Queen Elizabeth's Personality and Reign reflected in Shakespeare's 'Titus Andronicus'

Seminar Paper, 2008

19 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Shakespeare – a Political Voice in Elizabethan Society?

3 Detectable Aspects of Elizabeth’s persona politica in Titus Andronicus
3.1 An Unwelcome Woman on the Throne
3.1.1 Elizabeth’s Reign – a Threat to the Natural Order
3.1.3 Tamora’s Rise and Exploitation of Status
3.2 Detraction of Primogeniture
3.2.1 Christopher Goodman and Jean Bodin - Examples of Strong Opposition to Primogeniture in Elizabeth’s England
3.2.2 The Fatal, Personal and Political Consequences of Saturnius’ Rise to Power

4 Elizabeth’s persona privata Reflected in the Characters Depicted in Titus Andronicus
4.1 Comparisons Between Lavinia and Elizabeth
4.1.1 Silent Omnipresence and Dependancy Upon Men Young Elizabeth fails to be Autonomous Lavinia’s Suffer and Forbearance
4.1.2 To Marry or not to Marry – that is the Question or Marriage as a Must – Patriarchal Pressures Elizabeth’s Predicament Lavinia’s Deadly Solution
4.2 Raising the Finger of Morality: Parallels Between Elizabeth and Tamora
4.2.1 Elizabeth’s Quick Temper
4.2.2 Elizabeth’s Game with Dudley and her Other Suitors
4.2.2 Demonized and Passionate Tamora
4.3. The Perils of Queens Bearing Illegitimate Children – Similarities

5 Conclusion

1 Introduction

There are about 2.8001 books and about 47.000.0002 web pages to be found today discussing Shakespeare’s life and his works. In this literary and historical jungle it is extremely difficult to find a topic that has not been dissected, discussed and academically proliferated upon ad anfinitum. Nevertheless, today’s inquisitive reader is still asking the same questions that have been asked over generations. One of these is for example. “Was William Shakespeare only an excellent and renowned Elizabethan playwright out to entertain a public yearning for the latest sensationalist entertainment? Or is there a hidden, more subtle, political voice to be interpreted when listening to or reading his words”?

This essay will attempt to analyse the possible social, political inferences in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus with regard to Queen Elizabeth the monarch and Elizabeth the woman. Furthermore, this essay will compare various contemporary political authors with the statements being made in the playwrights work.

2 Shakespeare – a Political Voice in Elizabethan Society?

First of all one has to discover whether Shakespeare was actually a political author in order to be able to make statements about his contemporary politics reflected in his work.

In political science and literary studies there still are heated discussions and manifold opinions about to what extent politics find their way into Shakespeare’s person and opus.

According to Ekkehart Krippendorf, Shakespeare’s texts rather than their performances should be analyzed - owing to the fact that they are the better base for detailed dissection. Their complex content can be gone through repeatedly and examined closer than their enacted counterpart.3 This becomes manifest in the thematic symphony of political issues4 such as striving for power and intriguing and themes about love and united solidarity.5

Primarily, Shakespeare’s creations deal with the great question of the legitimacy of regime6

and political psychology.7 Collectively, they tend to advocate morally taintless monarchal forms of government which are well sympathetic to the people. This is - especially concerning the idea of public spirit and sense of community – an interesting correspondent to Niccolò Machiavelli’s work “The Prince”, which covers pragmatic behaviour guidelines of quite a different nature.8

However, even if Shakespeare – in contradiction to his plays’ characters – did not make any political statements himself9 and efforts to make literary-historical in-depth analysis remain doubtful due to the danger of missing important coherencies, a clear recusal of Machiavelli’s statements can be detected10.

This dissociation can be discerned by being aware of Shakespeare’s desperados with Machiavellistic character – in Titus Andronicus for example Aaron.11

Shakespeare’s plays are highly political, since most of them are titled with names of historical sovereigns; the pursuit of political comprehension concerning Shakespearian times might be the reason for trying to analyse the political content of the plays. 12

The contemporary attractiveness of Shakespeare’s works is due to the entertainment value of political issues. This was of course rather owing to the gain insight of the monarchial pomposity rather than the basic interest of philosophizing about politics. 13Nowadays - according to the political scientist Tim Spiekermann - it is common belief that one can not find anything important about politics and answers to questions about legitimacy and the danger of political ambition, about war and piece and so on are to be found right in the text itself, and not by means of literary-historical speculations.14

3 Detectable Aspects of The Queen’s persona politica in Titus Andronicus

In the next part of this essay, facets of Elizabeth the First’s reign which can be traced back to contents of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus shall be explored.

3.1 An Unwelcome Woman on the Throne

Both Tamora and Elizabeth came to power more or less incidentally. And in both cases the woman on the throne did not enjoy general acceptance from their subjects. These parallels shall be revealed in the following two comparing chapters.

3.1.1 Elizabeth’s Reign – a Threat to the Natural Order

There were a lot of opponents to the “law-breaking woman” who Elizabeth I. was reputed to be. Comments cogeneric to the following one were not unusual:

For nature hath all beastes printed a certain marke of dominion in the male, and a certaine subjection in the female.[…] For no man ever sawe the lion make obedience, and stoupe before the lionesse.15

This statement by John Knox, a fanatical Protestant reformer in the Elizabethian era, shows clearly his reluctance towards any queen. His pamphlet First Blast of the rumpet against the monstrous regiment of women is one of the works which carry misogyny to extremes. Although the content of this pamphlet affronts namely Mary I., Marie de Guise and Catherine de’ Medici and was at the time of it’s publishing 1558 antiquated – Elizabeth “ascended the throne upon the death of Mary, on Nov 17th, 1558”16 - , the author did not adapt his critical creation to the new circumstances because the new Queen was protestant. His general attitude towards matriarchy was unchanged. Knox further declares that a woman who dares to come out her ancestral and alotted role as a subject becomes a criminal and tyrant against the divine right. As many of the opponents of Elizabeth I., Knox reverts to the Bible as the source of divine law. And there, one can find many extracts against dominating women, if one has the intention to decry them. This can be exemplified by Corinthians 11/7-9:

For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man is not from woman, but woman from man. Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man.17

As a detractor of women in power one might conclude that the divine order asks for women to “kiss up”, the role of the one who “kicks down” is reserved for the man. A ruling woman is therefore a personalized downfall, a subversion of the natural divine order of hierarchy.

3.1.2 Tamora’s Rise and Exploitation of Status

“[M]anipulative, ruthless, and cunning”18. In Titus Andronicus, one can see what happens when a woman comes to power. As with Elizabeth’s case, her sudden succession came as a complete surprise.

If thou be pleased with this my sudden choice, Behold, I choose thee, Tamora, for my bride.

(T.A. 1.1, 323f) 19

Tamora’s reply may sound servile but the following events prove that her words were to camouflage her deeper intent:

If Saturnine advance the Queen of Goths, She will a handmaid be to his desires, A loving nurse, a mother to his youth.

(T.A. 1.1, 335ff)

Tamora takes over her role as emperess as the female head of the pyramid of Roman power. And typically female – one might say - she abuses her power for private matters. The sacrifice of her first-born Alarbus sets off a cycle of personal revenge and violence as soon as Tamora ascends the throne.

In the end, Tamora is sentenced to death. During her reign, she hasn’t done anything for the benefit of her subjects. She, as a woman, was driven by her personal feelings, showing no leadership qualities, such as rationality, one would expect to see from a person in her position.

3.2 Detraction of Primogeniture

The following two paragraphs will attempt to illustrate that primogeniture is counterproductive for the regulation of monarchical succession both in the Renaissance era as in ancient Rome described in Titus Andronicus. The emphasis lies on the idea of an inevitable downfall of the state if primogeniture is maintained.

3.2.1 Christopher Goodman and Jean Bodin - Examples of Strong Opposition to Primogeniture in Elizabeth’s England

Elizabeth I. was the legitimate successor of Mary I. by means of primogeniture. This fact made her politically and literally physically vulnerable for attack from opponents of the Queen.

Alongside John Knox, Christopher Goodmann20 was clearly another agitator of matriarchy.

His radical anti-feministic position is echoed in pronouncements like this:

How svperior Powers Ought to be obeyed of their subjects: and Wherin they may lawfully by Gods Words be disobeyed and resisted. Wherin also is declared the cause of all this present miserie in England, and the onely way to remedy the same (Genf: 1558) was another anti-matriarchy agitation which caused him a lot of problems with both the church and he state. After having lived in exile in Genf with John Knox, he came back to England in 1565 and was brought to trial in 1571. There he had to contradict his statements written in 1558, accept Her Majesty’s legitimacy and accord his obedience to her. Cf. Valerius 184f.


1 Status from october 06, 2008, according to the search engine <www.amazon.de>, search word: “Shakespeare”.

2 Status from october 06, 2008, according to the search engine <www.google.de>, search word: “Shakespeare”.

3 Ekkehart Krippendorff, Politik in Shakespeares Dramen. Historien, Römerdramen, Tragödien (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp1992) 12;14.

4 Krippendorff, S.48; Tim Spiekermann, Shakespeare’s Political Realism – The English History Plays, (Albany: State University of NYP, 2001) 17.

5 Krippendorff, 29.

6 Krippendorff 26f.

7 Alexander Leggatt, Shakespeare's Political Drama. The History Plays and Roman Plays (London: Routledge, 1988) 238.

8 Spiekerman 24.

9 Spiekerman 14; Krippendorff 18.

10 Krippendorff 27.

11 Spiekerman 25.

12 Krippendorff 9ff.

13 Leggatt 238.

14 Spiekerman 13f.

15 John Knox, First Blast of the rumpet against the monstrous regiment of women (Genf: 1558) 393, qtd in Robert Valerius, Weibliche Herrschaft im 16. Jahrhundert (Herbolzheim: Centaurus Verlag, 2002) 177. All citations in this paragraph, paraphrased or not, are originally taken from this book, 174-178. Exceptions will be cited.

16 Prof. Dr. Thomas Gruber, “The Life of Queen Elizabeth I”, 22 october 2008 <http://www.br-online.de/wissen- bildung/collegeradio/medien/englisch/queen/hintergrund/>.

17 Thomas Nelson, The Holy Bible New Testament: New King James Version (Chiyoda-ku: Japan Bible Publishers, 1983). All qotes from the bible are taken from this edition.

18 Stephen Greenblatt, The Norton Shakespeare, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 2008) 404.

19 All references preceded by “T.A.” are to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus in: Greenblatt 408-463.

20 Christopher Goodmann (*ca.1520, †1603) was a protestant reformer and a confidant of John Knox. His radical misogyn work

Excerpt out of 19 pages


Queen Elizabeth's Personality and Reign reflected in Shakespeare's 'Titus Andronicus'
University of Augsburg  (Philologisch-Historische Fakultät: Englische Literaturwissenschaft)
Proseminar: Shakespeare and Metamorphosis Sommersemester 2008
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Queen, Elizabeth, Personality, Reign, Shakespeare, Titus, Andronicus, Proseminar, Shakespeare, Metamorphosis, Sommersemester
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Stephanie Anger (Author), 2008, Queen Elizabeth's Personality and Reign reflected in Shakespeare's 'Titus Andronicus', Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/123409


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