knollys in 1578. His wife was actually banished from court for life …
There could only be one girl in town, and that was Elizabeth.
Being a successful monarch requires a certain amount of hubris, I suspect. In Elizabeth’s case, it wasn’t enough to be the pre-eminent woman in the kingdom: she also worked hard to appropriate our deep-rooted tendency to worship the female.
The queen had a genius for incorporating the rejected symbols of the Catholic faith into her own self-image. [c]
Catholics, casting around for something to transfer their devotion to the Virgin Mary to, were offered a ready-made replacement. Perhaps ironically, or simply cleverly, she became the safe female icon in an age when iconography was viewed as blasphemous. Remember, to large sections of her subjects she would be equally as abstract as the deity she had replaced. And, pushing the irony a little further (not least in an age when lineage and dynasty was so important), one who belied our celebration of women’s fertility …
She had maintained, through Francis Walsingham, a spy network. She ruined powerful men who did not toe the line and made others waste their time dancing attendance on her in her lavish court while she dangled the possibility of marriage in front of them. She was also, let us not forget, a woman in the almost exclusively male world of national and international politics, a matter which was, for some, insufferable, despite her attempts to instil a manner of worship in her subjects by adopting, for instance, the iconic associations of that most Catholic of images, the Virgin Mary, in her various self – fashionings as goddess and Virgin Queen. She could be, like Caesar, capricious, dictatorial and ruthless, and the fact that she was good at it did not necessarily make her as popular as the official record would have us believe. [d] my emphasis
Let’s sum up then.
Not a feminist, because she did nothing to advance the general cause of women, albeit in an age when it was almost literally unthinkable. Nor a feminist icon, neither, I’d suggest: being an intelligent strong, successful woman in a man’s world – and she was all these things – isn’t enough. She didn’t really break new ground in being a female monarch, following her half-sister closely; she was effectively born into her position rather than attaining it through her own personal qualities, other than a survival instinct in a world where life could be precarious. It’s hard to see how she made the general lot of women easier in her lifetime, nor what legacy she left to future generations of women apart from the longevity of her tenure …
Still an incredible, fascinating character – but not a feminist icon, sorry.
[a] Marianne Novy, Shakespeare & Outsiders, (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2013)
[b] Brinda Charry, The Arden Guide to Renaissance Drama: An Introduction With Primary Sources (Bloomsbury Publishing: London, 2017)
[c] David Rigg, The World of Christopher Marlowe, (Faber & Faber: London, 2004)
[d] Andrew James Hartley, Julius Caesar: A Critical Reader, (Bloomsbury Publishing: London, 2016)