Richard Nisley

Elizabeth I, the ideal theatergoer
History - World Released - Nov 22, 2018
Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) loved the theater, as the following excerpt attests—from “William Shakespeare of London” by Marchette Chute:

"The Queen probably made her entrance (in the theater) about the time that the actor who played the Prologue began pinching his cheeks to get some color into them, and when she came in even the most experienced member of the acting company might be permitted the cold clutch of stage fright. For Queen Elizabeth was the golden and glorious sun about whom all of England revolved. Even the greatest lords approached her kneeling, spoke to her kneeling, played cards with her kneeling, and she moved in a glitter of jewels and of homage that made her in many ways the fairy-tale figure that the poets of England said she was.

"Queen Elizabeth was in her sixties when Shakespeare’s company faced her from the stage in the Christmas season of 1594, and very little was left of her youth except her straight back and her beautiful hands. She still dressed as a young girl in spite of her wrinkled face and false hair and missing teeth, and occasionally some self-confident male would conclude her mind was aging also and that she was a conceited and impressionable old woman. The French Ambassador who came to her Court three years later began with some such impression, but a few days later he was recording in his journal with reluctant admiration, “She is a very great princess who knows everything.” The men of her Court did not altogether like being ruled by a woman, especially a brilliant woman, but most of them both loved her and were a little frightened of her.


"As far as her lesser subjects were concerned, Elizabeth had decided early that the only way to get obedience from her turbulent and opinionated countrymen was to be loved. She played the courtier with her people even more than her anxious lords courted her, and the smile that was “pure sunshine” came often enough from England’s greatest politician where ordinary English citizens were concerned. This was not a matter of policy alone, for she loved England more selflessly and devotedly than she ever loved anything else in her long and difficult life; but the special grace with which she handled herself before the general public was born of a very clear idea of the value of courtesy in politics. When a schoolmaster at Norwich attempted to deliver a Latin speech to her and lost his head altogether in that glorious presence, the great Queen was as concerned over his stage fright as were any of the sweating Norwich managers of the affair, and when the schoolmaster had finally staggered through to a conclusion she told him, “It is the best that ever I heard; you shall have my hand.”

"Elizabeth of course expected a much higher standard of performance from a group of professionals like the Chamberlain’s company (of whom William Shakespeare was a shareholder), especially since she had paid for the costumes and properties and was giving them a ten-pound fee, but in general she was the ideal theatergoer. She hoped and expected to be amused, and from the actor’s point of view it would be difficult to find any more attractive quality in a spectator than that. She and the Londoners shared the same kind of interest in the theatre and liked the same kind of things, for that vigorous woman was far too well educated to play the snob and to give her support to tenuous classic productions only. On her mother’s side Elizabeth was descended from middle-class stock and her great-grandfather, Geoffrey Boleyn, had been a merchant of London. The Londoners always felt she was one of them, since she was “descended of citizens” and her ancestor’s tomb could still be seen in St. Lawrence’s Church; and although her father and her successor had their court fools, Elizabeth preferred to share the great clowns (of the stage) like Tarleton and Kempe with ordinary London public.

"Elizabeth was much more learned than the majority of her subjects, but she did not have the exaggerated respect for learning that plagued so many of the gentlemen of the Renaissance. When the French ambassador expressed admiration at her ability to speak six languages, she remarked “that it was no marvel to teach a woman to talk; it were far harder to teach her to hold her tongue.” She made translations from Cicero and Plutarch to relax her lively mind, and read Seneca to calm herself after she had been 'stirred to passion' by what she considered the stupidity of her harassed Privy Council; but she was quite willing to stop off and ask the meaning of an unfamiliar word in Latin, 'being of the mind of that philosopher who in his last years began with the Greek alphabet.'


"The actors who played before Queen Elizabeth faced a woman with a lively, critical mind and one who knew a good deal about the details of their trade. The Queen was a poet herself, and as one respectful subject put it, her 'learned delicate, noble Muse easily surmounted all the rest . . . be it in ode, epigram, or any other kind of poem heroic or lyric.' She was an expert musician who could play her own compositions, and an experienced dancer with such a strong sense of rhythm that when she watched a dance instead of taking part in it she followed 'the cadence with her head, hand and foot.'

"In her ideas of comedy, Elizabeth leaned towards the same easygoing humor that her subjects did, and the strict sexual propriety that she enforced in her Court had nothing to do with her enjoyment of a bit of Shakespearean plain-speaking on the stage.

Elizabeth had about twenty-eight maids of honor, for whose welfare she was directly responsible to their parents, in a Court that consisted otherwise of about fifteen-hundred men, and she had trouble enough with those lively and marriageable young ladies in Court that was completely masculine down to male cooks and launderers. It is noteworthy that during Elizabeth’s reign the dramatists never wrote anything that condoned or encouraged sexual immorality. Adultery was a subject for tragedy, not for comedy, and when Shakespeare went to complicated lengths in ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL to prevent the hero from committing adultery in his comedy, he was following the normal practice of Elizabethan playwrights. It was not until well into the next reign that the situation changed. By then Elizabeth was dead and the influence of her sisters in spirit, the wives of London citizens, was receding; and it was only old-fashioned dramatists like William Shakespeare who still wrote the kind of plays that had once been popular with everyone."

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