Sunday, November 27, 2016


Let's celebrate Elizabeth I, dead ten years before


This is certainly not a great play by Shakespeare. The objective is to celebrate the birth and christening of Elizabeth and to position this birth in a context which is difficult. So it shows the conflicts with the Catholic Church, in fact with some top people in the Catholic Church, particularly Cardinal Wolsey who served, as the main minister of the King, his own purposes as the cardinal of York in his position and even some rivalry inherited from the past, for example in his plot to have Buckingham executed, the son of the Buckingham who helped Richard III to ascend to the throne and then got executed by decision of the same Richard III, of the House of York. At least that’s how it appears in the play.

In fact there is a second stake which is the divorce with Catherine of Aragon. The conflict is a conflict with the Pope and it is evoked but not really explored and the main consequence is not even mentioned, the fact that the Catholic Church is disbanded in England and replaced by the Church of England governed by a special Council appointed by the King but the logic in this Council is the same as in the Catholic Church: the fight against the Reformation and Protestantism, in one word heresies. The King supports the Archbishop of Canterbury who is leaning towards some moderate reformation, though nothing is made that clear in the play, and this Archbishop is going to be entrusted with the leading role in the Church of England. But the play is totally silent on the main reform that is going to disband the congregations and take over the churches.

So it is entertaining but not really good. There is not even some kind of deeper political wisdom with a King that is often angry and authoritarian, when he is not parading and showing off. At the same time the final christening “sermon” is not exactly possible, credible, believable and simply modest.

“CRANMER, Archbishop of Canterbury: Let me speak, sir,
For heaven now bids me; and the words I utter
Let none think flattery, for they'll find 'em truth.
This royal infant--heaven still move about her!--
Though in her cradle, yet now promises
Upon this land a thousand thousand blessings,
Which time shall bring to ripeness: she shall be--
But few now living can behold that goodness--
A pattern to all princes living with her,
And all that shall succeed: Saba was never
More covetous of wisdom and fair virtue
Than this pure soul shall be: all princely graces,
That mould up such a mighty piece as this is,
With all the virtues that attend the good,
Shall still be doubled on her: truth shall nurse her,
Holy and heavenly thoughts still counsel her:
She shall be loved and fear'd: her own shall bless her;
Her foes shake like a field of beaten corn,
And hang their heads with sorrow: good grows with her:
In her days every man shall eat in safety,
Under his own vine, what he plants; and sing
The merry songs of peace to all his neighbours:
God shall be truly known; and those about her
From her shall read the perfect ways of honour,
And by those claim their greatness, not by blood.
Nor shall this peace sleep with her: but as when
The bird of wonder dies, the maiden phoenix,
Her ashes new create another heir,
As great in admiration as herself;
So shall she leave her blessedness to one,
When heaven shall call her from this cloud of darkness,
Who from the sacred ashes of her honour
Shall star-like rise, as great in fame as she was,
And so stand fix'd: peace, plenty, love, truth, terror,
That were the servants to this chosen infant,
Shall then be his, and like a vine grow to him:
Wherever the bright sun of heaven shall shine,
His honour and the greatness of his name
Shall be, and make new nations: he shall flourish,
And, like a mountain cedar, reach his branches
To all the plains about him: our children's children
Shall see this, and bless heaven. […]
She shall be, to the happiness of England,
An aged princess; many days shall see her,
And yet no day without a deed to crown it.
Would I had known no more! but she must die,
She must, the saints must have her; yet a virgin,
A most unspotted lily shall she pass
To the ground, and all the world shall mourn her.” (Act V Scene v)

And we have to keep in mind the play was written in 1612-1613, that is to say ten years after Elizabeth I’s death and under James I. Is it only to mark the anniversary of this death, or is it because under James I some things started very fast to turn sour? We cannot know.


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