New Exhibit Focuses on Elizabeth I and Her Impact Today
She was the lady in the ruff. The daughter of one of the world’s great misogynists. A shrewd leader who manipulated states like she did men, whose forces defeated the mighty Spanish Armada. A polyglot intellectual who played the lute in her spare time. She was Elizabeth I, the virgin queen — a woman, as she was fond of saying, with no master and one mistress.
Now, 400 years after the queen’s death, she returns to life in a lavish exhibit — “Elizabeth I, Then and Now” — opening Friday at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
The show follows Elizabeth’s trajectory from her ascension to the throne in 1558 at the tender age of 25 through to her present-day reincarnation in popular culture. In addition to dozens of letters, books and artifacts from the period, the exhibit features the marvelous 1579 Plimpton “Sieve” portrait by George Gower — the archetypal image of the pale-faced, red-haired queen, which the Library has used in most of the promotional material for the retrospective.
Elizabeth’s human side is well represented here. For while the show devotes significant attention to her role as head of the fledgling British Empire, there are also charming glimpses into Elizabeth, the woman. A missive from Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester — “the man she might have married,” according to curator Georgianna Ziegler — invokes the closeness the two shared. Nearby, an 11-foot vellum “New Year’s Gift Roll” takes stock of the bounty Elizabeth received in 1585. Among the presents listed are a “tan velvet housecoat” from the Earl of Leicester, “a box of lute strings” from Francisco, a court musician, and “a fair handkerchief of lawn” from one Mrs. Tomysen, the Dwarf.
A devout Protestant, Elizabeth — daughter of Henry VIII — was considered a religious moderate for her time who, in the words of philosopher Francis Bacon, had no desire “to make windows into men’s hearts and secret thoughts.” One of the gems of the show is Elizabeth’s personal, threadbare red velvet “Bishops’ Bible,” circa 1568.
Her relative religious temperance, however, did not extend to her Irish subjects, largely regarded as “rough, rug-headed kerns,” as Shakespeare wrote of Eire’s inhabitants in “Richard II.” England’s brutal treatment of her Gaelic neighbors as little more than a “territory to be conquered and ruled” reflected the prevailing attitudes, according to the exhibit.
Elizabeth’s relationship to her rival, the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, is also explored in the show, which notes that Elizabeth refused to execute her captive cousin until she was implicated in plots against her person.
The final display case in the library’s Great Hall highlights the queen’s enduring fascination as a subject of contemporary culture. There is the Elizabeth Queen Barbie doll, an Elizabeth-headed rubber duck, even a campy Target ad depicting Elizabeth decked out with an air filter as ruff and a black sweater.
The exhibit also highlights evidence suggesting Elizabeth served as an icon to female intellectuals writing in a pre-feminist era. The American poet Anne Bradstreet devoted 110 lines of her poetry collection published in 1650 to the queen, writing, “She has wiped off th’ aspersions of her sex,/ That women wisdom lack to play the rex.” Likewise, Diana Primrose dedicated her “A Chaine of Pearle” poem to Elizabeth’s memory. As Ziegler observed, “Other women writing in the 17th century began to view Elizabeth as an empowering figure.”
The ultimate “career woman” died in March 1603. Elizabeth’s death was marked with all the lavishness in which she had lived. Her funeral, a majestic event, cost her successor — James VI, son of Mary Queen of Scots — the lofty sum of 17,301 pounds.
As Ziegler concluded, the resilient queen had “outlived everybody who meant anything to her.”
“Elizabeth I, Then and Now,” — runs through Aug. 2 at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol St. SE. It is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. In conjunction with the exhibit, Folger Theatre will present Maxwell Anderson’s “Elizabeth the Queen,” March 22 to May 4, starring Michael Learned. Additionally, the library will host a variety of concerts, educational and cultural events, including a family “tea” in honor of Her Majesty from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday. For more information about any of these events go to www.folger.edu. A display of images from the exhibit will be on view at Union Station March 24 to April 13.
On April 8, in honor of women in Congress, Members are invited to a cocktail party, from 6 to 8 pm., hosted by the Library’s director Gail Kern Paster, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.). To RSVP call (202) 636-8754.