Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Predicting Elizabeth: Prophecy on Progress

Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Predicting Elizabeth: Prophecy on Progress

Article excerpt

[T]he Tudor kings and Queens came and went about their public affairs in a constant atmosphere of make-believe, with a sibyl lurking in every courtyard and gateway, and a satyr in the boscage of every park, to turn the ceremonies of welcome and farewell, without which sovereigns must not move, by the arts of song and dance and mimetic dialogue, to favour and to prettiness.

--E.K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, 107.

Hospitable practice is about the production of fantasies.

--Daryl W. Palmer, Hospitable Performances, 7.

WHEN Elizabeth visited her subjects on progress, she could expect to be greeted by someone eminent and, usually, fictitious. Characters from classical mythology, English legends, and medieval allegory welcomed the Queen to cities and castles. (1) In a number of cases, Elizabeth found that these characters either knew her future or had predicted her arrival long ago. Prophecy occurred in a number of different scenarios during progress entertainments. When prophets performed "in person" they tended to act as spokespersons for Elizabeth's hosts and participate in welcoming ceremonies. For example, George Gascoigne's account of the 1575 Kenilworth entertainments reports that Elizabeth was greeted there by the prophet "Sibilla," who praised the Queen, predicting a peaceful reign and a pleasant stay (91). (2) At Elvetham in 1591 a similar device was enacted (102--5). (3) The most consistent pattern, however, featured recited prophecies, rather than prophets themselves. This essay will discuss short devices performed at country houses that included predictions that the Queen's coming would achieve something or effect a change. In several instances, Elizabeth encountered characters who told her a story about the place she was visiting and a deed that needed to be accomplished there, a problem that must be solved--a maiden in peril or an old enchantment that needed breaking. According to an ancient prophecy, destiny had allotted this task to a famous royal lady who would one day appear. Now, with Elizabeth's arrival, the time had finally come. Elizabeth and the rest of the audience then witnessed the resolution of this situation.

The famous Kenilworth pageantry includes the first extant English example of such a device. Upon her arrival at the home of the Earl of Leicester, Elizabeth was greeted by the Lady of the Lake, who graciously offered her hospitality and her own service. As time passed, however, the Lady did not wait upon the Queen as she had promised. One day when Elizabeth passed by Kenilworth's lake, she met the sea god Triton, who explained why: the villainous Sir Bruce Sans Pite had laid siege to the poor Lady. But there was hope--Triton knew a prophecy of Merlin's, according to which the Lady of the Lake could be rescued by a maiden "worthier" than herself:

  Yea, oracle and prophecie,
  say sure she can not stande:
  Except a worthier maide then she,
  her cause do take in hand. (103)

Elizabeth had come just in time; her presence alone would drive the evildoer away. The Queen obligingly proceeded across the bridge that spanned the lake and the Lady, freed, sailed gratefully over to thank her. (4)

Devices like Kenilworth's are notable because they incorporated the Queen into an entertainment; the lack of attention they have received is, therefore, curious. Besides E. K. Chambers's glancing reference to sibyls quoted above, the only critic who seems to have noticed the frequency with which scenarios featuring prophecy appeared is Alice S. Venezky in Pageantry on the Shakespearean Stage. Venezky notes the Queen's role in this kind of pageant: "[T]he Queen served as the deus ex machina of many a progress show, even though her participation was limited ... Her royal presence proved the solution to innumerable complicated romances, narrated and enacted, which involved prophecies dependent upon the arrival of the paragon of virtue, beauty and sovereignty. …

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