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Friday, January 16, 2015

Queen Elizabeth and Shakespeare's Henry V


Yesterday was the anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, on 15 January 1559.




I have written about that coronation before (here), and I was trying to think of something new to write about her this year.

I read something not long ago that struck me, and I would like to share it with you.

Queen Elizabeth I was a romantic. And she could take a joke. It would seem that she had a very healthy, and bawdy, sense of humour.

As I was reading Neil MacGregor’s Shakespeare’s Restless World — which I reviewed not long ago (here), and you really must read it — he quickly mentions the importance of the character of Katherine de Valois in Shakespeare’s Henry V play.

He mentions that as much as Queen Elizabeth would have liked to consider herself descended from Henry V, she was not. She was descended from Katherine and her second husband, Owen Tudor.

Mr. MacGregor says that Shakespeare was very shrewd to include the “captivating” Katherine in the play, and to depict her and Henry V as “the celebrity couple of everyone’s dreams.”

What is striking about this, if Shakespeare wrote Katherine specifically for Queen Elizabeth’s entertainment, then it says a great deal about Queen Elizabeth.

When we first meet Katherine in the play, she is struggling to learn English from Alice, her lady-in-waiting. The scene is very amusing, but by the end it becomes something more. There is a bawdy punch-line to the entire scene. 

(If you haven’t seen it, the Shakespeare’s Globe production with Jamie Parker as Henry V is excellent. Olivia Ross as Katherine and Lisa Stevenson as Alice are superb, and they are the funniest I have ever seen.)

Here is a clip from that scene, but it does not include the  bawdy joke:




So, when Shakespeare wrote that bawdy joke, he knew that it would have entertained Queen Elizabeth.

As much as Shakespeare knew that a bawdy joke like that would have made the audience at the Globe laugh, he didn’t really write it for them. He wrote it for his queen.

The second time we see Katherine, it is a hilarious and very romantic scene where King Henry woos her.




This is a scene that would have entertained anyone at the Globe, and everyone at court. But again, if we look at it from the perspective of what it meant to Queen Elizabeth, there is a sweet romantic quality to the scene, that is somewhat unique in Shakespeare’s plays. The characters both reveal themselves to each other in ways that we have not seen before, and their vulnerability is very touching.

 This scene also has no bawdiness like the earlier scene. Why? Perhaps Shakespeare knew that to include more bawdiness might be politically incorrect.

What does this scene say about Queen Elizabeth?

Well, by the time she saw the play, around 1599, she was 66 years old, yet it would seem that she could still remember what it was like to be young, like Katherine, and to be wooed. She still had a heart that craved romance.

There are other characters in Shakespeare’s plays which I identify as written to resemble his queen, such as Portia in Merchant of Venice, and that other Kate, in Taming of the Shrew. I think they tell us about Queen Elizabeth’s other qualities, like mercy, and temper.

But for now, to honor and remember Queen Elizabeth I, it is enough to say that, from what he see in the Katherine/Henry V scenes, she was a monarch who had a great sense of humour and had the heart of an princess until her final years.

Cheers,


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