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Editor's Note, July/August 2003

Elizabeth 400 Years Later

By Mary Lou Beatty | HUMANITIES, July/August 2003 | Volume 24, Number 4

“I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too.”

These were Elizabeth’s words at Tilbury as she rallied the troops facing the Spanish Armada in 1588. She had been their queen for thirty years. An unlikely holder of the throne, she had been denounced as illegitimate, implicated in a scandal that cost one man his life, and imprisoned in the Tower for a time by her half-sister, then queen of England. Yet to attain to the throne she did, and proved herself adroit in politics and forwardlooking in governance. Her reign saw the beginning of the British Empire, which would shape politics and social and economic relations around the globe for the next 350 years.

In this issue, on the four hundredth anniversary of her death, we look at the many facets of Elizabeth: how she tried to ameliorate Catholic-Protestant enmity--“I do not wish to make windows into men’s souls”; how she wielded her marriageability as a tool in negotiations for political alliances; and how she foreshadowed the practices of the present century with her concern with image.

“She had a modern speechwriting, policy-making team,” professor Clark Hulse says. “Sometimes the drafts are in Elizabeth’s hand; sometimes they are in the hand of Robert Cecil, the closest of the queen’s advisers.” No matter whose words they were, the speech at Tilbury was eloquent. “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 battle, to live or die amongst you all, to lay down my life for my God and for my kingdom and for my people, my honour, and my blood, even in the dust.”

She held the throne for another fourteen years, a period that saw a flowering of English literature. It was the time of Marlowe, of Spenser, and above all, of Shakespeare, who wrote his first tragedy, Titus Andronicus, not long after the Spanish Armada’s defeat. The ephemera of history places Elizabeth in the audience of at least one of his plays, The Merry Wives of Windsor. The title page reads: “As it hath bene divers times Acted by the right Honorable my Lord Chamberlaines servants. Both before her Majestrie, and else-where.”

We move from Lord Chamberlain’s performers to a present-day Shakespearean troupe, this one in Lenox, Massachusetts, where students have been acting out key scenes from Macbeth for a multimedia guide for teachers. “Some students get confused at first,” says Mary Hartman, director of education for Shakespeare & Company. “But then, once they begin to play in this realm and discover their own answers, the payoff is enormous and genuine learning takes place.” And we encounter Shakespeare in yet another guise, this time as part of a short-lived New Deal innovation, the Federal Theatre Project, in which Orson Welles made a splash at age twenty-one with a Macbeth that featured an all-black cast.

And last, we turn from the theater to the visual arts and some of the men who made it a game of wits. NEH Chairman Bruce Cole talks with Meryle Secrest, who, along with biographies of Frank Lloyd Wright and Stephen Sondheim, has written about men such as cultural critic Kenneth Clark and art connoisseur Bernard Berenson. She has a new book coming out in the spring about a man Berenson worked with, the art dealer Joseph Duveen, whose maneuverings played a role in creating our National Gallery of Art.