The Renaissance with all its novelties appeared in England about a hundred years later than in Italy, where it originated, so the Italian influence was as powerful for the emergence of the Early Modern English drama as the revival of the classics. But what was even more important than any foreign influences was the English political scene. England was different from Italy mainly because it was a centralised monarchy and the sovereign played a significant role in the development of the country. So with the Reformation and creation of the Church of England, the humanist emphasis on the individual and the secular world became useful. The literary achievements of the best English authors were connected to the decisions of the sovereign (Elizabeth I or James I) – if not directly by trying to gain power, grace or forgiveness by flattering the ruler, then indirectly as a result of their politics – by criticizing it in a form of satire or anticourt plays or by being restricted in the choice of topics (censorship).
After King Henry VIII’s death, the situation seemed to be resolved – his son, Edward, was his successor. But Edward died after six years on the throne and so did Mary, Henry’s first daughter who reigned in England as Mary I together with her husband, Philip II of Spain.21 When Elizabeth became the queen, there were many things that had to be done and said to make her position secure and gain the love of her people. Instructed by her sister’s unpopularity, her reign being a “grim example of female rule” (Allman 25), it was inevitable for Elizabeth to find another way of self-representation. She found it in androgyny. While androgyny is a “divinely transcendent state of being appropriate for sovereign majesty” (Ibid.), it is also a threat to patriarchy because it denies the essentialism of sex and gender. It is not known whether it was Elizabeth’s personal inclination or a philosophical posture, but androgyny was certainly a “political necessity” (Allman 25). She was able to become a partly masculine persona and take on all the rights that belonged to the head of a patriarchal state by “laying claim to the inherently masculine authority of the monarchy” (Allman 26). She even called herself Prince and later King. But, on the other hand, she was “ostentatiously female” – dressed in beautiful dresses, flirting with her courtiers and foreign ambassadors. But she went further in claiming her feminine side – she created the Cult of Elizabeth. It made her feminine side powerful, too. She positioned herself as the Virgin Queen and “because virginity involved women voluntarily controlling their allegedly voracious sexual appetites, it was an area of female power granted them by and within patriarchal theory and often honoured them with the highest compliment” (Allman 26). This highest compliment was in accordance with patriarchal thoughts about women since the Ancient Greek – the ability to rely on herself in terms of preserving her chastity or reputation “made a woman male” (Ibid.). The power she thus earned for her feminine side laid in the fact that as a virgin “she owed obedience only and directly to God and not to a man who, representing God, would stand between her and the governing of England” (Allman 26). This enabled her to escape the terrible example of her sister’s reign. Through the Cult and the literary works connected to it, she put herself on the side of famous women from both biblical and classical stories. She became the Dame Nature and presented herself “as exhibiting the best of Nature’s gifts to women – beauty, strength, youth, fertility – maintaining her title to these attributes even after they had become obvious fictions” (Allman 27). She became, in her female form, “the authority of education, wit, cultivation, and political acumen” (Ibid.). This practice enabled her to become fully androgynous – she did not have to deny her femininity to become only masculine in power, while she was female biologically. The best example of her powerful androgynous persona is her speech at Tilbury before the battle against the Spanish Armada in 1588. She appeared in front of her soldiers dressed “as armed Pallas” and spoke to them as their queen with “the body but of a weak and feeble woman” and at the same time as a man who has “the heart and stomach of a king, and of a King of England, too” (Allman 27). At first she confirms that she is a weak woman unsuitable for battlefield but then adds that she is a king courageous enough to lead them. If she was really dressed as Pallas Athena, she combined male and female because “what she gave to her male heart and stomach, she dressed as a female god” (Allman 28). Yet not only her appearance was influential, also her rhetoric had a desired effect – she asked the soldiers “as chivalrous men to come the defence of a helpless woman” and at the same time “challenged them to be as manly as their king” (Allman 28). Her strategy involved demeaning women as helpless, weak and feeble, but she could not afford to demean men – their position was problematic enough because they had to serve a woman. As soon as the day of her coronation she came with a solution for this problematic position of her male subjects – she pronounced herself a wife to the kingdom. Thus all her male subjects as parts of the kingdom became faithful husbands of this “still unravished bride” (Allman 28). This proclamation could mean, as many critics suggest, that the queen was already decided to stay this unravished bride and never marry. Certainly it was a possibility if she wanted to avoid what happened to Mary I, while it would have been politically problematic for her to marry an Englishman because he would inevitably be of a lower social rank than she and would become her superior via marriage; it was unthinkable to marry a Christian king or a foreign aristocrat because the religious situation in England was still unstable. Nevertheless, it was not only this political construct what was important – it was also the “method of dissemination” – she positioned herself in “the centre of a national theatre” and invited others to “play” (Allman 28). The courtiers and aristocrats participated in her “self-creation” – they competed by writing courtly flatteries or by hiring a poet to do so, to get a better position at the court. Elizabeth was not a patron of any poet herself, but taking into consideration the earlier mentioned vulnerable relationship of the female patron and the poet, it was better to let the men of her country take the responsibility for anything similar to slander. And it probably flattered and amused her to see the noblemen striving for her appreciation.
While the literary works engaging in the Cult of Elizabeth were praising her on many levels, the defences of women in general were not as supportive as they were for example in Italy. The original English works “do not challenge the traditional valuation of women on the basis of their sexual purity; nor do they employ the rhetorical method of paradox; nor do they engage in a serious analysis of woman’s social role as defined by classical authorities” (Benson 205). The reason for this unsupportive environment for women was the problematic political situation in England – because of the “rival claimants to the throne and of the Protestant notion that England was an elect nation, rule by a woman in England resulted in the theoretical restriction of fields for women rather than their expansion as one idealistically minded might have expected” (Benson 234). Pamela Benson’s theory that “the independent woman was an enemy in practical political thought in England” (235) is supported by defence works by John Aylmer – Harborowe for faithfull and trewe Subjects – and by Henry Howard – A Dutiful defense of the lawful regiment of women. While Howard’s text was praising female autonomy and provided “evidence of the strategies used to contain or encourage the independent woman” (Benson 235), it was never printed and survived in only three manuscripts. Aylmer’s text, on the other hand, was defensive against female autonomy and its existence in many printed copies provided “physical evidence of the dominance of the extraordinary-woman theory” (Benson 235). Howard was supporting the “exemplary woman” method, while Aylmer was rooting for the “extraordinary woman” – when Mary I’s succession was endangered by Jane Grey’s claim to the throne and Elizabeth was facing the Babington plot planning to replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots, it is understandable that defending Elizabeth’s reign in terms of the “exemplary” method – every woman is capable of the same if she is given the same opportunities – was not desired. The most popular defence of women, Spencer’s The Faerie Queene, was a mixture of the two methods – while he “defines the feminine and its role in positive terms” and “establishes chastity as the basis of its power and woman’s capacity for procreation as its most material manifestation” (Benson 251), he “is not committed to feminine dominance or partnership; he merely brings to the foreground something that is usually held back” (Benson 252) and he “makes no protest against the repression of women, no attempt to rally their forces to a renaissance” (Benson 284). So he praises the feminine virtue, which is a tool of the “exemplary” method, while he praises Elizabeth as the “glorious exception to the decline caused by masculine government of time and of literary production” (Benson 282), which is according to the “extraordinary” method. As it was said, it was typical for Elizabeth’s reign that women were not praised for their abilities and she was the sole exception – Spencer’s popularity is only a proof of this reality, because what was not working to support Elizabeth was eliminated.