“Shakespeare” & Elizabeth

A new book to be released soon is Shakespeare and Elizabeth: The Meeting of Two Myths by Helen Hackett; and no, this is not a book questioning the authorship of Hamlet or The Sonnets, but, rather, a work inspired by the overwhelming fact that the immortal Gloriana and the immortal Bard lived at the same time in the same London, in the same Elizabethan Age that was simultaneously the Shakespearean Age.

Of course they knew each other — but because of the tradition that William Shakspere of Stratford upon Avon was the great poet-dramatist, the many allusions to Elizabeth throughout the works of “Shakespeare” might as well be invisible.  Given the wrong author, we have the wrong lens , the wrong framework, and so we cannot see what’s right in front us.

As Oscar James Campbell writes, “The only allusion generally accepted as referring directly to Elizabeth is in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Oberon describes Cupid’s vain attempt to ensnare “a fair vestal throned by the west”:

But I might see young Cupid’s fiery shaft
Quenched in the chaste beams of the watery Moon,
And the Imperial Votaress passed on,
In maiden meditation, fancy-free.

Imagine the Virgin Queen – who was Cynthia or Diana, Goddess of the Moon – attending this play and hearing these lines, which would certainly feed her vanity.  Or might she have been offended somehow?  Whichever, the author must have felt himself on pretty solid footing with his sovereign Mistress, who was an absolute monarch with the power at a frown or flick of the finger to send a man to the Tower, to the rack, to the hangman.

“The relationship of the two greatest icons of Englishness has proved irresistible to novelists, artists, filmmakers, and conspiracy theorists,” we read on the Amazon book site.  “Helen Hackett deftly covers this story.  Did William Shakespeare ever meet Queen Elizabeth I? There is no evidence of such a meeting, yet for three centuries writers and artists have been provoked and inspired to imagine it.

Shakespeare and Elizabeth is the first book to explore the rich history of invented encounters between the poet and the Queen, and examines how and why the mythology of these two charismatic and enduring cultural icons has been intertwined in British and American culture.

“Helen Hackett follows the history of meetings between Shakespeare and Elizabeth through historical novels, plays, paintings, and films … Raising intriguing questions about the boundaries separating scholarship and fiction, Hackett looks at biographers and critics who continue to delve into links between the queen and the poet … [She] uncovers the reasons behind the lasting appeal of their combined reputations, and she locates this interest in their enigmatic sexual identities, as well as in the ways they represent political tensions and national aspirations.”

And I look forward to reading this book.  The irony is that in fact Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (1550-1604) — who, in my view, adopted the pen name “Shakespeare” — and Queen Elizabeth (1533-1603) were in fact on the most intimate terms, starting in at least by the early 1570’s after Oxford turned twenty-one and became (on the record) her Majesty’s favorite at Court.

Once we view these two giants of history in this true context, the whole underpinning of the Shakespeare-Elizabeth mythology begins to reveal itself.

Within the traditional context, however, we cannot see that the poet-playwright portrayed Queen Elizabeth over and over.  She is Venus in Venus and Adonis.  She is Silvia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.  She speaks through Portia in The Merchant of Venice.  She is Cleopatra in Anthony and Cleopatra.  She is Olivia in Twelfth Night.  She is Rosalind in As You Like It. She’s Queen Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  She’s Cressida in Troilus and Cressida. She’s Queen Gertrude in Hamlet.

Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford portrays himself as Adonis.  He is Anthony. In Twelfth Night he’s Feste the Clown or Fool — Her Majesty’s “allowed fool” at Court.  He is Touchstone, the Clown, in As You Like It.  He is Troilus. And he’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, who, like Oxford himself, puts on plays for the monarch and the Court.

There’s much more to the real story behind the myths, of course, but I wish Helen Hackett much success with this important book.  One day, when students see the true cause of these effects, they will have a terrific model to examine and learn more about “how mythologies develop.”

Meanwhile the human reality of the true story can come as something of a shock, as when we hear the Shakespearean voice in Oxford’s letter to Robert Cecil on April 27, the day before Queen Elizabeth’s funeral:

“I cannot but find a great grief in myself to remember the Mistress we have lost, under whom both you and myself from our greenest years have been in a manner brought up … In this common shipwreck, mine is above all the rest, who least regarded, though often comforted, of all her followers, she hath left to try my fortune among the alterations of time and chance, either without sail whereby to take the advantage of any prosperous gale, or with anchor to ride till the storm be overpast.”

“I cannot but find a great grief,” he writes, and we might find the same hand, same voice, in Shakespeare:

“To me and to the state of my great grief” – King John
Great grief grieves most” – The Rape of Lucrece
“And yet, love knows, it is a greater grief” – Sonnet 40
“Most worthy comfort, now my greatest grief” – Sonnet 48

(These lines are supplied by the late William Plumer Fowler in his great work Shakespeare Revealed in Oxford’s Letters, 1986.)

Published in: Uncategorized on February 4, 2009 at 1:05 am  Comments (2)  

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  1. Hank,

    I think it’s interesting to see that the brief blurb about this book at Amazon does mention the “authorship controversy” in passing, and concludes with this line:

    Considering a wealth of examples, *Shakespeare and Elizabeth* shows how central this double myth is to both elite and popular culture in Britain and the United States, and how vibrantly it is reshaped in different eras.

    I can’t help but think that referring to this “double myth” as central to both elite and popular culture alludes in some way to the core issue of the authorship debate, namely that the “so-called” factual history that has been handed down to us from this era is itself something of a myth, and as Churchill once famously is said to have said, “I don’t like to have my myths tampered with.”

    • Thanks for the comment, Bill, and for the insight. First, yes, it seems that the book does get into the authorship issue, at least in passing. The irony is palpable — the topic is the “mythological” relationships between Shakespeare and Elizabeth, but these also include the relationship between Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford and Queen Elizabeth — a relationship which is grounded upon absolute fact. And if indeed Oxford was the real author of the “Shakespeare” works, then the pervasive presence of Elizabeth in those works becomes understandable, i.e., the author was writing out of his own experience. And this, in turn, explains the mythology that developed — the mythology celebrated in the forthcoming book entitled “Shakespeare and Elizabeth.” There’s a reality, a truth, upon which these myths are based. And as you suggest, this is the core of the authorship debate itself.

      Taking it a step further, of course, the myth of the Stratford man as “Shakespeare” is balanced by the myth of Elizabeth as “the Virgin Queen.” And both stem from government policy…

      Cheers from Hank

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