‘The Cess of Majesty Dies Not Alone’: Nostalgia for Elizabeth I in English Renaissance Theatre
Plays are nearly always political. This assertion should not only be seen as true but also self-evident. By their very nature, pieces of drama are inevitably concerned with politics. The question is not if a play is political but rather to what extent does its political underpinning pervade into the drama. There are two aspects in which a play can hold political value, one teleological (its purpose) and the other etiological (its cause). The latter is what makes all plays political. Any piece of theatre devised by someone participating in a society with a political system will inevitably be influenced by that system and thus will have some political value, even if only to shed some light on the politics of its time. The former manifests itself in a conscious decision by the playwright to give their work political meaning. It is as a result of both of these aspects of theatre that the perception of Queen Elizabeth I (and her court) can be deduced through analysis of plays written during and after her reign. Elizabeth, however, is especially pervasive in English Renaissance theatre due to her distinctive features, which set her apart from predecessors and successors alike. She was a strong female leader, who claimed to have the ‘body of a weak, feeble woman [but] the heart and stomach of a king.’ She was a queen who had brought England victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588, had helped steer England through economic turmoil, and had encouraged English exploration which saw the origins of the idea of a ‘British Empire’. However, in her later years, she was a symbol of English fragility and instability. An ageing monarch with no husband or heirs, the chance of her death with no obvious successor and the inevitable political ramifications that would follow sparked an uneasy trepidation for the future which penetrated deep into English theatre and would inspire nostalgia for her reign long after her death.
Hamlet was likely written around 1599 (four years before Elizabeth I’s death) and first performed in 1602, a year prior to the Queen’s passing. One of William Shakespeare’s most famous works, Hamlet tells the story of a young Prince who finds himself in the middle of a most villainous and corrupt court, his father (the old king) having been killed in a heinous act of fratricide by Claudius, who then marries the dead king’s wife. The significance of Elizabeth I is clearly not entirely explicit then: there is no unmarried female monarch, the play is set in Denmark (not England), and Hamlet is at best a reference to Shakespeare’s dead son Hamnet and at worst a completely fictitious character loosely based on a Scandinavian legend. Under closer inspection, however, the link between the rotten court of Hamlet’s Denmark and the corrupt nature of Elizabeth I’s own court becomes obvious.
Both courts are rife with plots. For Elizabeth I, the Ridolfi Plot (1571), Throckmorton Plot (1583), and Babington Plot (1586) were significant threats. In particular, Essex’s Rebellion (1601) saw one of Elizabeth’s closest favourites — Robert Devereux — turn against her in a bid for power. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Laertes leads a rabble of ‘Danish dogs’ against Claudius and Gertrude as revenge for his father’s death and the court is equally corrupt, full of sycophancy and conspiracy. Polonius (Laertes’ father) is a clear example of this. Although often portrayed as a bumbling idiot with most significance as comic relief, the Lord Chamberlain may be more appropriately viewed as a rather Machiavellian figure whose malicious machinations (although hidden beneath a veneer of grim comedy) ultimately lead to the demise of his daughter (Ophelia) and himself. After all, even Claudius, the villain of the play, recognises the ‘corrupted currents’ of the world in a startling moment of self-awareness. In this sense, Shakespeare is very much holding a mirror up to reality in Hamlet and creates a clear parallel between the corrupt Danish court and the politically turbulent court and country of the ageing Elizabeth I. Tudor historian John Guy supports such a view by remarking that Shakespeare’s Denmark is a reflection of the rotten state of dying Tudor England. The precarious state of England due to Elizabeth I’s age at the turn of the 17th century is also reflected in the play. Rosencrantz most succinctly sums it up in Act 3 Scene 3 when he observes that the ‘cess of majesty/Dies not alone; but, like a gulf, doth draw/What’s near it with it.’ This sentiment is typical of a commonly held view during Elizabethan times: the idea of the ‘body politic’. What Rosencrantz is saying is that upon a monarch’s death, there are extensive effects which extend past the monarch and their immediate contacts to impact the entire country. Believers in the idea of body politic would certainly agree and would hold that Elizabeth I’s death with no heir apparent could throw England into political turmoil and leave the country vulnerable to foreign manipulation and even invasion. Even within the confines of English Renaissance theatre, Rosencrantz words adopt a second meaning. Elizabeth I died on the 24th of March 1603 and her death would impact English theatre for years to come, primarily in nostalgia for her reign.
One could easily look at the impact of Elizabeth I on Shakespeare’s Stuart Era works. In 1613, Shakespeare and John Fletcher wrote Henry VIII which ended with a glorification of Elizabeth I through her depiction as an infant. However, the work of a lesser known English playwright provides an equally insightful look into the posthumous relevance of Elizabeth I on the English theatre. The playwright in question in John Webster and the work is The Duchess of Malfi, written sometime between 1613 and 1614. In particular, it is the character of the titular Duchess who stands as a testament to Elizabeth I’s legacy. In short, the play is about a widowed Duchess who, against her twin brothers’ orders, remarries a man-servant (Antonio) in secret, bearing three children with him. Ultimately she is killed in Act 4 Scene 2 of play consisting of 5 Acts. This is itself interesting as, like Elizabeth I, much of the Duchess’ influence occurs after her untimely demise. There’s even a hint that she comes back in the form of an echo in Act 5 Scene 3. Before any comparison between Elizabeth I and the Duchess can be carried out, it’s worth at least acknowledging an important aspect of the Duchess’ likely influence: the general consensus is that the Duchess’ character is most inspired by Lady Arbella Stuart (1575–1615) who was imprisoned in the Tower of London after attempting to elope with William Seymour (who she married in 1610) without consent. Although I recognise that the Duchess is indeed most inspired by Arbella Stuart, this doesn’t mean that a link can’t also be inferred between the Duchess and Elizabeth I.
The nostalgia for Elizabeth I’s reign during the early 17th century can clearly be seen through the qualities with which Webster bestows the Duchess. Although the Duchess is not always portrayed positively (there are moments when she despairs and appears a victim of an unfair patriarchal system), there are various positive aspects of her character. In the face of death, she is a stoic figure who defies her evil brothers in the name of love. Some of her final words are ‘I am Duchess of Malfi still’ and she aims to ‘make [her brothers] my low footsteps’. The Duchess may have married (unlike Elizabeth I) but in doing so exercises her autonomy in the same way that Elizabeth I used hers to choose to not marry at all. The Duchess, like The Virgin Queen, does not allow herself to be made a chaste relic nor a sexual tool for her brothers. As Dympna Callaghan puts it, she is ‘neither Catholic fetish object, nor Protestant funeral monument.’ Another piece of evidence which suggests that Webster’s Duchess is meant to be an admirable, defiant female character is the changes he introduced from his primary influence, William Painter’s Palace of Pleasure (1567) which portrayed her as a sexual deviant and reckless opportunist. Rather, the Duchess is a sympathetic figure who may not be of perfect moral standing but is nonetheless rooted for by the audience. She dies the victim of a ‘miserable age’, where the law has been corrupted and the court is not ruled by its leader (the Duchess herself) but her manipulative brothers. Similarly, although Elizabeth I was able to retain control of her throne throughout her reign, she was nonetheless a target of corrupt court practises and attacks from those who she trusted most, such as the aforementioned Robert Devereux. They key difference between the Duchess and Elizabeth I is that whilst the former is killed, the latter was not. In this case, however, the Duchess serves as a contrast to Elizabeth I, who is by comparison a stronger and more successful ruler. However stoic and admirable the Duchess’ death may be, its inclusion is still — as Theodora A. Jankowski notes — an attempt to ‘contain all of the subversive aspects of the Duchess’ rule and restore patriarchal order.’ The patriarchal order may have been damaged but it is restored. The Duchess, then, is a strong female figure trapped in a world where female autonomy is shunned, not celebrated and the memory of Elizabeth I existed in a real world where her rule was thought about happily but the general view of women was one of misogyny, where the most dangerous thing a woman could do was step out of line.
Elizabeth I is undoubtedly one of the most influential English monarchs. Not only was her reign itself very significant, through the economic prosperity and the military victory it saw, but she has become a cultural icon. One of the most recognised English monarchs, she has become a national symbol of English patriotism, Tudor majesty, and female empowerment. Her influence is no modern phenomena and as is demonstrated through the Duchess in Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, much of English Renaissance theatre in the decades following her death contained nostalgia for her reign. Her memory functioned as a portal into the past, a look back at better times. At a time when James I’s court was riddled with favourites and corruption, Elizabeth I’s memory acted as a fond retrospective view of a stronger England lead by a strong female ruler truly deserving of the nickname “Good Queen Bess”.