Internet Shakespeare Editions


The Virgin Queen

Elizabeth I. Hilliard. Victoria and Albert Museum.

Living in a conservative society, in which both tradition and religion proclaimed the natural inferiority of women, Elizabeth used her sex to advantage by creating a personal myth that raised her above the ordinary.

Elizabeth's councillors pressured her towards marriage as the natural course, essential to ensure an undisputed succession. But Elizabeth found more advantages in remaining single. She could avoid the loss of authority to her husband and the dangers of childbirth, while using her eligibility for political gain: European monarchs who were hopeful suitors were less likely to pose a threat. Like Cleopatra, in Antony and Cleopatra, Elizabeth was a strong ruler who was willing to use her sex to advantage--only in Elizabeth's case it was by remaining a virgin. Also, by refusing to name her heir, Elizabeth prevented him or her* from becoming a focal point of opposition.

Queen and huntress, chaste and fair

Elizabeth could also justify turning the divine order of male dominance upside down by asserting that it was the will of Providence: she was appointed by God to restore the (Protestant) Gospel to England--and, after all, she ruled by divine right.

Her virginity set her apart as an extraordinary woman, allowing propaganda to raise her to the level of a virgin goddess; literature*, music*, and art* furnished many allusions to Elizabeth as the chaste moon-goddess Diana (Diana, Cynthia, Semele) and even made her a rival of the Virgin Mary: "In earth the first, in heaven the second Maid." The Queen may have had quite personal reasons for choosing not to marry: "If I am to disclose to you what I should prefer if I follow the inclination of my nature, it is this: beggar-woman and single, far rather than queen and married!" (From Haigh, Elizabeth I, 13-20.)

Propaganda and reality

Although Elizabeth's tactics -- what today we might call her propaganda machine -- seduced her courtiers, subjects and even historians, she was not infallible. Representations of Elizabeth dating back to her coronation portray her as an almost divine monarch; however, especially in the early stages of her reign, she walked a very fine line. For example, shortly after her coronation she was courted by many men who hoped to father the next heir to the English throne. People began to speculate to the extent that betting pools were run on who the next King would be. Eventually, the line of candidates for the position of Elizabeth's husband became so long it caused a royal scandal which threatened the political stability of England. It is likely that at this time Elizabeth consciously decided to remain single and adopt the persona of the virgin queen, both to save appearances and for future political maneuvering.


  1. Waiting in the wings . . .

    One of the most prominent possibilities for an heir was Mary Queen of Scots, a Catholic. The prospect of Elizabeth's yet taking a husband and producing an heir might have deterred Mary from pressing her claims to the throne prematurely, since she could still be named Elizabeth's successor.

  2. Literary tributes

    In drama, several plays were written specifically to glorify the Queen: Lyly's Endymion (1588) personifies Elizabeth as Cynthia, chaste and unattainable goddess of the moon; Peele's The Arraignment of Paris (1589) dramatizes the choice Paris had to make between the goddesses of power, fame and love, but in this version he turns instead to the Queen sitting in the audience and gives the golden apple to her.

    In poetry, the line quoted on the main page ("Qeen and huntress, chaste and fair") is from a poem by Ben Jonson included in his Court masque, Cynthia's Revels-- in which, again, the Queen is figured as the goddess of the moon. Also spectacular as a tribute was Spenser's epic, The Faerie Queene, in which Queen Elizabeth is represented in allegorical form by several different characters.

  3. One up on a goddess

    In 1601 a whole collection of madrigals was published, called The Triumphs of Oriana. In it, all madrigals were framed as compliments to the Queen, and all ended with the refrain "Long live fair Oriana" (a reference to Elizabeth). Thomas Morley, who set some of Shakespeare's songs, and Thomas Weelkes each contributed a madrigal.

    Weelkes' is a wonderful example of the genre, and its lyrics are typical: as the Roman goddess Vesta was descending from her shrine, attended by the vestal virgins, they saw "a maiden queen" ascending. The vestal virgins desert the goddess and join the train of the queen, singing, of course, "Long live fair Oriana."

    (Listen to the way the music echoes the sense of the words with notes rising as the nymphs go up the hill, descending as they descend, and so on.)

    As Vesta was from Latmos hill descending,
    She spied a maiden queen the same ascending,
    Attended on by all the shepherds swain,
    To whom Diana's darlings came running down amain,
    First two by two, then three by three together,
    Leaving their goddess all alone, hasted thither;
    And mingling with the shepherds of her train,
    With mirthful tunes her presence entertain.
    Then sang the shepherds and nymphs of Diana,
    Long live fair Oriana!

  4. The allegorical Queen

    Many state portraits of Elizabeth made use of allegory or symbolism. Below are listed some of the symbols associated with the Virgin Queen (note how they stress qualities of Elizabeth's dual nature as both sovereign and woman, particularly in the image of the pelican):

    • the Tudor Rose: unity and order
    • a fleur-de-lis: English claims in France
    • a phoenix: the eternal nature of kingship
    • a serpent: prudence and wisdom
    • a sword: justice
    • long hair: virginity
    • an ermine: purity
    • a dog: fidelity
    • an olive branch or rainbow: peace
    • a pelican: Christ-like redemption and charity (in legend, the pelican fed its young on its own blood).

    (Information on symbolism in art is derived from Roy Strong's Gloriana, The Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, 1987.)

  5. The dancing Queen

    Part of Queen Elizabeth's personality cult involved elaborate celebrations at Court, including feasting, dancing (as recreated in this illustration) masques, and performances of plays, including many of Shakespeare's. Click for more on Court life.