The Modern Relevance of Elizabeth I
By Christopher W. Taylor
Elizabeth I (1533-1603) was the queen of England for over forty years; she was also one of England’s first female monarchs (along with her sister, Mary I, and Lady Jane Grey). Her reign, 1558-1603, was marked by many important developments in world politics, science (or natural philosophy as it was known then), literature, art, agriculture, and exploration. Elizabeth remains important to us because of her influence on and relevance to our culture in 2007.
Julia M. Walker, in her book The Elizabeth Icon (2004), points out that Elizabeth became associated with the public space as an icon in part because of her relevance to the sex equality issue and the Renaissance. In her conclusion, Walker cites a nonprobability survey conducted by the BBC in 2004in which nominations were solicited for the Top Ten Great Britons. Elizabeth I ended up in seventh placein the frequency ranking, with about 4.4% of the nominations. Walker is not the only person who sees the modern relevance of Elizabeth, though. We have seen and read many other works of literature on Elizabeth or about topics relevant to the Elizabethan Age in this course. An episode of the miniseries Blackadder II called “Bells,” for example, treated the perception of Elizabeth from the modern people of England. She is potrayed as a voluptuary whose desires must be pleased. In addition to this miniseries, several films have been done on Elizabeth; Anne of the Thousand Days (1969) and Elizabeth (1998) are just two of many examples. Anne of the Thousand Days’s underlying thesis is that Anne Boleyn was an innocent-persecuted heroine and her daughter, Elizabeth, would become the greatest queen of England contrary to her father’s wishes. Elizabeth explores another important aspect of Elizabeth: was she really a virgin? Many scholars (and nonscholars) have explored this issue. Obviously, the view of her taken in Elizabeth is that she was not a virgin, but others, such as Christopher Hibbert and Alison Weir, disagree.
According to Weir, Elizabeth had many reasons to not have children. First of all, she was afraid of what might happen to her if she got married; she saw both her mother and Catherine Howard die as a result of their misfortune of being married to her father. Second, she may have been afraid of diseases associated with pregnancy, such as puerperal fever. Third, there was a huge divide in the English society because of the religion issue. Fourth, she had trouble trying to find a suitable man who would please everyone.
Another more contemporary, though implicit, topic that can be discovered with the help of Elizabeth is the objectification of women. Bob Herbert and Steven King give examples of this in “Amish massacre mirrors society’s misogyny” and “A Modern Fairy Tale,” respectively. Each treats a contemporary problem and hoiw it got to be one. Elizabeth is related to these topics because of the similarities in our society and Elizabeth’s society. People in the Elizabethan Age were interested in their monarch in order to escapre the ennui of ordinary life. We do the same in characters like Anna Nicole Smith. We also, like Elizabethans, value short-run utility over long-run utility. Hence, we are more interested in the sexualization of women than long-run moral gains. Elizabethans, similarly, loved to explore the marriage situation of Elizabeth.
After considering the many issues brought up about Elizabeth, there is no small wonder that we still hold up Elizabeth in the public space of memory. Was she really a virgin? How did she rule for over forty years as an unmarried woman? Did she help to eliminate the dividing line between males and females? What did she do to influence world politics? How did our society get to where it is now? These are all questions that we answer in our studies of Elizabeth and the Elizabethan Age. In the process, however, we get closer to something else: understanding ourselves.