Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Queen Elizabeth

For most of his life, Shakespeare would have celebrated November 17th as a national holiday, marking the accession of Queen Elizabeth to the throne. It is hard to overstate the importance of Elizabeth's reign, to England or to Shakespeare, and there are many wonderful biographies of her, so there is no need to go into details about her life, but the anniversary of her accession seemed like a good time to pause and consider a few salient points.

The first point, often overlooked, is simply that Elizabeth didn't die. After the six year reign of her brother, Edward VI, and the five year reign of her sister, Mary I, the simple fact that Elizabeth lived and ruled until 1603 (almost half a century) provided England with much needed stability.It could have ended very differently--Elizabeth was struck with smallpox in 1563, just five years into her reign, and came near death. If that had happened, there would likely have been civil war, with no clear claimant to the throne and Catholics and Protestants each supporting their own candidate. With the clarity of hindsight, we look back and see the Elizabethan era as one of stability and continuity--Merry Old England the way it should be. In reality, it was, for many decades, a period of uncertainty, politically, religiously, internationally and even economically. It was not until after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, in 1588, that the Elizabethan Era can really be said to have arrived (and even then, fear of Catholic spies and invasions, and concern over who would succeed Elizabeth remained)

The second point develops from the uncertainty described above. It seems undeniable that one of the reasons the theater of this period was so incredibly rich is because of Elizabeth. When Shakespeare, and the other early playwrights--Marlowe, Kyd, Heywood and so on--were writing, they had constantly before them a living paradox. Elizabeth as she famously put it, had "the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but..the heart and stomach of a king." She was an unmarried woman in a patriarchal culture, yet she was more powerful than any man. She was the Virgin Queen who was a huge flirt and constantly dangled her marriage as a prize to be won (or bought). She was constantly second guessing and changing her mind, driving her council to distraction, but on certain things she was immovable. And she was incredibly skilled in how she presented herself, in language, in costume and in action. The greatest playwrights of the day grew up in her shadow, absorbed her lessons, and created a theater of complex characters that have never been equaled on any stage.

So everyone who loves Shakespeare, who has ever admired Cleopatra, Juliet, Rosalind, or even Lady Macbeth, raise a glass in honor of Queen Elizabeth I this November 17th. She helped make all those characters possible!

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