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Review of Shakespeare and Elizabeth

Shakespeare and Elizabeth: The Meeting of Two Myths
By Helen Hackett
Princeton University Press, 2009

Merely glancing at the title of Helen Hackett’s new book Shakespeare and Elizabeth, how can a reader help but remember the single most thrilling moment at the climax of that merry little movie Shakespeare in Love, in which Judi Dench’s massive, imperious Elizabeth I reveals herself from the audience of the premiere of “Romeo and Juliet”? Smiling at the memory, those same readers may fear they’ve found in Hackett a stiff killjoy, since she writes:

Many mythologizers have loved to imagine Elizabeth attending a Shakespeare play at a playhouse, usually the Globe. The scenario has many attractions: it depicts Elizabeth mingling democratically with her subjects and sharing their pleasures; and it presents in one neatly encapsulated scene the essential ingredients of the so called Elizabethan golden age; Gloriana, Shakespeare and his characters, and the vivacious and rumbustious people of Tudor England, all dressed in colorful and picturesque period costume. Yet this event is not only undocumented but also highly unlikely.

I can assure you that Shakespeare and Elizabeth never carries through on this threat -– although it makes the threat with curious insistence, almost as though Hackett feels she has to provide an ongoing caution against the inherent fun of her subject matter. A quick passage from the book’s conclusion makes you wonder if academics actually want to scare away potential readers:

As well as continuing generic hybridity, cultural fusions are likely to play a part in future representations of Shakespeare and Elizabeth. This book has emphasized the importance of the doubt myth for Anglophone culture, and this culture extends, of course, in differing degrees to many of the nations which were formerly part of the British Empire, where Shakespeare’s words and Elizabethan history were part of the colonial educational syllabus.

Luckily, in the hybridity which governs this book, the fun always wins out. Hackett covers every permutation of her dual subject matter, from performance history to parodies (like Julius Sneezer, Much Ado about the Merchant of Venice, and the great, forgotten Hamlet and Egglet), sonnet-analysis to, of course, the tangled mass of the Shakespeare authorship controversy, most pointedly the Baconian and quasi-Baconian rantings that posit Shakespeare as the secret son of Elizabeth:

Also underlying it [the aforementioned rantings], of course, was snobbery. Some nineteenth-century Shakespeareans accentuated Shakespeare’s humble origins in order to emphasize his miraculous genius, but this could have an opposite effect, encouraging some to find it incredible that a mere provincial, grammar-school-educated glover’s son could have penned the immortal words of the great Bard. In many Baconian writings Elizabeth was vituperated as a bad mother, yet at the same time as a royal mother she was the means of elevating Bacon/Shakespeare to a more appropriate social station.

The quietly prodigious learning of Shakespeare and Elizabeth (its ungallant title notwithstanding) takes in everything from Doctor Johnson to Doctor Who, and naturally Mark Twain makes an appearance, lampooning the veneration of all things Shakespearean in his hilarious sketch 1601 and thundering into the authorship controversy in 1909’s Is Shakespeare Dead? Hackett deals with Twains obstreperousness just as even-handedly as she deals with the poor souls who maintain Elizabeth actually was Shakespeare and wrote all his plays the free moments when she wasn’t repelling the Spanish Armada. There’s quite a lot of material packed into this slim volume, and despite Hackett’s occasional lapses into academy-speak, the unpacking is well worth the price of admission.

“Shakespear’s pow’r is sacred as a King’s,” Dryden once wrote. “Sacred as a Queen’s” would be more like it.

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