Sunday, 27 December 2009

Elizabeth, the Woman King

Beneath the swagger portrait
she stands, legs wide, arms angled,
hands, raised to harp or dance,
to be plighted, an enchanting gift,
their pallor and their dainty size
a toy for kings to stroke
with their rough fists,
and marvel at, returning
from campaign, or from the lists,

turned in, and resting on the skirts
which flare from where her hips must be:
thick cloth, stiffed with willow-bent,
so she may echo, in her shape,
the man whose pose she imitates,
the absent lion, England’s finest monster:
this brawling, warring, whoring fiend her father.

* * *

I've became fascinated with Queen Elizabeth I recently, and particularly her odd position as a woman forced to follow in the thundering footsteps of her father, Henry VIII, a king who set a benchmark for an over-the-top, brawling, angry, I-want-it-all image of masculinity which looms large over the English collective psyche. As Simon at Obsessed with Film has pointed out, King 'Enery is a role which just about every major English actor with a certain heft has had a crack at at one time or other, and Elizabeth seems to occupy a similar position for Britain's female actors: in recent years alone we've had Helen Mirren, Anne-Marie Duff, and Cate Blanchett try their hand at playing the 'Virgin Queen', and it's fair to say she occupies a position in English culture just as important as that of her wife-decapitating, pork-chop-munching, church-establishing father.

I think a lot of the interest in Elizabeth and Henry derives from the fact that we imagine a contrast between them: Henry is a sexually rampant monster, a pre-embodiment of 'lad culture', while Elizabeth is an eternally unsullied national matriarch, the Ice Queen Gloriana of an England which forever stands alone. But this is the complexion we've put on things after the facts, and it ignores a key reality of gender politics in the Tudor era, specifically that Henry could get away with it; Elizabeth couldn't. Can you imagine what would have been done to a female ruler if she'd carried on in the same way as Henry? How people of her own time, and future generations, would perceive her? Well, you don't have to imagine very far: consider Catherine the Great. Catherine wasn't by any measure as much of a monster as Henry - but Henry makes it into the history books as a lovable, bumbling, Falstaffian figure, while Catherine is eternally remembered as a crazed sex-vampire who met her end trying to be pleasured by a horse (an urban legend which is, in fact, entirely without foundation). And Catherine's reign took place centuries after that of Elizabeth! Clearly, Elizabeth was never going to be able to get away with acting like Henry in matters of the flesh even if she wanted to jump the bones of every hot courtier she saw (a view hereafter to be known as the 'Sexy Tudors' school of history).

The odd thing is that in some ways, Elizabeth tried to act a lot like Henry. The poem above is about something my ex-wife, Michelle - a major Elizabeth-nerd - once told me. Elizabeth had a copy of Holbein's famous 'swagger portrait' of her father hanging up in her chambers and, when giving important people an audience, she would stand underneath the picture and place her hands on her hips in imitation of Henry's pose.

The implied meaning of this, of course, is that she was reminding people who her dad had been, and that they'd better watch out, but it's an image I find interesting for other reasons. Here we have a woman who's became an icon of a particular kind of feminine power (Margaret Thatcher's self-presentation during her reign as British PM can almost be regarded as a kind of Elizabeth tribute act), and one of the ways in which she herself asserts power is by trying to alter her gender presentation so she comes across as more masculine. What if Elizabeth saw herself, not as a Queen, but as a woman who had to act like a King?

It's not as far-fetched as it might seem. The discourse of power at the time was entirely male, diplomacy and nation-management described in terms of what 'a prince' should do. Elizabeth had seen how her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, had come unstuck by being a good girl and relying on her husbands to take care of her: maybe she decided to forget about getting a man in and deal with the King business herself. She even pretty much said as much, in the famous Armada speech - 'I have the heart and stomach of a King', remember?

Entirely predictably, I find this aspect of Elizabeth - the way in which she deliberately confounded expectations of how she, as a woman, should behave - extremely interesting, and I suspect the poem above is probably going to be the start of a sequence. We'll see how it goes. This is all very much W-i-P, though, so I value your thoughts.

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