Review of Helen Hackett's: Shakespeare and Elizabeth: The Meeting of Two Myths: Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2009

Article excerpt

REVIEW

Helen Hackett appropriately uses the word 'myths' to characterise the apotheosis of the author William Shakespeare into a cultural deity and Elizabeth Tudor, his Queen, into an icon of virginity with ambiguous masculine/feminine powers. Hackett bases her book on a provocative question: Why is it that readers and writers over four centuries have tried to put Shakespeare and his Queen into a relationship--or at least acquaintanceship--although there is no evidence that the two ever met?

Hackett, a reader in English literature at University College in London, has previously written a book Virgin Mother, Maiden Queen: Elizabeth I and the Cult of the Virgin Mary [Macmillan, 1995]. In her new book she elaborates upon that study by showing how the myths about Shakespeare have sometimes paralleled, sometimes counterpoised, and frequently intertwined, those about Elizabeth. Hackett explains beautifully the process by which such mythologies arise. The myths are affected by time and place, according to the needs of a given culture, and thus they give us a window into the culture they reflect [6]. In England, for example, stories of imaginary meetings of the queen and the author have become one of England's (and Britain's) 'most entrenched and persistent cultural myths' [3]. As the British Empire expanded its power and influence around the world, British myths represented the superiority of the empire's cultural richness. As time passed, the stories became elaborated in both fiction and history, each building upon the other until fact became inseparable from fiction.

Elizabeth's image mutated from a national icon in the Sixteenth Century, embodying Protestant England, to a passionate woman with a scandalous private life, and many lovers, in the Seventeenth Century. In the Eighteenth Century, she was envisioned as complex and contradictory--majestic for having presided over a golden era, but personally coarse and unfeminine, vindictive and mean-spirited [62-63]. From her own reign through the present, she has been seen to reflect supposedly masculine qualities of a ruler (warlike courage, authority, judgment, dominance) and the qualities of the ideal woman (beauty, softness, mercifulness, etc.) [35]. Writers have emphasised whatever traits they find useful to portray her with admirable or despicable qualities, as Hackett demonstrates through an impressive array of examples from literature and drama.

In the Eighteenth Century Shakespeare's image was in the ascendant, beginning with Nicholas Rowe's biography in 1709, the primary source of the Stratfordian story. As Shakespeare was elevated to higher levels of admiration, Elizabeth's relative status diminished [38]. In the early 1700s, she had been represented as a gracious imperial lady whose patronage refined Shakespeare's art, whereas he was portrayed as a humble, provincial prankster, endowed with natural gifts that he developed under the Queen's benign influence. But as the century proceeded, Shakespeare was converted into a secular god; whereas Elizabeth's androgynous sexuality was at odds with Eighteenth-Century feminine ideals of modesty, politeness, and sensibility [38]. The two were sometimes represented as opposing social forces--aristocratic versus more egalitarian ideologies. Sometimes, influenced by French literary tastes, authors envisioned them as sexually attracted, irrespective of the age difference.

Across the Atlantic, the Americans were adapting the myths to emphasise the lowly origins and meteoric rise of a genius, consistent with American ideals of equality and opportunity. In America, the Queen was not vilified, but she definitely took second place to the Bard. The Nineteenth Century spawned new interest in the plays and poetry, as education became available to the working classes, and women became more self-reliant. Quoting Shakespeare became a mark of prestige and refinement. Yet inquiries into the authorship began to emerge, beginning with Delia Bacon (1850) and Thomas Looney in (1920), since a gap was perceived between the content of the plays and the traditional biography offered. …