Saturday, March 31, 2012

Was Queen Elizabeth I a feminist icon?

Likely the most realistic of her everyday appearance
I'd like to raise a matter of debate: Was/Is Queen Elizabeth I a feminist icon?

Why should there be a debate about this?  Let me explain the circumstances revolving around Elizabeth's life, political prowess, and the period in which she was born.

Sure, queens were of no shortage in Elizabeth's day.  They happened to inherit the throne.  That didn't mean men, or even women, loved it.  It was theirs by birth or by marriage.  In a time when killing and plotting a king or queen's death was a common matter, a crown had to be safe at all times and command with a resolve that far outweighs those of the cruelest tyrants within the last century.  A fear of death and a fear of loss of power would drive a man (or in this case a woman) to overcompensate.

Elizabeth was bound to serve her people, and, though she knew not much of the affairs of politics and war, she was determined to convince her subjects that she did indeed know of such things that lie within the man's world.  In her Speech at Tilbury to the troops before the attack on the Spanish Armada, Elizabeth declares that she, too, will die on the battlefield beside her subjects, and will die for her country.  Kings no longer went to war, but her declaration that she'd do just that very thing beside her soldiers, was significant and admirable in the eyes of every man (and likely some undiscovered women) on that battlefield.  In the midst of convincing and rallying the troops, she unsexed herself in Lady Macbeth-like fashion and declared, "I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too".  Elizabeth takes her physical feminine features and mocks their insufficiency that hides underneath her true manly nature of boldness and fortitude.  Elizabeth even goes as far as to hide her feminine form beneath body armor in an effort to look more manly and warlike, as often she appeared to look to like Boudicca, a figure whose resurgence came with the Renaissance.  Lady Macbeth was not the only one to say such things in Shakespeare's plays: Shakespeare's violent Portia also spoke of her feeble female form, saying, "I grant I am a woman; but withal/A woman well-reputed, Cato's daughter./Think you I am no stronger than my sex,/ Being so father'd and so husbanded" (2.1.6)? The following is an excerpt from Elizabeth's speech:
... Let tyrants fear, I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good-will of my subjects; and therefore I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust. I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field. ...
So it was that Elizabeth saw herself as supreme authority, so much so that she often overruled the most sensible counsel to take to more aggressive behavior, so as to be more threatening to all opposition within England and outside of England and to prove herself capable of leading.  No one would dare confront her if she was willing to kill.  In a poem called "The Doubt of Future Foes", Elizabeth writes (though authorship is debated)
The doubt of future foes exiles my present joy,
And wit me warns to shun such snares as threaten mine annoy;
For falsehood now doth flow, and subjects' faith doth ebb,
Which should not be if reason ruled or wisdom weaved the web.
But clouds of joys untried do cloak aspiring minds,
Which turn to rain of late repent by chang├Ęd course of winds.
The top of hope supposed, the root of rue shall be,
And fruitless all their grafted guile, as shortly ye shall see.
The dazzled eyes with pride, which great ambition blinds,
Shall be unsealed by worthy wights whose foresight falsehood finds.
The daughter of debate that discord aye doth sow
Shall reap no gain where former rule still peace hath taught to know.
No foreign banished wight shall anchor in this port;
Our realm brooks not seditious sects, let them elsewhere resort.
My rusty sword through rest shall first his edge employ
To poll their tops that seek such change or gape for future joy.
Elizabeth writes of treason against her within England and within her own court and assassination plots against her from other countries.  She stands tall, though, and a final four lines declare that her land will go untouched by foreign bodies (highly sexual in its double entendre, which we'll get to soon).  She will hack of the heads of her enemies, near or far, with her rusty sword (ouch!).  Here, she gives reason to employ troops and adopt a more aggressive outlook on foreign policy.  Any whisper of treason or assassination, she will send soldiers.  Though, in the end, this tactic proved strenuous, and much like Rome, she spread her troops too thin, especially with the ongoing struggles in colonizing Ireland.

In colonizing Ireland, Elizabeth was ruthless and callous, though utterly erratic and hypocritical in her old age.  A law bade that any Irish person playing music would be sentenced to death and musical instruments destroyed.  She sought to eradicate all Irish culture under the continual "problem" or the English "going native" and adopting the Irish customs and becoming "barbaric".  Civility would be brought to Ireland, rather than barbarism being brought back from Ireland.  Though she produced such a law, she enjoyed Irish music and even listened to it in her halls.  Her dominion over Ireland, though, was nothing compared to the man who would soon see to its destruction and massacre.

While proving her manhood and boldness in true Boudiccan fashion, Elizabeth used her womanhood to her advantage to create another method of control, especially over men, in ways twofold: (1) through exposing her midriff, cleavage, wrists, or ankles and (2) through evoking the image of the Virgin Mary (which also lends to her nickname The Virgin Queen).  Irish poet Piaras Feiritear wrote, as translated by the Earl of Longford:

I charge you, lady young and fair,
Straightaway to lay your arms aside.
Lay by your armor, would you dare
To spread the slaughter far and wide?

O lady, lay your armour by,
Conceal your curling hair also,
For never was a man could fly
The coils that o’er your bosom flow.

And if you answer, lady fair,
That north or south you ne’er took life,
Your very eyes, your glance, you air
Can murder without axe or knife.

And oh! If you but bare your knee,
If you your soft hand’s palm advance,
You’ll slaughter many a company.
What more is done with shield and lance?

Oh, hide your bosom limey white,
Your naked side conceal from me.
Ah, show them not in all men’s sight,
Your breasts more bright than flowering tree.

And if in you there’s shame or fear
For all the murders you have done,
Let those bright eyes no more appear,
Those shining teeth be seen of none.

Lady, we tremble far and near!
Be with these conquests satisfied,
And lest I perish, lady dear,
Oh, lay those arms of yours aside.
Her methods of persuasion were known far and wide.  With a glance, a show of her knee, a display of her powdered cleavage, men take arms for her, do anything for her.  Her weapons are her body parts.  Literally, when he says, "lay those arms aside," he does means her bodily arms, for they are also symbolic of weaponry.  This poem's message is also supported by French King Henri IV's ambassador in his journal entry.  He wrote:
She was strangely attired in a dress of silver cloth, white and crimson... She kept the front of her dress open, and one could see the whole of her bosom, and passing low, and often she would open the front of this robe with her hands as if she was too hot.... Her bosom is somewhat wrinkled... but lower down her flesh is exceeding white and delicate, so far as one could see.  As for her face, it is and appears to be very aged.  It is long and thin, and her teeth are very yellow and unequal... Many of them are missing so that one cannot understand her easily when she speaks quickly.
Now with this passage, Feiritear's poem seems to mock her, as her teeth are surely not shining.  But the ambassador's description does support the image presented by Feiritear in the aspect of her bosom and slight movements of bowing to expose her bosom even more and opening her dress slightly, which would entice men, surely.  No matter how old she is.  It was the custom of women to expose their bosoms until marriage, so Elizabeth, remaining a "virgin" in image, would do the same.  Being a woman in control would make men wild with wanting to control her.  The ambassador again wrote of his second visit:
[The Queen was] clad in a dress of black taffeta, bound with gold lace... She had a petticoat of white damask, girdled and open in front, as was also her chemise, in such a manner that she often opened this dress and one could see all her belly, and even to her navel... When she raises her head, she has a trick of putting both hands on her gown and opening it insomuch that all her belly can be seen.
Here, Elizabeth portrays a motherly image, as previously mentioned, giving off the image of the Virgin Mary, laying both hands on her exposed stomach as if pregnant.  In this respect, she offers herself as pregnant with the whole of England.  She is its mother.  Its people are her children.  The slight opening of her white girdle is for a little sex appeal, surely, as well as the image of a wetnurse in coordination with the motherly image.  This is a carefully constructed image, not a hastily sloppy dressing by her servants.  A queen would have no such deeds.


In relation, while presenting herself in the image of a warrior queen and a sex object, Elizabeth sought to make herself her eternally marries to the state.  She refused to give up her power to anyone, let alone any man from a foreign land.  Men, for some reason, had not just an obsession with her marrying (for political reasons) but even for her having children.  There was an obsession with her womb.  She needed a legacy to inherit the throne from her.  But this child, too, would take her throne once he was of age, if she were unmarried, which would be incredibly young, further endangering the fickle atmosphere of England.  She speaks wittily of her subjects thinking her womb belonging to the state, whereas she believes her womb to be hers and hers alone.  Here she gives a speech unto her advisers, who repeatedly advised her to marry and bear children.
...the two proceedings that you presented me, in many words expressed, contained these two things: my sortie in marriage, and of your cares the greatest, my succession, of which two the last I think is best be touched, and of the other a silent thought may serve, for I had thought it had been so desired as none other tree's blossoms should have been minded or hope of my fruit had been denied you. 
Elizabeth wanted control of her own body, and she did that with wondrous effect, despite the outrage that descended upon her continuously throughout her life.  We see this now in the U.S. with women fighting to gain or keep control of their bodies, specifically their reproductive organs.  Despite her effort to desex herself, Elizabeth did so to prove herself as fit for the throne as any man.  Elizabeth Cook may very well have invoked the spirit of Elizabeth Tudor when writing her anatomy-driven tune "Sometimes It Takes Balls to be a Woman."  In the process of presenting herself as having the will of a man, she used her feminine figure to assert authority as well to assert authority with the most desirous and fruitful effect.  So was Queen Elizabeth truly a feminist, or did she pull a Margaret Thatcher?


King Henri's ambassador's journal entries were taken from the captivating essay on Elizabeth called "'Shaping Fantasies': Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture" by Louis Adrian Montrose, as found in Representations, No. 2 (Spring, 1983), pp. 61-94.

All sources written by Elizabeth I are found at Luminarium.

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