Happy Birthday Queen Bess!

 

queen bess 2

If you read my blog regularly you already know about my big obsession with Queen Elizabeth I.  Born on this day, September 7, 1533, she was one of England’s greatest monarchs, successfully ruling for forty five years.

Bess, however, started out as an unlikely candidate for the throne. She was the daughter of King Henry VIII and Queen Anne Boleyn. With a shaky upbringing that included her dad Henry beheading her mother Anne when Elizabeth was just three years old, the girl went in and out of favor with the King.  Her title changed often. The precocious child  was aware of this, often questioning her caretakers:

“For why yesterday I was the Princess Elizabeth and today only Lady?”

red head

When Henry died, Bess was third in line for the crown. Her brother Edward became king at the tender age of nine and ruled until his untimely death just six years later. Her older sister Mary then reigned for five years. Mary, a devout Catholic, was often at odds with Elizabeth, a staunch Protestant. When Mary died in 1558, Bess  finally took the throne.

The new queen was twenty five years old, highly intelligent, tall, red haired, lovely and possessing much of her father’s strong will.  Her status (bastard or not a bastard?)  was still considered questionable. Nonetheless, Bess became a much beloved monarch.

Fun facts:

Elizabeth served time in the Tower of London, arrested for treason after she was wrongly accused of plotting to overthrow her sister Mary. It was, ironically, Phillip of Spain, Mary’s husband, who pled for Elizabeth’s release.  His intentions were not entirely noble, as he knew his own wife was sickly and he planned to gain favor with Bess and wed her after Mary’s inevitable death. Needless to say, Bess refused him.

Her nicknames were Gloriana, Good Queen Bess and The Virgin Queen.

The Virgin Queen was also an astrological Virgo! She had many typical characteristics of the sign — pragmatism, good money management, discretion and concern for others.

Although most historians agree that Bess actually was a virgin, she had a long romantic involvement with her courtier and horse master Robert Dudley. This caused rumors and gossip. However, although there was great anticipation  for her to be wed, Bess never married and produced no heirs. (At least not any legitimate heirs that we know about.)

The whiteness of her skin, as it appears in many portraits, was achieved through a makeup combination of eggshells and lead. (Yes lead! Its effects were apparently unknown at the time.)

Painting of Queen Elizabeth I of England Elizabeth 1_original.j

She spoke Latin, French, German and Spanish.

She loved sweets. One of her favorite foods was sugar coated violets. Her dental health suffered because of this and Bess eventually had a mouth full of rotten teeth.

queen bess 4

Regarding her so-called marriage plans, Bess was a master at bait and switch. She would often ‘consider’ marriage proposals, but only to gain political favor with a particular country. Once peace was established, she would send suitors on their merry way.

Bess often claimed she was ‘married to England’.  She proved this to be true in her political actions. She once even tried to arrange a marriage between her cousin Mary Queen of Scots and her own love interest Robert Dudley — because she wanted Dudley to serve as a spy and keep track of the Scottish queen’s activities.

dudley and scots

This suggestion caused the insulted Dudley to leave court in a huff.  He then married Lettice Knollys,  Bess’ lady in waiting,  and did not speak to Bess for years.

What exactly was Queen Elizabeth’s aversion to marriage? Consider the circumstances.  Her own father beheaded not only her mother, but also her cousin (Catherine Howard, Henry’s fifth wife) and several other kinsmen. Her relationship with Dudley was wrought with scandal and threats to her power. Sleazy Phillip of Spain tried to worm his way into her affections for political gain.  My guess, she only ever equated marriage with danger. She saw it as an institution that threatened her realm and her life.

Bess was a lover of plays and supported Shakespearean drama.  She herself was a musician, accomplished at the lute and virginals.

play on

She, along with her secretary Sir Francis Walsingham, created the most notorious spy operation of Renaissance England.  Walsingham undermined several plots to overthrow Elizabeth, including a Catholic scheme involving Mary Queen of Scots.  Bess’ network of spies, which included Christopher Marlowe, often were turn coats — former Catholics who switched sides but remained savvy to Catholic networks and thus reported plans to Walsingham.

Bess was such a good spymaster,  she even wore dresses to advertise the fact! Note this famous portrait:

queen bess 2

Upon closer examination, we see that the detail of the fabric is decorated with tiny ears and eyes! This was to send the symbolic message: “I see and hear you” and more importantly “Don’t betray me.”

queen bess 1

She never quite gave up her obsession for Robert Dudley. After her death, a letter was found among her most private belongings, hand written by Robert, with a note from Bess labeling it his last letter to her.  She is said to have called out his name on her deathbed.

Elizabeth is still considered one of England’s best monarchs. Her great accomplishments include defeating the Spanish Armada, restoring prosperity to the realm and keeping relative peace in the country despite great religious divides. She died in 1603 of natural causes.

Elizabeth I has been portrayed by some of the world’s finest actresses, including Flora Robson, Bette Davis, Vanessa Redgrave, Glenda Jackson, Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, and Anne-Mare Duff. This fun montage gives a sampling, hope you like it!

Happy Birthday Bess!

 

 

 

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Punk Rock Shakespeare!

 

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Are you watching TNT’s new series ‘Will’, about the life of young William Shakespeare as a newcomer in the London theater scene, circa 1588?

And if not, WHY NOT???

Okay, okay.  I know Shakespearean scholars are rolling their eyes, saying how DARE this series take such liberties?  They have changed Elizabethan London into a gritty  punk rock world of mohawks and warpaint!  They have used historically inaccurate costumes! They have made up a background story of Will as a persecuted Catholic.  They have given him a fictional lover named Alice Burbage and set him in a (horror of horrors)  rap showdown with fellow playwright Robert Greene! And they expect any educated sincere student of Shakespeare to watch this trash?

The answer is YES!!

For far too long, Shakespeare has been buried in a dusty old cellar of books marked ‘highbrow’, ‘difficult’ and ‘boring’.  People do not realize he was once a 24 year old trail blazer, full of talent and ambition, thrown into a vicious, provocative and cosmopolitan city.  He had a wife and three children to support and was determined to make his mark.

I am here to defend this series and tell you why — if you are interested in the Bard and his ilk — you must watch at once!  Or at leas watch this trailer.

 

First of all, there is very little we  know for sure about young Will Shakespeare. He married Anne Hathaway at age 18, had three children, somehow ended up in London and became the most famous playwright in the world.

Documentation tells us that his twins, Hamnett and Judith, were baptized on Feb. 2, 1585. In 1592 there was a derogatory review written by playwright Robert Greene which referred to Shakespeare as an ‘upstart crow’ and a ‘Shake-scene’.

upstart-crow

Other than that, no one really has any idea what young Master Shakespeare was doing between the ‘lost years’ of 1585 to 1592.

Most likely he was in London, perfecting his craft, making contacts and worming his way into the theater.  Anyone who has read the plays knows  he was a man of passion. He could not possibly have written all he did without some actual life experience.

There are  some other things, though, that we DO know about the young Bard  —  which give clues to possible truths portrayed in the new series

1)  Being Catholic?

Shakespeare very well may have been a closet Catholic.  His mother’s family, the Ardens, were devout Catholics.  Years later, Catholic artifacts such as rosaries and Extreme Unction kits (which had been forbidden) were found in Shakespeare’s childhood home.

rosary pd

Being a closet Catholic was dangerous and life threatening in Protestant England.

When Queen Bess came to the throne in 1558, Catholicism was outlawed, but people still practiced in secret.  Bess would probably have been lenient, but eventually, as more Catholic plots threatened the Queen’s life, laws against Catholicism got stricter. Practicing Catholicism could get you drawn and quartered.

This meant basically that they would cut you in quarters and pull out your intestines before hanging you as a traitor.

Quartering

Yeah. I’d keep it a secret too.

 

2)  Elizabethan Theater = Punk Rock? You bet!

The entertainment scene of the 16th century was not  respectable in the least. Theaters were bawdy places full of raucous nut jobs who engaged in drinking, whoring and pick-pocketing.  All along the south bank of the Thames River, arm in arm with the theaters were houses of prostitution and dens for bear baiting.   Some theaters even doubled as bear pits on their off days!

Bear baiting was like dog fighting — on steroids. A chained bear would be teased and tormented  by dogs, then let loose to claw them to pieces.  Which shows just how dangerous/ crazy this environment was.

Playwrights were often arrested for writing seditious material.  It was a constant envelope-push to see how much politically incorrect  and offensive stuff they could get away with.

British Design at V&A - God Save The Queen Poster by Jamie Reid

Plays provided cheap, rowdy entertainment. Any peasant could come in off the street, pay a half-penny entrance fee and stand in front of the stage. These were known as ‘groundlings’  —  unwashed, unkempt, swilling ale, and not beyond throwing stuff at the stage if the entertainment was not good enough.  Sound familiar?

audience Will

Besides that, the costumes used in the series are creative, stunning and tailored.   Queen Bess meets Vivienne Westwood.  It may not be historically accurate but…

Would you really want to watch guys dressed like this?

tudor style

No, I wouldn’t either.

 

3)  The Many Loves of Will Shakespeare?

Shakespeare’s plays deal with love in all its forms — forbidden, absurd, sublime, fulfilled and unrequited. He arguably knew the minds of women better than any other male writer of his time and beyond.  Much like the 90’s movie ‘Shakespeare in Love’, the TNT series attempts to show how young Will may have gotten his inspiration.

Her name is Alice. She is the daughter of theater owner James Burbage  and sister to actor Richard.  In real life, James Burbage had no known daughters, but Alice’s character is an ambitious, intelligent woman stifled by 16th century rules. She defies her father and often cross-dresses for her own safety — providing the inspiration Will would have needed for his female characters.  (Think Portia, Viola, Desdemona and Juliet.)

And what of Christopher Marlowe?  The notorious playwright/ spy who dominated the Elizabethan theater scene  until his untimely death at age 29 is played by the amazing Jamie Campbell Bower.  Marlowe, openly gay and staggeringly handsome, may prove an additional temptation for Will.

Who was the ‘Fair Youth’ of Shakespeare’s love sonnets? (Hint: Not a woman!)

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4) Eerie Resemblance?

No one really knows what young Will actually looked like.  This portrait, dated from the late 16th century, unearthed with other actor’s portraits and coinciding exactly to his age, is often thought to be Shakespeare.

shakespeare-grafton-portrait

Compare to the actor cast as Will:  Laurie Davidson

will 2

Weird  resemblance, right? Perhaps a ghost is present!

By now I should have convinced you to take a look a this series. You can watch the first episode free here: Will Sneak Peak.

Let me know what you think!

 

 

 

Twelfth Night

 

12thnightgraphic

Viola is in love with Orsino.  Orsino is in love with Olivia.  Olivia is in love with Viola. Malvolio is in love with Olivia.  Antonio is in love with Sebastian. Sebastian is in love with Olivia.  Maria is in love with Sir Toby.  Sir Toby is in love with beer. (Here is where you say, “Love sucks!”)

But to complicate the situation — Viola (for personal reasons) has been dressing like a boy.  Sebastian is Viola’s twin brother.  Olivia (in love with Viola) takes one look at Sebastian and — well, you should watch the movie!

Twelfth Night is a farcical comedy, written by William Shakespeare in around 1601. It is a perfect play for the celebrations of Twelfth Night (January 6th) which mark the end of the Christmas season. Role reversals, mummers and merry-making were the Elizabethan order of the day. The Lord of Misrule came to rule. Servants were masters and masters were servants.  The play’s full title was ‘Twelfth Night or What You Will’, seemingly because Twelfth Night is a night to do precisely what you personally will.

I still say The Shakes was way ahead of his time, constantly delving into themes of gender identity, cross-dressing and homoerotic love, centuries before they ever became political or civil rights issues.

If you have never seen Twelfth Night, you are in for a treat! This 1988 version, made for television and produced by Kenneth Branagh is one of my favorites. Running time is about 2.5 hours. Hope you get the chance to watch it, or — do What You Will!