Representations of Elizabeth I

Representations of Elizabeth I

Helen Anne Cobb

Doctor of Philosophy, Faculty of English Language and Literature, University of Oxford (1990)


This thesis looks at three themes in representations of the Queen in Elizabethan literature. They are: the problem of representing a female ruler; the relation between the cult of Elizabeth and the cult of the Virgin Mary; and representations of Elizabeth as Cynthia, the moon-goddess. These topics are seen as focal points for problematic issues in panegyric. The first part of the thesis looks at the problem of reconciling the “masculine” virtues of the ideal ruler with ideal “feminine” virtues, in the figure of Elizabeth. Some panegyric stressed her “masculine” qualities; but, more often, her uniqueness as perfect woman was extolled. However, apparent praise of “feminine” virtues like peacefulness and mercifulness could veil implicit criticism of the effeminisation of the state. In Elizabeth’s sex can be found reasons for the proliferation and complexity of fictional personae for her: first, she had to be shown to possess all the virtues, masculine and feminine, even when those virtues were incompatible or contradictory. Secondly, a masculine idea of woman as enigma, incomprehensible and ultimately unrepresentable, was magnified in the figure of a female monarch.

The second section examines the theory, popularised by Frances Yates and Roy Strong, that Elizabeth was a Protestant “substitute” for the Virgin Mary, who filled a “psychological gap” for the populace after the Reformation. It considers the extent of contradiction between opposition to idolatry, and belief in the spiritual status of the ruler; and the longstanding exchange of imagery between secular and sacred literature. The relations between the cult of the Virgin and representations of Elizabeth were complex and various. Some apparent examples of Marian imagery in panegyric of Elizabeth were part of the use of religious imagery in the discourse of courtly love; some were attempts to appropriate the “magical” symbolic qualities of virginity in general for the Protestant cause; some were typological readings of Marian myths as narrative structures with which to mythologise contemporary history. Direct identification of Elizabeth with the Virgin only became prevalent in the later years of the reign, particularly in elegies for her death. Finally, the thesis looks at moon-imagery in panegyric of Elizabeth as a means for apparent praise which contains undertones of criticism and disillusionment. The moon-image was particularly a means of expressing anxiety regarding mutability, as Elizabeth’s advancing age added to the problem of her sex, and foregrounded the issue of her mortality.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Oxford

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