Iconicizing Kingship in Elizabethan England: Strategic Acting by Queen Elizabeth I

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ABSTRACT

Renaissance England is often discussed in the context of theatre and theatrical acting. The fact is that Renaissance monarchs, too, viewed kingship in terms of theatrical display and public performance. Such is the nature of royalty presented by King James I in Basilicon Doron. Queen Elizabeth I was playing all her life. Faced with the problem of her femininity in the world of men, as well as her ambivalent hereditary rights as a member of the Tudor dynasty, she focused on legitimizing her reign through playing different roles--she played the fearful king, the loving queen, she even played Virgin Mary. But Elizabeth emerges as the most stunning actress when she plays herself. On her summer visit to Wanstead in 1578 she took an active part in the pageant "The lady of May", playing herself, "Good Queen Bess", which Sir Philip Sidney depicted in his pastoral romance The lady of May. In this way, Elizabeth became her own icon. This paper provides instances of the Queen's political role play in a historical and socio-cultural context of the time.

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Renaissance monarchs perceived kingship as theatre and play, pointing out the public character of their office. King James I, Elizabeth's successor, described the nature of royalty in his Basilicon Doron, a royal treatise on kingship dedicated to his son. In an address to the Reader we learn that

[k]ings being publike persons, by reasons of their office and authority, are as it were set ... upon a publike stage, in the sight of all the people; where all the beholders eyes are attentively bent to looke and pry in the least circumstance of their secretest drifts: Which should make Kings the more carefull not to harbour the secretest thought in their minde, but such as in the owne time they shall not be ashamed openly to avouch ... (Basilicon Doron, 202).

King James alludes to the metaphorical stage or scaffold on which kings are put and where they are "in the sight of all the people". As public persons they are put on display, and they are judged by the critical eyes of their citizens. Supporting the favourable royal image through public entries and processions since medieval times has been a vital part of English kings' reign. Beginning with Henry VII, monarchs displayed themselves to their people, and manifested the grandeur of majesty in, for example, attending royal progresses. In the Renaissance, public self-exhibition by kings evolved into a modern way of ruling, the "Machiavellian" policy of theatrical display, where kings can manipulate their audiences' reactions, where they create their own legend. Politics and theatre were closely connected in the Renaissance England, where, to quote David Scott Kastan (1991: 246), "the theatricalized world of Elizabethan politics" and "the politicized world of the Elizabethan theatre" intermingled. Power is most effectively exercised by a king when it is "shown" in public through theatrical staging, which was also the case in the Elizabethan politics, which involved spectacular performance, acting and role playing.

Elizabeth I began her reign in 1558, and on 15 January 1559 she was officially crowned as the English queen. Her life, as the daughter of king Henry VIII, heavily influenced her kingship. From childhood Elizabeth was straggling with uncertainty and fear about the future--Anne Boleyn, her mother and the second wife of Henry VIII, was decapitated for treason and adultery on 19 May 1536, when Elizabeth was approaching three years old. Her right to the throne had, seemingly, been regulated by the Act of Succession issued at a spring session of Parliament in 1534, which vested all hereditary titles in the offspring of Henry and Anne Boleyn and at the same time dissolved his first marriage with Catherine of Aragon (Bindoff 1950: 102). However, after her mother's death Elizabeth was declared a bastard with no right to the throne: now she shared the same fate with princess Mary, the daughter of Henry's first wife Catherine. …

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