Elizabeth I: Soul of the Age?

As you know, I love the opportunity for a bit of fancy dress. “Dressing up” was my favourite game when I was little, and I endlessly bored my siblings by making them dress up, and they enraged me by only being willing to dress as Richard III (my little sister) and Lawrence of Arabia (my brother). My preferred choices included Madonna, my nursery school teacher, The Princess Bride, Wednesday Adams, Deanna Troy, and Princess Jasmine. It probably says a lot, but let’s not go in to that. The point is, when I was recently asked to play a role in a recreation of a Jacobean entertainment at an academic conference, I was delighted! My character was the Fairy Queen, which in my mind translates to GREAT DRESS. How could this be? Sanctioned dressing up at work? A dream come true. 

Thomasin  Bailey
My Fairy Queen get up

The Entertainment at Althorp was written by Ben Jonson for the Spencer family to welcome Queen Anna and Prince Henry to England. Queen Elizabeth I was dead and James VI of Scotland had been invited to take the English throne. Anna of Denmark was James’ queen, and was famous for her enjoyment of masques and entertainments.  The premise of the Entertainment is that the Fairy Queen and her elves welcome Queen Anna with music, dance, pomp, and circumstance. Their welcome is interrupted by a witty satyr who, full of sexual puns, suggests that the fairies are no more than common, mischievous sprites, and steals their thunder. He tells Queen Anna that it is really the Lord Spencer who is responsible for her welcome, and invites her to dine on venison that Spenser has hunted for her. Naturally, my first question for the director was “what am I going to wear?” The director, who had done much serious research, looked slightly concerned, so I pretended I was joking and that what I had meant was “so how’re we interpreting this role?” We talked a lot about faerie folklore in the early modern period, and its links to homemaking, childbearing, and witchcraft. I felt comfortable with this and could nod and add relevant snippets of my own knowledge to show I understood. But then, she threw me a curve ball: “so basically,” she said “you’re Elizabeth I”. 

Aside from my utter joy at being able to wear a red wig and a green dress, I was pretty perplexed. I knew that Spenser’s Faerie Queene was associated with Elizabeth I, but this one? Gradually the penny dropped. This entertainment was designed as a compliment to Anna (the outgoing queen welcoming the incoming) but also to make clear that her role was to do with (the royal version of) homemaking, and childbearing - appropriate feminine roles - and nothing to do with ruling. The grandiloquent Fairy Queen in Jonson’s skit, is revealed by the satyr as a fraud “This is Mab the Mistriss Fairy, /That doth nightly rob the Dairy”. The Fairy Queen really spends her time keeping order in the homes around the country “She, that pinches Country Wenches, / If they rub not clean their Benches, /And with sharper Nails remembers, / When they rake not up their Embers”. Queen Anna is warned by the satyr not to believe the fairy’s grander claims – his domestic description of the fairy is the true story. If this Fairy Queen was meant to be Elizabeth I, it’s easy to see why. Elizabeth had been a powerful and popular monarch, which is a pretty tough act to follow, especially for a foreign king. King James had to compete with the memory of Good Queen Bess, which is why we see Elizabeth subtly undermined in many court-sponsored Jacobean representations. For example, in The Masque of Blackness (also a Ben Jonson for Queen Anna number) the nymphs wish for transformation. The moon, a female figure on a throne, cannot help them and they must seek the help of the King of Britannia. The moon’s light points the nymphs in the right direction. Queen Elizabeth was often associated with the moon in paintings and poems, so this enthroned female figure can be seen as representing Elizabeth, and the King of Britannia is obviously James. The masque recognises James’ power as superior to Elizabeth’s, and that, at the same time, he has Elizabeth’s approval. In the cute little Entertainment at Althorp in which I played the Fairy Queen, the female power figure is mocked and sexualised by a male figure, who then takes centre stage.  This depiction of Elizabeth, designed to appeal to the new Royal Family on the block, tells us a lot about James’ anxieties about following a powerful female ruler. A sexualised, homemaking version of Queen Elizabeth is a lot less scary.

Ben Jonson, Queen Anna’s masque writer, described Shakespeare as the “soul of the age” and people are relaxed with the idea that every age has its own version of Shakespeare. We consciously reflect upon how stage productions and film adaptations use Shakespeare’s plays to talk about current affairs and contemporary issues. The way we represent the man behind the plays also says a lot about the soul of our age. Compare Joseph Fiennes’ beautiful and romantic Will Shakespeare in the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love to the buffoonish, cruel and illiterate Shakespeare portrayed by Rafe Spall in 2011’s anachronism-fest Anonymous. Both films reflected our post-Romantic belief that poetry pours from the soul and is a product of the emotions as Will (Fiennes) and Edward de Vere (played by Rhys Ifans dressed as an Elizabethan Karl Lagerfeld) poured out their art in response to their personal, emotional struggles. In other ways they couldn’t have been more different, as they were both products of their time. In 1998 we were at the beginning of a Labour government (not to mention Blue-eyed Bill in the US) and the only way was up, as the song went. Audiences welcomed Shakespeare’s genius coming from an impecunious underdog (albeit with a very Received Pronunciation accent). Fast-forward to 2011, a recession and a Tory government packed to the brim with Eton’s old boys, and the cinema going public are fed the old line that a grammar school boy from the sticks couldn’t have written those plays and they were actually the secret work of a tortured aristocrat. Blatant snobbery. Yes. The way we present Shakespeare speaks volumes about the soul of our age. The same is true about the presentation of Elizabeth I. From Judi Dench’s knowing stateswoman (Shakespeare in Love), to the double-bill of sexually incontinent bad decision making delivered by Joely Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave (Anonymous), our Elizabeths tell a story. Elizabeth in pop culture really shows up our society for the underlying problems it has with women in power.

I’ve talked about the reasons why, if Ben Jonson’s Fairy Queen is indeed a portrait of Queen Elizabeth, it might have been politic to show a subversion of female power and the triumph of a masculine figure in the early 17th century, but why do 21st century viewers want to see a subversion of Elizabeth’s power? Jonson’s vindictive, self-aggrandising, and untrustworthy sex-pot of a Fairy Queen in the Entertainment is strikingly similar to the depiction of Queen Elizabeth I in the teen historical fantasy series Reign. Rachel Skarsten’s portrayal of Elizabeth I has her wild-eyed and screeching, completely driven by her passion for Robert Dudley, ripping off her very fashionable corset at the drop of the hat. It seems unlikely that this beautiful but brittle queen could reign for over four decades (as the real Elizabeth did) given that her cruel schemes seem somewhat short-sighted in the series. Skarsten’s performance however, is clearly gold. The show has been popular with viewers and The CW has said that it will run for a fourth series after Skarsten’s injection of new verve into the show, becoming a central character in season three. The series is fantasy, featuring everything from witchcraft to Topshop tiaras, so it cannot be expected to be historically correct. The question is, why does this particular fantasy appeal? 

It is interesting that from Oscar winners to guilty pleasures so many films and series about this extraordinary monarch are so wholly concerned with her love life. Her love life before she was queen, her decision to become a virgin queen, her secret love life, her love life in old age, the end of her love life, the consequences of it: the list goes on. Is it the soul of our age that the only thing that interests us about a woman is her sexuality? Are we so stumped by the idea of a successful female ruler that every story has to suggest that her passion is her potential downfall? Can a woman only be believably depicted as wise on film when she is a subsidiary character, and well past child-bearing age? Does female power on screen always have to be limited by the Achilles Heel of not being able to control one’s emotions and / or vagina? Surely we can do better. When kids dress up as Queen Elizabeth surely we want them to be playing at running a country, speaking to ambassadors in several languages, or constructing inspiring speeches, not singing “Lizzie and Dudley sitting in a tree K.I.S.S.I.N.G!” We have plenty of strong female role models. Let’s not dress them up as something else.


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