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The best books on Elizabeth I

recommended by Helen Hackett

University College London professor Helen Hackett selects five books on the Virgin Queen, including one by the monarch herself. "You get a sense of her independence of mind. She does her own thing"

Tell me about your first choice, Elizabeth I: The Exhibition Catalogue, edited by David Starkey and Susan Doran.

I chose this one because it is a catalogue of an excellent exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in 2003. That was one of a whole lot of events and publications for the 400-year anniversary of Elizabeth’s death in 1603. This volume is particularly interesting because it is a really rich, full, broad catalogue where they tried to present some unusual things that people haven’t seen before, because, of course, Elizabeth I is so familiar to us.

There were lots of really unusual things like a locket ring that belonged to Elizabeth which contains two pictures. It has a jewel on the front that opens up and you see one picture of Elizabeth in profile and another which appears to be her mother Anne Boleyn. And that’s very interesting because Elizabeth never publicly mentioned or acknowledged her mother, for obvious reasons because she had been beheaded for adultery and incest by Elizabeth’s father Henry VIII. The ring suggests that in private she did like to maintain a memory of her mother.

“Elizabeth never publicly mentioned or acknowledged her mother”

There were also portraits of Elizabeth in the exhibition that hadn’t been widely seen before, that might have hung in civic buildings halls and even people’s homes. And there were coins, because of course Elizabeth’s subjects would have mainly seen her portrait on coins. There were items from wrecks of Armada ships, such as a wonderful toothpick in the shape of a dolphin; so it gave us a much fuller, richer sense of Elizabethan England than people had had before. It wasn’t just about Elizabeth and her court but there was a great sense of the domestic life of Elizabethan England as well.

Your next book is Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene.

I wanted to include an example of literature from Elizabeth’s reign because she inspired a fantastic richness and breadth of poetry, with lots of writers competing with each other to praise her in ever more elaborate ways. Probably the most powerful example of that is Spenser’s Faerie Queene which is a huge epic romance published in two parts in the 1590s.

It shows Elizabeth in lots of different guises. So we have her as Gloriana, Belphoebe, Britomart, Una and lots of other figures. I think that suggests, in a way, a problem underlying all this effort to praise Elizabeth, because as a female Queen ruling in her own right she was a very unusual figure. She was almost unprecedented in English history, and particularly as an unmarried Queen without a husband to support her or to give her guidance.

For Spenser and others that created a difficulty, and the only way they could deal with that was by splitting her up. So we have Gloriana who represents her majesty and her power, then we have Belphoebe who is her beauty and femininity, more like Elizabeth as a private person, and then all these other aspects of her representing her mercy or her piety or truthfulness and so on.

As a female ruler she was a contradiction in terms, because rulers were expected to have masculine qualities, so how do you represent this anomaly? Spenser said he needed to show her in ‘mirrors more than one’. What you also get as you read on through The Faerie Queene is an increasing sense that the praise is not simple. There is criticism embedded in it as Spenser and others became quite disillusioned with Elizabeth in this late stage in her reign.

“She inspired a fantastic richness and breadth of poetry, with lots of writers competing with each other to praise her in ever more elaborate ways”

Spenser was a militant Protestant, and he and others like him would have liked the Queen to have pursued a much more aggressive foreign policy in support of Protestants abroad, and a much more assertive policy at home of making the Church of England freer of Catholic practices. So there is a sort of disappointment in her. What you get is the idea that all these ideal images are being held up as a kind of perfection for her to aspire to. They are not representing how she is but how she might be, and as the poem goes on you get the idea that this is what she has failed to be.

There is a fragment of The Faerie Queene which wasn’t published in Spenser’s lifetime. The published book has six volumes and there is a fragment of the seventh book called ‘The Cantos of Mutability’ which is where he is most overtly critical of Elizabeth. It shows her in Ireland as the goddess Diana – the moon goddess. He shows her bathing naked, and a fawn catches sight of her and he laughs at her. This is like laughing at the whole cult of the Virgin Queen, because what makes him laugh is catching sight of her private parts.

It sounds like a good thing it wasn’t published before he died, but how were the other books received?

Well, we know she liked the first three books which were published in 1590, because she awarded Spenser a pension which was very unusual for her. She was known to be pretty abstemious when it came to handing out money to artists and writers. But there doesn’t seem to be any record of what she thought of the final three books.

What interests me about Spenser’s book and many others at the time is this idea of two levels: you have the appearance of praise but there is a lot of buried criticism, and to some extent the queen and her regime recognise and allow it, because it is better to have some low-level authorised criticism than to let it bubble up into more overt criticism and dissent.

Your next book is actually by Elizabeth herself – this is some of her translations from the 1590s. 

Yes, I wanted to give an example of some of her own writing because that is where we get closest to feeling that we know her and we get an insight into her own mind and attitude and ideas. I have been massively assisted in that because in the last ten years the University of Chicago has been publishing a series of volumes of Elizabeth’s collected works. From these you get a sense of her breadth and diversity as a writer: not just speeches and letters, but also prayers and poems, and all these translations.

I have chosen the volume from the later part of her reign in the 1590s. I suppose you could think that translations don’t much give us insight into her own mind because she is translating someone else but, actually, if you look at the choice of works that she makes, and the spin she puts on them, they tell us a lot about her as a person. There is a constant theme running through her translations of stoicism and endurance, and that is reflected in a big translation from the 1590s, ‘The Consolation of Philosophy’ by Boethius, which she translated from Latin to English. What you get from this translation is her fantastic intellect and seriousness.

She did this translation over a period of a month and she spent no more than 30 hours on it, according to her secretary. It’s massive, more than 100 pages in the modern edition, and she just seems to have dashed it off. This is what she did for her leisure when she was taking a break from ruling the country! There is a real sense of it being done in haste, the grammar is a bit wonky and it is a very knotty muscular translation which has a rugged engaging quality.

So you get a sense of her intellect and her independence of mind, because, as the editors point out in all her translations, she seems to have done very little consulting of translations by other people or commentaries which had already been written on these texts. She does her own thing.

I came away from her translations feeling a contact with the seriousness of her mind. She engaged in translations all through her life right from when she was a young girl when she gave translations away as gift books for members of her family. But there is a real shift from those early translations, when they are almost schoolroom exercises written in that beautiful italic hand that we associate with her and she is showing off her accomplishments in all areas.

“I came away from her translations feeling a contact with the seriousness of her mind”

With these later translations the feeling is that they are for her an intellectual workout, rather like some of us would get from going to the gym – a kind of mind gym. This is how she relaxes. Her handwriting is almost indecipherable and the grammar is all over the place, but this is something she is doing for herself and for her own indulgence.

Tell me about Rewriting the Renaissance.

This is an essay collection from the mid 1980s and it exemplifies the movement known as new historicism, which was a new development which tried to bring together history and literary criticism in a new dynamic way, to show the way that literature is situated in history and history is made up of texts and always open to interpretation.

It is a school of criticism that is also very interested in how power circulates, and in gender and sexuality, and that is exemplified in this collection. It contains a particularly important essay by Louis Montrose called ‘Shaping Fantasies’ which is about A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This essay appeared in several different versions, but this is a place you can easily get hold of it.

What was new about it was the way that Montrose brought A Midsummer Night’s Dream into contact with Elizabeth I. There is a passage in the play called Oberon’s vision where Oberon is describing how the flower became the love charm, and this happens because there is ‘a fair vestal throned by the west’, who is obviously Elizabeth, and Cupid fires his bow at her but she is immune to his arrows. So his arrow falls on this flower that becomes the love charm.

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Oberon’s vision is often read as a passage of praise of Elizabeth, but Montrose shows that if you put it in context in relation to the rest of the play and other things that are being said and written about Elizabeth at the time, then it is really critical of Elizabeth. Once you start thinking about this it is quite obvious – you have Titania the Fairy Queen who is infatuated with an ass. Well, you can’t think about the Fairy Queen without thinking about Elizabeth because of Spenser. Titania is made to be a slave to lust, a comical figure, her powers are mocked and she is brought back under the authority of a husband. That is implied to be the norm.

By that stage of her reign Elizabeth was too old to have children, she was still unmarried and there was this anxiety about who would be her successor because she refused to name one. Many people felt that was deeply irresponsible of her and that it was her duty as the Queen to get married and produce an heir. So there is this sense she is going to die soon, she is getting old and what will happen next? And I think once you start thinking of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in relation to Elizabeth the play looks quite different, and it gives you a new insight into how people were feeling about the Queen at the time. This was a new move that Montrose made in the 80s which has been hugely influential and has led to lots of other readings of Shakespeare’s plays to shed light on Elizabeth’s reign.

Your final book is Representing Elizabeth in Stuart England.

I have chosen this one because, alongside the representation of Elizabeth in her own time, another huge and fascinating topic is the way she has been represented ever since. That is set in motion in the 17th century, the century after her death. John Watkins has written this wonderful study of it.

It draws out a couple of very interesting points: one is the way in which during the Stuart period and running up into the Civil War period you have the conflict developing between the Crown and Parliament. Elizabeth gets claimed by both sides. For the royalists she is the champion of monarchy and ideas on what it is to be a real monarch. But the parliamentarian side claim her as a democrat. They assert that she supported democracy and was on the side of the people.

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She becomes this very politically contested figure, and what Watkins also shows is that as we move on into the later 17th century she becomes much more of a fictionalised figure. Towards the end of the century you have a whole genre of stories known as secret histories. These are like early historical novels which are really scandal novels claiming to tell the truth about Elizabeth’s love affairs, for example her affair with Essex. You also get she-tragedies showing Elizabeth as a passionate romantic figure. John Banks is the main author of these. He writes a play called The Island Queens which is the first play to bring Elizabeth face to face with Mary Queen of Scots. In real life they never actually met but he brings them together in a wonderful charged encounter which has been taken up by many fictional writers ever since.

Why do you think they were so popular at the time?

One reading of it could be that the monarchy was becoming rather dull. We are talking about the period of the Glorious Revolution and the beginning of the curtailment of the powers of the monarchy, moving into the constitutional monarchy which we see today. There is a real excitement to this monarch who can be a scandalous figure and, of course, there is the added dimension that she is a woman which makes her private life even more interesting. People always wanted to know what she was like privately, whether she was really a virgin.

Do you think that there is any hard evidence to show she wasn’t a virgin?

No, I don’t think so. I think it was just too important for her to remain the Virgin Queen, and if she really had ever slept with someone, given the nature of her household and endless servants being around, her secret would have got out.

“Of course she had flirtations but I think she never actually slept with anyone”

Even if she had bribed people not to tell they could always have been bribed by foreign spies. There were plenty of rumours, but if she had it would have been so damaging to her authority and she was too intelligent to give that up. Of course she had flirtations but I think she never actually slept with anyone.

August 11, 2010

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Helen Hackett

Helen Hackett

Helen Hackett of University College London has published books on images of Elizabeth I, on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and on women as readers and writers of fiction in the English Renaissance. Her most recent book, Shakespeare and Elizabeth: The Meeting of Two Myths, is about the afterlives of the playwright and the Queen as cultural icons, and the many ways in which their mythologies have intertwined.

Helen Hackett

Helen Hackett

Helen Hackett of University College London has published books on images of Elizabeth I, on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and on women as readers and writers of fiction in the English Renaissance. Her most recent book, Shakespeare and Elizabeth: The Meeting of Two Myths, is about the afterlives of the playwright and the Queen as cultural icons, and the many ways in which their mythologies have intertwined.