-Literary and Artistic Analysis-
Elizabeth I was a powerful and a well-respected woman presiding over her
people with love and care. During her rule, she was able to awaken
strong feelings in her people, including those who saw her reign as beneficial
to the country and those who believed she was not worthy of the English
crown. During the period known as the Golden Age of English literature,
many poets, playwrights and fiction writers put their hearts and souls
in their praising poems, books, and plays dedicated to the Queen of England
Creating literary masterpieces of poetry and drama, great writers of the
Elizabethan Age applauded the Queen for her great sovereignty. Even
many years later, she continues to arouse such feelings among numerous
biographers, historians, and even movie directors. Moving back
in time, Shekhar Kapur’s film
Elizabeth, Edward Spenser’s Faerie
Queene, and Walter Ralegh’s
Discovery of Guiana, as well as
numerous portraits of the Queen, present Elizabeth I as one of the most
www.luminarium.org powerful and effective rulers in British history. They portray Elizabeth I, Queen of England, as the Queen of Fairyland, Virgin Mary, Goddess Diana, Gloriana, and Amazon.
Directed by Shekhar Kapur, the film Elizabeth is an epic story of
the woman who gave her name to the age she ruled in. The movie, starring
Cate Blanchett in the title role, is a remarkable blend of suspense, romance,
and personal drama. Although fascinating to watch and follow the
story of a girl becoming a woman, and of a woman becoming a queen, according
to The New York Times’ review, Kapur’s film “concerns itself with
elaborate appearances, anachronistically modern flourishes, Roman Catholic-Protestant
intrigue, the difficulty of resolving career with personal life and the
small matter of Elizabethan history” (Maslin
16). The director seems to focus more on the personal, court
life of Elizabeth than on British history. For viewers seeing the
movie for the first time without any historical background, it seems almost
impossible to know what is happening. Kapur cannot “decide if he's
making an art movie or a melodrama, an opera or a soap opera” (Giles
88). The screenplay provides the viewers with a series
of conspiracies against the Queen. During one of the festivals, she
survives an assassination attempt, when Mary of Guise, played by Fanny
Ardant, sends her a poisoned dress. Instead of Elizabeth’s, it claims
the life of one of her attendants, who could not resist trying on the dress.
Elizabeth sends Sir Francis Walsingham to Scotland, where he first seduces
Mary, and then murders her in bed. This did not take place in history.
In reality, Elizabeth convicted Mary of conspiracies and sentenced her
to the axe
(Weir 79). Shekhar Kapur, however, presents history in his own image, as he would wish things happened. Also, by switching his characters around, he does not make it easy for the viewers, unfamiliar with the Queen, her policies, and England’s conflicts of the time, to figure out who is who.
The film follows Elizabeth’s reign to the year 1573, when she proclaims that she is married to her nation. In preparation for the last scene, Elizabeth’s ladies cut her long, red hair and put a lot of makeup on her face. To imitate a naturally pale skin, her contemporaries spread whiteners on her face and colored her lips bright red. For such ‘painting,’ as well as, in everyday life, Elizabeth’s attendants used heavy cosmetics made of borax, alum, powdered eggshell and oil (Thomas 131). All of this was done to make the Queen of England appear as an icon, as the Virgin Queen. “I have become a virgin” is the last statement she makes to her people in her final entry. With this in their minds, the English see the Queen as a symbolic equivalent of the Blessed Virgin Mary. David Rooney noted in Variety that Elizabeth creates “a persona for herself as a holy deity to be adored by her people” (Webb 139). In Protestant England, Catholics had lost the beautiful traditions of their old religion; however, they translated their devotion to the Virgin Mary into love of Queen Elizabeth, Holy Mother of England.
The Queen is also presented as the Sacred Virgin in numerous portraits. One of them is “The Ermine Portrait” (seen on the right) painted by Nicholas Hilliard in 1585. In a black fur-trimmed velvet gown with gold embroidery and an enormous number of rubies, rare black pearls, and other jewels embellishing her clothing, Elizabeth looks like an independent monarch, in whom the English can find love and protection. In the painting, an ermine perches on the Virgin Queen’s sleeve, symbolizing purity of heart and chastity. The animal represents Elizabeth as being sinless, signifying Queen’s image of the Virgin Mary.
Another genuine tribute to the successful and popular Queen was made in
“The Rainbow Portrait” by an unknown artist around 1600’s. Elizabeth,
presented as the Goddess Gloriana, Queen of Love and Beauty, is wrapped
silk, woven gold, and ropes of pearls. Holding the rainbow, she makes
herself look as if she was the source of light. Her robe is decorated
with lots of human eyes
and ears suggesting that Elizabeth is all-seeing and all-hearing.
The serpent embroidered on the sleeve of her dress is a symbol of wisdom,
and the heart hanging from his mouth is a symbol of passions. The
Queen had it all; she ruled the passions of her heart through her enormous
wisdom. S.P. Cerasano and Marion Wynne-Davies believe that “The Rainbow
Portrait” is “as true as the mirror which reflected [Elizabeth’s] private
self” (Cerasano 2). A powerful image
of female authority, regal magnificence, and national pride, Gloriana,
as Elizabeth was called, put a distinctive mark on the collective life
of an era of great national achievement.
The image of Elizabeth as Gloriana is also clearly seen in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, an elaborate allegory written in honor of Queen of England. Although she never appears in the poem, she is the focus of it, and her castle is the ultimate goal of many characters in Faerie Queene. Spenser explains his purpose in writing the epic in a letter to his friend, as well as a soldier, poet, courtier, and one of the best known men in England, Sir Walter Ralegh:
Faery Queene I meane glory in my generall intention, but in my particular
I conceiue the most excellent and glorious person of our soueraine the Queene,
and her kingdome in Faery land. And yet in some places els I do otherwise shadow
her. For considering she beareth two persons, the one of a most royall Queene or
Empresse, the other of a most vertuous and beautifull Lady, this latter part in some
places I doe ezpresse in Belphoebe, fashioning her name according to your owne
excellent conceipt of Cynthia.
(University of Oregon)
Edmund Spenser praises Elizabeth in Faerie Queene. To him, she is the greatest queen, for whom his allegory is dedicated. Elizabeth is like two separate being; she is royal, yet beautiful and virtuous individual. Spenser gives his events and characters a specific symbolic meaning, and he does the same with his own monarch, Elizabeth. He uses lots of metaphors, which clearly seem to be addressed to the Queen, addressing her as the engulfing Amazon and the nurturing virgin (Spenser 2.Proem.2). Honoring the Queen of Fairyland, Edmund Spenser refers to his dear monarch as ‘Gloriana,’ and ‘Belphoebe,’ the virgin huntress, who is later compared with Penthesilea and the goddess Diana:
Such as Diana by the sandie shore
Of swift Eurotas, or on Cynthus greene,
Where all the Nymphes have her unwares folklore,
Wandreth alone with bow and arrowes keene,
To seeke her game: Or as that famous Queene
Of Amazons, whom Pyrrhus did destroy,
The day that first of Priame she was seene,
Did shew her selfe in great triumphant joy,
To succour the weake state of sad afflicted Troy.
Through her entire life, Queen Elizabeth cultivated the image of herself as the Virgin Queen, and she was said to equal the Greek and Roman goddesses. Having chaste and fair Diana’s virtue, Athena’s wisdom, and strength and power of the Amazons, the author honors the Queen of Fairyland and portrays her as the ideal woman.
Elizabeth I as the ideal female is also the focus of Sir Walter Ralegh’s Discovery of Guiana (c. 1592). In it, just like Edmund Spenser, he compares the Queen to the Amazons. Advising Elizabeth to undertake a conquest of Guiana, Ralegh says:
Her Majesty heereby shall confirme and strengthen the opinions
of al nations, as touching her great and princely actions.
And where the south border of Guiana reacheth to the Dominion
and Empire of the Amazones, those women shall heereby heare
the name of a virgin, which is not onely able to defend her owne
territories and her neighbors, but also to invade and conquere
so great Empyres and so farre removed.
The Queen, however, did not like to pursue the Amazonian image. She enjoyed who she was, and even though she constantly admitted being a naturally frail woman, she had a lot of strength eriving from the love of her people, the virtue of her lineage, and the will of God. Moreover, as a female ruler, Elizabeth had courage and enormous potency to overcome the sexism of the era.
Elizabeth I, Queen of England, presided over the country undergoing a cultural
Renaissance. Deeply caring about her people, she was loved and respected
in return, as well as praised in numerous plays, poems, dramas, and paintings.
Edmund Spenser ‘s Faerie Queene and Sir Walter Ralegh’s Discovery
of Guiana are only few literary works of the era portraying Elizabeth
as a powerful leader respected by her people. Spenser in his allegory presents the Queen as the Amazon, fair Diana, nurturing virgin, and the Holy Mother of England truly devoted to the English. Nicholas Hilliard’s "Ermine Portrait" and Shekhar Kapur’s film Elizabeth also portray her as a pure lady, like the Virgin Mary. Walter Ralegh sees Elizabeth as the Amazon, whose characteristics are equal to those of the men, and an unknown artist of "The Rainbow Portrait" presents her as Gloriana, symbol of all-knowing goddess. Elizabeth’s reign was ushering in a new golden age of peace and stability. She always realized that she owed her own survival to the love of her people and that the government would thrive only with their goodwill. Cultivating the image of herself as the Virgin Queen along with the myths of Good Queen Bess and Gloriana, she surrendered her humanity and became an icon for her age as clearly seen in the film. Elizabeth I, Queen of England, was honored during her reign, and even today, four hundred years after her death, we still honor her name by giving it to the Elizabethan Age that was in part her creation.