Elizabethan poetry, final paper

Good LORD how I struggled with this class. “High brow” poetry… not so much my thing. Poetry that’s all about misogyny and sexual violence? Also, not really my thing. Really not.

I didn’t love the format for this take-home final. Too many required texts in too little space, I felt like I was skimming the surface on each of them. But it’s done! And I’m putting it here to document that I survived this semester. I finished it. Depression, anxiety, fibromyalgia, medication side-effects, endless doctor’s appointments, course content that either didn’t excite me or actively bothered me, Old English (let’s just not talk about Old English and my GPA…) but I survived. I SURVIVED!


And here is the last essay of the most difficult semester of my undergrad career, somewhat lacklustre, but meeting all the requirements and not a disaster. 


False Women, Virgins, and Queens:

Anxiety About Gender and Power in Elizabethan Poetry

Anxieties about power and gender are woven through Elizabethan poetry like dark threads, and are evident in a majority of the poems. Elizabeth was the ‘virgin queen,’[1] wedded to England and bedded by none, with her eyes and ears and spies and fears. The poetry of her time deals explicitly with issues of gender and sexuality, and addresses these issues within a framework that is both adoring of the ‘virgin queen’ and deeply anxious about the power that she, a woman, wields. These anxieties about women’s power, particularly as it relates to sex, are evident even in poems that do not deal with the queen and her specific real-world power. Much of the love poetry of the time presents a romanticizing of passive femininity and a valorizing of active, violent masculinity. This binary can be read as a comment on anxieties about feminine power and a desire to strip women of their dangerous active sexuality. This danger is evident in the epic poetry, which often shows powerful women as dangerous and sexually deviant. These gender and sex-related anxieties cannot be separated from the political climate and anxieties about the ‘virgin queen,’ and Elizabeth navigates this impossible binary by situating herself both within the binary as an acceptable, chaste, virginal woman and outside of the binary as a wielder of masculine power. Elizabethan political poetry presents anxious adoration of a queen who both embraces and fundamentally challenges expectations of women’s gender performance, and whose power appears to sit uncomfortably in her feminine hands. Within each poem threads a deep anxiety about gender and power, and the specific cultural context of Elizabeth’s reign brings these issues into sharp focus.

Elizabeth’s own poetry offers insight into her anxieties about keeping power as queen. In “The dowbt off future foes” she writes that “For falshode nowe dothe flowe and subjects faithe dothe ebbe / which shuld not be yf reason ruled or wisdome weaved the webbe” (3-4). Although the poem does not directly address the issue of gender, it is impossible to separate the queen from her gender and although it is an inference it is reasonable to assume that part of Elizabeth’s concern regarding her hold on power had to do with her unusual position as an unmarried woman on the throne of England. Elizabeth recognizes the anxiety within her own subjects, and knows that this introduces a hard edge of disharmony within the marriage between queen and country. She softens this edge by going on to discuss Mary Stuart, the “Forrene banished wight” (13) and her “seditious sects” (14), but the poem cannot mask its deep-seated anxiety, nor the fact that this anxiety has roots among the queen’s own subjects.

Elizabeth’s anxiety about her subjects’ changing affections is mirrored in her subjects’ anxieties about her. As discussed in class, Essex masks his political poem “Change thy minde since she doth change” as a love poem but it is accepted that the poem is about Elizabeth, and it is categorized within The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse 1509-1659 as a poem about the “public world” rather than “images of love.” The poem’s anxiety about the affections of the ‘virgin queen’ are threaded through with misogyny and masculinism. The changeability that Essex sees in Elizabeth is attributed to an innate feminine fickleness. Essex writes that “Love is dead and thou art free, / She doth live but dead to thee” (5-6) and “Love loves truth which women hate” (12). Throughout the poem Essex aligns himself with love, and positions himself as the slighted lover. He implies that he, like love, loves truth and that this is in contrast to “women” and specifically to Elizabeth. This poem articulates not only Essex’s own personal experience of falling in and out of favour with the queen but also his anxieties about women’s power and faithlessness more generally.

Spenser’s The Faerie Queene Book II also relies on the trope of the faithless woman. Spenser references the same feminine deceit that Essex cites, attributing to Acrasia “false eyes” (29) in addition to her wanton sexuality. This section of the epic poem presents an image of avenging masculinity, destroying the site of feminine power and laying all of the blame with the woman. Spenser begins with a description of the beautiful bower, indicating that the beauty hides a rotten core. The alliteration in the lines “Many faire Ladies, and lascivious boyes, / That ever mixt their song with light licentious toyes” (26-7) draws attention to the words “lascivious” and “licentious,” and even though it is the “boyes” who are described as such, the beginning of the stanza indicates that Acrasia, the “faire Witch” (20) is using “sorceree and witchcraft” (21-22) to entrap them. While Acrasia wields significant power in the poem, in the end Guyon’s masculine strength is more powerful. Enraged, aroused, and subsequently ashamed at the sight of Acrasia, Guyon destroys the bower. Spenser writes,

“But all those plesant bowres and Pallace brave,

Guyon broke downe, with rigour pittilesse;

Ne ought their goodly workmanship might save

Them from the tempest of his wrathfulnesse,

But that their blisse he turn’d to balefulnesse:

Their groves he feld, their gardins did deface,

Their arbers spoyle, their Cabinets supresse,

Their blanket houses burne, their buildings race,

And of the fairest late, now made the fowlest place” (118-126).

This act of violence is presented as righteous and just, a reasonable response to the feminine sorcery and sexual power that Acrasia wields. Although it would be a stretch to argue that Acrasia is representative of Queen Elizabeth, this articulation of good masculine power and bad feminine power intersects with anxieties about Elizabeth’s power and her performance of gender. Elizabeth strategically aligns herself with the ‘good’ masculine performance of violent power, rather than with the ‘bad’ feminine performance of sexual power. Her rhetoric of being married to England and rejecting all suitors in order to better serve the realm allows her to remain chaste in the minds of her subjects and protects her from being seen as an Acrasia-like threat.

While the poems cited do support the idea of binary, oppositional gender constructions and deep anxiety about women’s sexuality, it would be disingenuous to claim that there was only a single approach to gender conflict presented in Elizabethan poetry, particularly as it relates to men’s responses to women’s sexuality. Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis presents an alternative view of gendered interactions. In Venus and Adonis, as in Book II of The Faerie Queene, much of the power rests with a sexually aggressive woman whose power is stripped by an ‘honourable’ and ashamed man. However, where Spenser’s Guyon strips Acrasia’s power through violence and rage, Adonis strips Venus’ power through passivity and rejection. This is perhaps a less misogynist interpretation of the interaction between the sexual woman and the men around her because it does not imply that a sexual woman invites aggression and violence. However, the poem still demonstrates a deep anxiety, pervasive within Elizabethan poetry, about women’s power, sexuality, and fidelity. Venus is powerful, but her captives are willing. As she says,

“I have been wooed as I intreat thee now,

Even by the sterne, and direfull god of warre,

Whose sinowie necke in battell nere did bow,

Who conquers where he comes in everie jarre,

Yet hath he bene my captive, and my slave,

And begd for that which thou unaskt shalt have” (97-103).

Here, as in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, there is a sexually aggressive woman and a captivated and violent man. However, neither the god of war nor Adonis use violence against Venus. Venus is promiscuous, faithless. Not only does she reference her previous lovers, but the poem ends with Titan “Wishing Adonis had his teame to guide, / So he were like him, and by Venus side” (179-180). And yet, this faithlessness is not vilified or punished, despite the fact that Adonis is “red for shame, but frostie in desier” (36). Though the anxieties about women’s sexual power and their faithlessness remain, there is no escalation to violence or direct conflict, and men are also implicated in the choice to engage in the sexual act.

Both Essex and Spenser offer more essentialist and oppositional theories of gender conflict. Essex presents faithlessness as explicitly inherent to women and Spenser suggests that Acrasia’s falseness is tied to her womanhood, both poets implying that men do not share this trait. However, Elizabeth pushes back against this presentation of gender and reinforces it in her poems. Her poem “The dowbt off future foes” states that her “subjects faithe dothe ebbe” (3), suggesting that men are just as likely as women to change allegiance, and that this changeability is not related to wisdom or reason. She goes further in her poem “Ah silly pugge wert thou so sore afraid” and writes that “fortune I knowe sometimes doth conquere kings, / and rules and raignes on earth and earthly thinges” (9-10) but differentiates herself from these fortune-swayed “kings” when she writes “Ne chose I thee by fickle fortunes rede, / ne she shall force me alter with suche spede” (13-14). This works rhetorically to put kings in the category of the fickle and faithless that Essex and Spenser assign to women, but doesn’t go so far as to contradict them outright. Like Shakespeare, she works within the existing tropes to subvert them and open up new possibilities for interpretation and performance. Fortune in Elizabeth’s poem is a woman and the swayer and betrayer. Elizabeth does not reference herself as a woman in this poem, does not argue for women’s virtue or inherent steadfastness, and only obliquely impugns the ideal of immovable moral masculinity. In lines 18-19 she writes that her “pugge”[2] is “Dead to all joys and livinge unto woe, / slaine quite by her that nere gave wiseman blowe,” again gendering Fortune and allowing the implication that she, Fortune, is fickle and untrustworthy to stand. Further, her “pugge” is the one who has been slain by Fortune’s blow while Elizabeth herself is steadfast and unwavering. This strategy of giving Fortune a feminine gender and having the masculine lover fall prey to Fortune’s blows serves a purpose. While it was common for Fortune to be gendered feminine, this rhetorical strategy places Elizabeth outside of the accepted categories of masculine and feminine, distancing herself both from feminine Fortune and masculine “pugge,” a strategy that dovetails with her presentation of herself as the ‘virgin queen.’

Puttenham’s “Her Majestie”[3] clearly demonstrates how Elizabeth’s perceived virginity is bound up in her performance of power. He assigns her the traits of “Vertue and grace / With stedfastnesse” (20, 19) and says that these virtues are the support on which her reign rests. These virtues are linked to “Her mayden raigne / And womanhead / Parts that maintain / Chapter and head[4]” (8-5). The implication is that her “mayden raigne” is an integral part of her power, allowing her to maintain the “head” of her rule. Given the representation of sexual women as aggressive and harmful, it seems reasonable that Elizabeth’s presentation of herself as virginal would allow her subjects to sidestep the misogyny embedded in so much of the poetry and mythology of the time, and interact with her in ways that accepted her power without feeling that the patriarchal order was being threatened. Puttenham’s particularly Freudian[5] choice of shape for the poem “Her Majestie,” the unambiguously phallic pillar, adds another layer of meaning to the interpretation of the poem. Puttenham himself, in his The Arte of English Poesie, genders this poetic figure as masculine, and writes that “[t]he Pillar is a figure among all the rest of the Geometricall most beautiful, in respect that he is tall and upright and of one bignesse from the bottom to the toppe” (110, emphasis added). There are multiple interpretations of the use of the phallic imagery in the poem about the queen. One interpretation would suggest that the choice of shape is a masculinist assertion of control over the queen, a strategy similar to the one employed by Essex in his poem’s attempt to shame and demean the queen for her perceived faithlessness. But another interpretation is that the queen herself is being aligned with the masculine symbol of the phallus, and that it is her virginity, serving as a rhetorical distancing from her feminine gender, that enables her to inhabit a space that is both deeply masculine and deeply feminine. A third interpretation takes this further and suggests that Puttenham’s choice of shape indicates that Elizabeth’s virginity allows her to wield the phallic power herself, claiming headship for herself and taking on the active masculine role within her marriage to the nation. While it is clear that Elizabeth did not divorce herself so completely from feminine gender performance, and actually leaned quite heavily on tropes of femininity in order to keep her subjects’ anxieties about feminine power at bay, this last interpretation provides an interesting opportunity for a queer reading either of the queen herself or of Puttenham’s view of her.

However Puttenham himself may have viewed Elizabeth’s sexuality or gender, it’s clear from the 2006 movie “Elizabeth I,” that Elizabeth’s sexuality was the subject of considerable public scrutiny. Her status as an unmarried woman with no direct heirs was a source of potential instability for the monarchy, and her fertility was therefore a point of public interest. However, Elizabeth masterfully navigated the impossible tightrope of her position by presenting herself as wedded to England. This move placed her in an acceptably feminine role as a wife, and allowed her to approach her counselors for financing with the rhetoric of the housewife. At the same time, this allowed her to rule without a king. Her savvy politics and clear understanding of the gender dynamic of her time allowed her to use the very dynamics that resulted in such anxiety about her rule to solidify and maintain her rule. The film works hard to humanize and, critically, to sexualize the queen and to counter her public presentation of stern virginity. The film spends considerable time showing her emotional responses to her three primary loves; Robert Dudley, the Duke of Anjou, and Robert Devereux. It is impossible within this paper to determine whether this is an ahistorical representation coloured by contemporary politics of sex and gender or whether it presents an accurate view of her relationships, and is not necessary. Either way, the representation of Elizabeth in the film supports the idea that there was significant anxiety about gender, sexuality, and feminine power during her reign. Whether she was the strong, stoic, steadfast queen of her own and Puttenham’s poetry, the high-tempered and emotional lover of the film, or some combination of the two, it is clear that her gender, her sexuality and especially her power were a source of anxiety among her subjects.

Elizabethan poetry is poetry about power, and although the negotiation of power may be a universal and transhistorical element of poetry as an art form, the specific cultural context of Elizabeth’s reign gives this poetry a tight focus on power as it is negotiated through gender and sexuality. These poems ask and answer questions about the nature of femininity and masculinity, and often present feminine power as dangerous and sexual, and masculine power as virtuous and violent. Elizabeth works within the boundaries of these gender constructions to both distance herself from sexual femininity and align herself with chaste femininity and virtuous masculinity. Her poets raise a tightrope before her, and she walks it.


Works Cited

Devereux, Robert. “Change thy minde since she doth change.” The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse 1509-1659. Eds. David Norbrook and H.R. Woudhuysen. London: Penguin Books, 2005. 129-30. Print.

Elizabeth I. “Ah silly pugge wert thou so sore afraid.” The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse 1509-1659. Eds. David Norbrook and H.R. Woudhuysen. London: Penguin Books, 2005. 101. Print.

… “The dowbt off future foes exiles my present joye.” The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse 1509-1659. Eds. David Norbrook and H.R. Woudhuysen. London: Penguin Books, 2005. 95. Print.

Elizabeth I. Dir. Tom Hooper. Perf. Helen Mirren, Jeremy Irons, Hugh Dancy and Toby Jones. HBO, 2005. Web.

Shakespeare, William. “Venus and Adonis.” The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse 1509-1659. Eds. David Norbrook and H.R. Woudhuysen. London: Penguin Books, 2005. 290-96. Print.

Spenser, Edmund. “From The Faerie Queene Book II.” The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse 1509-1659. Eds. David Norbrook and H.R. Woudhuysen. London: Penguin Books, 2005. 214-19. Print.

Puttenham, George. The Arte of English Poesie. Ed. Edward Arber. London: Alex Murray & Son, 1869. Google books.

… “Her Majestie.” The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse 1509-1659. Eds. David Norbrook and H.R. Woudhuysen. London: Penguin Books, 2005. 98. Print.


[1] Speculating about whether Elizabeth was sexually active or not is beyond the scope of this paper and not relevant to the topic since the trope of virginity is one that Elizabeth employed politically regardless of her private actions.

[2] “Pugge” is a term of endearment (Norbrook and Woudhuysen 101).

[3] This poem is read bottom to top.

[4] In The Arte of English Poesie, Puttenham writes that the “chapter or head” of a pillar is the top, which is supported by the body and rests on the base (110).

[5] I recognize that this is an ahistorical insertion of Freud into a historical analysis, but it seemed relevant!

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