Lisa Hopkins. 2002. Writing Renaissance Queens: Texts by and about Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. Newark and London: University of Delaware Press. 209 pp. ISBN 0-87413-786-1. £35.
- Writing Renaissance Queens is a study of the representations of queenship as exemplified by Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart. Hopkins privileges writings about Elizabeth I rather than her self-representation in the creation of her cultural memory. She argues that in an age of ambiguity, 'Elizabeth's own writing . . . is essentially [of] erasure' (19) she constantly scored out words and exercised censorship that undermined effective representation of herself as a 'queen'. Hopkins argues in favour of the Roy Strong line that 'it is in the arena of the visual that Elizabeth seems to be surest of exercising control' and 'female glamourization' (19). Hopkins claims to pay more attention to the writings of Mary because she revealed herself with more certainty as a 'queen' having lived that state 'virtually from birth' (12).
- Writing Renaissance Queens has four thematic sections: 'Writing Renaissance Queens', 'Queens' Self-representations', 'Staging the Queen' and 'Remembering the Queen'. In the first, Hopkins's aim is to explore the contradictory representations of queens offered by male writers. She points out that the sixteenth century witnessed the juxtaposition of rising numbers of female rulers with rising interest in theories of government. She suggests this led to the often vitriolic theories of female rule (as exemplified by John Knox's First Blast of the Trumpet) and use of the term 'king' as a 'false universal' of the kind thoroughly explored and recently laid bare by Hilda Smith. Female rulers, despite Elizabeth's determined 'transcendent androgyny' (35), were in large enough number to force reconsideration of the notion of 'woman' as transmitter rather than wielder of power. Hopkins also points out that while the language of sexuality was a major tool used to discredit female rule, Renaissance queens themselves avoided its use (indeed, Elizabeth strangely exiled female sexuality through her use of the concept of 'virginity').
- A further interesting observation is that while male writers portrayed queens 'as careless and unbridled wielders of power', queens like Elizabeth and Mary saw themselves as exactly the opposite, as an almost imprisoned species, 'abject and powerless' and, indeed, imprisoned (41-2). This idea is central to the second part of the book when Hopkins examines the prison 'notebooks' of Mary, Elizabeth and Marguerite of Navarre. She deploys the Foucauldian notion that pre-modern prisons involved 'punishment' in the sense that during incarceration the victim was suspended between life and 'dismemberment'. The chapter is oddly put together it works backwards chronologically, starting with Mary Stuart's imprisonment and then Elizabeth's, which brings the author to a series of observations about the 'singular irony' (66) that Anne Boleyn obtained her copy of Le Miroir from Marguerite of Navarre herself. Hopkins's main conclusion seems to be that out of female imprisonment arises the desire to exercise control through writing. This idea leads directly into the next chapter which comprises a rather enjoyable reading of Mary Queen of Scots' poetry. The chapter concludes with the assertion that it is as a poetess (rather than as the woman leading her 'chaotic life') that Mary was able 'to exercise queenship and control' (85).
- The third section of Writing Renaissance Queens examines representations of queenship in Arden of Faversham; Shakespeare (whom Hopkins describes as devising 'positive strategies to avoid [Elizabeth]' (104)); and Elizabeth Cary's Tragedy of Mariam. The overall argument is that late Elizabethan and Jacobean plays reassessed the female polity as the political power of Elizabeth I waned. In Arden of Faversham Hopkins finds conflict and confusion over kingship/queenship and in Shakespeare she finds the recurrent topos of subverted female independence. Throughout Shakespearean tragedy as well as Mariam Hopkins finds the confused figuring of queens through the contrasts (and 'othering') of whiteness and blackness: in the Shrew Bianca is figuratively white but becomes stained, in Othello Desdemona's white handkerchief becomes spotted with sexual guilt and in Mariam the tragic queen of Jewry is of ambiguous colour, her black eyes forming a perhaps tenuous link with those of Anne Boleyn (116-17).
- Writing Renaissance Queens ends with posthumous representations of Elizabeth I, arguing that her passing led to Protestant reaffirmation of rejection of female rule in Milton's figuring of queenship as the deposed Virgin Mary and the dubious triumvirate of Catholic Marys Mary Tudor, Mary of Guise and Mary Queen of Scots. Hopkins's point at the end of the book is that by the time Milton is writing queens either into or out of Paradise the story most strongly told by Elizabeth is coming to an end. Her final paragraphs push the story a bit further to Bram Stoker to argue that in the reign of Victoria '[t]he trope [. . .] comes full circle' when Elizabeth is represented not as a metaphorical male, but as a real male (159). The main point of this book is, thus, reinforced Renaissance queens are represented as tropes of female unfitness to rule except by women themselves.
- Writing Renaissance Queens is a book with a difficult argument that at times seems source-driven. Hopkins privileges the outsider's look-in at Elizabeth I and not Elizabeth's own 'imaging', but, despite the omission of Elizabeth on Elizabeth, this is a book that, in the end, is interested in Elizabeth her effect on literary culture, her impact on political thought, her haunting of Milton and so on. In this failing there lies a strength Elizabeth's silence creates space for another queen and the chapter on the verse of Mary Queen of Scots is the strongest in the book. Hopkins points out that a major theme of the representation of Renaissance queens has been the pitting against one another of Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots, 'in a culturally loaded contest for the meaning of femininity' (89). Indeed, this historiographical trend has most recently been exemplified by David Starkey's televised Elizabeth. Hopkins avoids this clichι, but instead she over-reads her texts in a 'stream of consciousness' way that sometimes divorces them from context.
UNIVERSITY OF HULL
© Copyright Amanda Capern 2004.
Renaissance Forum 2004. ISSN 1362-1149. Volume 7, Winter 2004.
Technical Editor: Andrew Butler. Updated
23 December 2004.