All in the playhouse have fallen to their knees as the Queen herself, glittering in gold, emerges from the gallery. Master Shakespeare bows before her. ‘Next time you come to Greenwich’ Elizabeth tells him, ‘we will speak some more.’ Then, leaving, she tosses an afterthought over her shoulder: ‘Tell Master Shakespeare, something more cheerful next time….for Twelfth Night.’
Whatever you think of Shakespeare in Love, this scene in the film reveals a great deal about how Elizabeth and Shakespeare are perceived. In the same scene, Elizabeth addresses first a boy among the groundlings, and then a Lord. She appears truly democratic, able to mix with her people and communicate freely with them. But more importantly she is portrayed as keenly interested in the new genre: theatre. Master Shakespeare is known to her – she has just seen Romeo and Juliet, with Shakespeare himself playing Romeo. Evidently Master Shakespeare is, in some capacity, a regular at her palace at Greenwich and now she invites him there for a personal conference. She also actively commissions a new play for Twelfth Night and so appears as the patron and enabler of Shakespeare’s plays. He is her protégé, classless in being elevated above his rural origins, and enjoying a relationship with a Queen whose remarkable insight has recognised his genius.
Elizabeth and Shakespeare are each individual icons but together they are even more powerful. We enjoy the traditional perception of a celebrated ruler and revered poet jointly producing the birth of national greatness and national literature. The picture of an Elizabethan Golden Age, of ‘Merrie England’, of Good Queen Bess, of the plays and characters of Shakespeare is attractive to us. We relish the idea of an imagined relationship between Elizabeth and Shakespeare. It is so deeply ingrained in our culture and occurs so frequently that we cling to it, without bothering much about historical truth.
The scene in Shakespeare in Love is complete fiction. There is no evidence that playwright and Queen ever met. Many anecdotes have Elizabeth visiting a playhouse – usually the Globe – but the monarch would not have done so. Playhouses were situated on the notorious south bank of the Thames and were regarded as dens of vice. It would have been so shocking and sensational for Elizabeth to have gone there that such an event must have been reliably recorded.
Players traditionally had been summoned to great houses and palaces. If Elizabeth and Shakespeare did meet, the most likely place was at court, at the performance of a Shakespeare play. Shakespeare himself was the leading member and resident playwright of the company known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Records show that 33 performances by them took place at court between 1594 and Elizabeth’s death in 1603, and Shakespeare’s plays must often have been performed.
It is likely that Elizabeth would have seen Shakespeare perform: in the First Folio, his name is first in the lists of ‘The Names of the Principall Actors in all these Plays’ He might even have been presented to the Queen; this was not an unusual practice. He might have seen her on the river – the ornate royal barge was kept near the playhouses – or have watched her setting out on, or returning from one of her Royal Progresses. Early on, these took her to Charlecote and Kenilworth in Warwickshire, and the boy Shakespeare might have glimpsed her from among the crowds. But there can only be educated guesses, based on scanty and inconclusive references, as to whether the two ever came face to face, exchanged words or enjoyed any sort of relationship.
It is in the posthumous ‘lives’ of Shakespeare and Elizabeth that they begin to flourish as a dual icon. Far from being a ‘golden’ age, England was violent, unstable and divided. Yet both in her life and after her death in 1603, Elizabeth retained the status of national icon. Shakespeare died in retirement in SUA in 1616 but his passing caused hardly a ripple in the short term. Would his work have been lost had not The First Folio appeared in 1623?
At the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, Shakespeare’s plays were revived and became part of the core repertoire, though greatly altered and revised. The ghost of Shakespeare began to appear in epilogues and prologues, encouraging excellence in dramatic and national endeavour. Then, in the first biography of Shakespeare, in 1709, Nicholas Rowe stated that “Queen Elizabeth had several of his Plays Acted before her, and without doubt gave him many gracious Marks of her Favour.” Rowe could not say what these favours were and, in any case, had drawn his information from oral sources, but this picture of a warm relationship had enduring appeal and influence.
Rowe also details the episode at Charlecote where the young Shakespeare was allegedly imprisoned for deer poaching. His account is embellished in the Biographica Britannica in 1793 where the story goes that Shakespeare petitioned the Queen in writing and owed his release to her kindness. It is highly unlikely that Elizabeth would intervene in the case of an unknown young man in rural Warwickshire, but it was a chance for the biographer to show how her mercy took Shakespeare to London – and was thus the indirect catalyst of his career – along with the suggestion that her amazing acuity had spotted a genius in embryo.
In the 1750s Shakespeare’s status had soared and five editions of the plays were in existence. A memorial statue was placed in Westminster Abbey, showing Shakespeare, noble and pensive – far from the wayward deer-poacher – with the masks of Elizabeth, Henry V and James I placed below him. Dictionaries, books of quotations, essays and poems on Shakespeare began to be current and were collected in the libraries of great houses. To know Shakespeare and to quote from him was becoming the mark of a cultivated mind, of status and of education. Garrick’s Jubilee in 1787 in Stratford-upon-Avon, attended by the great and the good, cemented Shakespeare’s position as ‘The Bard of Bards.’
Another connection between Queen and Playwright was provided by one John Dennis who had revised The Merry Wives of Windsor. ‘I knew very well’ he declared boldly ‘that it had pleased one of the greatest Queens that ever was.’ Elizabeth, he went on to claim, wishing to enjoy the spectacle of Falstaff in love, had commissioned the comedy with a fourteen day deadline. Shakespeare, however, wrote the play in only ten. This anecdote is still current among the many others relating to the pair, and had the effect of merging Elizabeth’s reputation with the now high-flying status of Shakespeare, so that her regal power and his literary genius became closely associated.
The myths roll on with Robert Ryan’s retelling of a story which has Elizabeth watching a play in which Shakespeare had taken the role of a king. To attract his attention, she throws down her glove and, without missing a beat, Shakespeare, retrieves it, effortlessly ad-libbing with ‘And though now bent on this high embassy/Yet stoop we to take up our cousin’s glove.’ When Sir Walter Scott’s Kenilworth appeared in 1821, Shakespeare is produced in conversation with the Queen, as an adult and an accomplished playwright, though the novel deals with the year of the Princely Pleasures: 1575, when Shakespeare was only eleven.
Floods of novels, plays and paintings followed Kenilworth, often flagrantly distorting the chronology of the lives of Elizabeth and Shakespeare so that they meet, talk, flirt and even discuss or quote from plays not actually written until after the Queen’s death. Shakespeare-based paintings appeared regularly in the Royal Academy’s annual exhibition, many of them depicting Shakespeare and Elizabeth together. They were so numerous as almost to constitute a new genre and the fact that a female monarch now occupied the British throne gave new relevance to Elizabeth’s Golden Age. It was important to the self-image of Victorian Britain, that Queen Victoria asserted its imperial authority and national identity, as Elizabeth had done. And so, a Shakespeare play was performed every Christmas at Windsor before the royal family, much as Shakespeare’s troupe had been summoned to perform at Greenwich Palace.
Shakespeare and Elizabeth continued to be represented together in the 20th century. In the USA they became icons associated with ideas of democracy , freedom, and female power. It was a major Hollywood studio which financed Shakespeare in Love and constructed an artistic package which was British in essence, but which was designed to succeed in America, with record box-office takings and multiple Oscars.
In Britain, the two World Wars created both national pride and national insecurity while theatre direction and literary criticism moved away from the portrayal of a stable world over which Shakespeare and Elizabeth presided. History began to be viewed differently. New ways of looking back and understanding the past produced new Shakespeares, new Elizabeths and new encounters between them. It was suggested that they had been lovers or that Shakespeare was Elizabeth’s son. In the ultimate merging of two glorious icons, Elizabeth actually becomes Shakespeare and is the author of the plays.
Now, in the 21st century, Shakespeare and Elizabeth enjoy an active afterlife in the digital realm, via Facebook and other social networking platforms. They have met many times, go on meeting and are likely to go on meeting for some time to come.
Bettina Harris, LSA