Of Chastity and Power: Elizabethan Literature and the Unmarried Queen

By Philippa Berry | Go to book overview

Chapter three

Three-personed queen: the courtly cult of Elizabeth I and its subjects

By associating a female object of desire with the transmission of political power, French Renaissance literature and art proposed a curious modification to the masculinity of its rulers; none the less, Salic law made it impossible for a female heir to inherit the French throne. Only a male monarch could perform the mystical marriage with his kingdom. 1 Much more potentially problematic, however, was the figure of the female ruler. Even now, Renaissance criticism continues to elide the problem posed by Elizabeth I’s government. Louis Adrian Montrose, who has contributed significantly to critical understanding of the complex power relations at the Elizabethan court, and who in several recent essays has acknowledged the importance of gender to an analysis of literary representations of Elizabeth, has none the less remarked that: ‘Because she was always uniquely herself, Elizabeth’s rule was not intended to undermine the male hegemony of her culture. Indeed, the emphasis upon her difference from other women may have helped to reinforce it. 2 Although reformulated in the terms of the new historicism, this recuperation of Elizabeth’s gender simply mirrors that effected by the traditionalist scholarship of Frances Yates, whose deleterious influence on views of the unmarried queen I will discuss shortly. (Perhaps significantly, Montrose has not addressed the issues raised by feminist criticism directly. Nor has he attempted to define his own relationship to feminism, as several other male critics interested in issues of gender have recently begun to essay. ) 3 Elizabeth’s presence on the English throne for fortyfour years certainly did not end the patriarchal structure of English society; none the less, in certain respects it was a radical event—and in Elizabethan literature, it was increasingly perceived as such.

Elizabeth’s reign has been perceived through the distorting lens of patriarchal attitudes, which characterize history as composed of the actions and experiences of men, and which, when they consider women at all, define them in relationship to men. Her refusal to marry freed her from subordination to a husband; although at times it seemed merely a tantalizing deferral of marriage (for twenty years!) as England engaged in

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