Making Make-Believe Real: Politics as Theater in Shakespeare's Time

Making Make-Believe Real: Politics as Theater in Shakespeare's Time

by Garry Wills

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A penetrating study of the images, symbols, pageants, and creative performances ambitious Elizabethans used to secure political power


A penetrating study of the images, symbols, pageants, and creative performances ambitious Elizabethans used to secure political power

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New York Times Book Review - John Simon
"As entertainingly readable as it is broadly informative.”—John Simon, New York Times Book Review on Rome and Rhetoric

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Yale University Press
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Making Make-Believe Real

Politics as Theater in Shakespeare's Time



Copyright © 2014 Garry Wills
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-19753-2


Loved Ruler

From the moment Elizabeth became queen in 1558, members of her Parliament had no doubt about their first responsibility: it was to get the queen married. Despite her signs of anger at such a demand, four Parliaments in a row kept issuing it, even trying to refuse her funds unless she promised to come up with a husband in short order. Lack of a clear succession meant, should she die or be disabled, that there would be strife among contenders for the Crown. Another of the civil wars that had tortured the realm would ensue. It was irresponsible for her to run this risk. It was bad enough that she was a woman when preachers were thundering that man was the head of woman in the Bible. It was worse that she had no male consort to bear the authority. It would be worst of all if she did not move immediately to wed, so she could bear the necessary heir.

Admittedly there were other women who were called queens in and around the time of Elizabeth. But they were all married, some already had male heirs (assuring succession), and all had dynastic connections in Europe. By comparison with those queens, Elizabeth was an anomaly—as a female ruler, unnatural; illegitimate by birth; disowned by her royal father; not sure of marriage or issue; not allied by family with other rulers; caught precariously between entrenched religious factions at home and abroad. Alexander Nowell, the dean of St. Paul's, bravely broached the problem in his address to the queen on the opening of the 1563 Parliament: "All the Queen's most noble ancestors have commonly had some issue to succeed them, but her Majesty yet none; which want is, for our sins, to be a plague unto us."

Not only Parliament but her own privy councilors thought her first priority should be getting a husband and an heir, as soon as possible—delay was out of the question. Elizabeth knew she must make some show of preparing to marry, and she told her Parliament that she would eventually do so. She may even, at times, have wished to marry. She had plenty of candidates to choose from. Foreign rulers desired to unite her throne to theirs, and at least seven of her own subjects had plausible hopes for such a union. She was responsive to some of these suits. It helped her delay a decision if people thought she was carefully weighing the choice.

Elizabeth liked to be thought sexy, and encouraged that idea, flirting with favorites and dressing provocatively into her sixties. She was athletic, she rode gracefully to the hunt, and her doctors declared her capable of childbirth. Though members of her Parliament had to listen to her addresses on their knees, she let them dance with her because she liked it and was good at it. As George Puttenham wrote of her in 1579:

A slender greve [calf], swifter than roe,
A pretty foot to trip and go,
But of a solemn pace perdie
And marching with a majesty.

But how long could she maintain her dance of courtship without its becoming laughable? As time went by, her subjects became progressively incautious in expressing their exasperation with this mating game.

She came to the throne in her twenties and flirted with possible mates all through her thirties and into her forties. Some acted as if the suspense were killing them, but only because they thought it was really killing her. Why did Elizabeth keep pretending she was about to marry? Her situation was not as ready for marital solution as was supposed. For every political argument in favor of marriage in general, there were arguments, as strong or stronger, against any particular suitor. The foreign eligibles were either of royal blood or not. Royal blood would inject her into the great contests of Europe, mainly between Catholic Spain and Catholic (but anti-Hispanic) France, stronger powers that could use or swallow her smaller nation. Nonroyal contenders would just recruit her in their own upward aspirations. A tie with any foreign nation was bound to cause opposition in her own realm, as had happened when her predecessor Mary Tudor married the Spanish king Philip II.

The same or similar problems bedeviled prospects of marriage to any of her subjects at home. If the prospective spouse was of royal blood, his family's pretensions to the throne would be dangerously heightened. If he was not, he was not worthy of the position she would confer on him; that was the obstacle to her long flirtation with Robert Dudley, whom she made Earl of Leicester despite the attainder of his family after both his grandfather and father were executed as traitors. Susan Doran makes a strong case that Elizabeth was in fact politically boxed in, with much less freedom to make a choice than she or others could claim. Her real problem was not to kill rumors of impending marriage but to keep them alive, given how improbable was each prospective husband as his claims were scrutinized by court and Parliament and people. But keeping up the show was politically useful. G. R. Elton puts the thing in perspective: "The courtships of Queen Elizabeth were the joke and the despair of her time; we shall understand them aright if we remember that to her they were not only a substitute for the emotional life which, despite everything, she missed, but also a vital part in the game of international politics, and a part in which she excelled."

Yet the game, however useful, genuinely frightened some of her subjects. A son of Catherine de' Medici, Henry the Duke of Anjou, had been proposed as her husband in 1570, to the panicky dismay of those who despised Catherine's family. That danger disappeared when Anjou married elsewhere. But a more serious threat arose from Henry's younger brother, Francis, who succeeded to the Anjou dukedom when Henry became king. Francis took up the courtship of Elizabeth, visiting England twice (the last time for two months) to seal the bargain. He was twenty-four when the suit began, and she was forty-six, an age gap not unthinkable where dynastic ties were more important than romance. Though the duke had been a good-looking child and was still charming, he was also short and pockmarked (the queen called him her frog). A theatrically stylized wooing dragged on for two years, setting Protestant nerves on edge. The more extreme of them envisioned a world-ending catastrophe if the queen should marry a son of Catherine de' Medici, the orchestrator of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of French Huguenots in 1572.

Yet Elizabeth's principal long-time adviser, Lord Burghley, wanted the match in order to keep Spain from further inroads into the Lowlands (where Anjou was an ambitious player), and Elizabeth seemed to enjoy the frog's company. Her days of seeming realistically desirable were moving to an end. She even liked the gracious flourishes of Anjou's emissary, Jean Simier, whom she naturally called her ape (Latin simia). The Protestant faction at court, with her former favorite Leicester in the lead, worked as hard against the marriage as Burghley was working for it. A fervent Puritan, John Stubbs, audaciously (and longwindedly) put their objections in print as The Discovery of a Gaping Gulf Whereunto England Is Like to Be Swallowed by Another French Marriage, If the Lord Forbid Not the Banns, by Letting Her Majesty See the Sin and Punishment Thereof (1579).

One did not with impunity accuse the queen of contemplating sin in the 1570s. Stubbs, his publisher, and his printer were sentenced to have their right hands cut off (though the printer was pardoned). Nonetheless, opposition to the marriage continued. One of the queen's favorites, Sir Philip Sidney—a young associate of her old suitor, the Earl of Leicester—wrote Elizabeth a private letter (instantly made public) telling her she was considering an act that would throw the whole country into turmoil. Not only that, he picked a quarrel with the Earl of Oxford, one of those in Burghley's camp, and challenged him to a duel. The queen forbade the duel, since only social equals were granted permission for a trial at arms and Sidney was not then even a knight. Sidney withdrew from the court for a while, to weather the storm that arrived or was expected.

Sidney's hand was not chopped off, like Stubbs's. In fact, he was restored to favor and jousted in her honor on the next Accession Day. Why the difference? The fact that he was protected by Leicester obviously played a part in this. But Sidney did not inveigh against the queen as a sinner, like Stubbs. In fact, he spoke more as a disappointed lover. Katherine Duncan-Jones rightly says he wrote "as if he himself (not yet twenty-five) would have liked to marry Elizabeth," since he calls Anjou unworthy of "the height of all good haps, to be your husband." He says he is offering "an olive branch of intercession" as a "true sacrifice of unfeigned love." The duke is unworthy of her, since she is "the erector and defender" of the true faith, "the only sun that dazzleth [men's] eyes." How could Anjou aspire to "the perfections of body and mind [that] have set all men's eyes by the height of your estate," when "our minds rejoice with the experience of your inward virtues, and our eyes are delighted with the sight of you"? That was language the queen heard every day, and it never tired her. And the fact that he tried to fight a duel against what he considered a threat to her just fit the whole episode more neatly into the chivalric patterns of courtly love.

Sidney's rhetoric, then, was not just a ploy improvised for this one occasion. It was part of the whole language of flirtation with the queen patterned on the tropes of courtly love. This amatory vernacular turned the disadvantage of the queen's gender into a surprising strength. Expressions of loyalty to one's liege lord—say, to the demanding Henry VIII—were different from the sexual ardor of a knight for his lady that took over the image-world of Elizabeth. This was an ardor sexual but chaste, drawing on the revivified myths of courtly love in the artificial medievalism of the Tudor world. Henry VIII had given this medievalism a new charge of energy when he adopted with enthusiasm the tournament culture of Burgundy.

A skilled and enthusiastic jouster himself, Henry set the template for later pageantry at the spectacular Field of the Cloth of Gold near Calais in 1520. To spread the courtly ethos, Henry set up stables to breed and train horses for the joust and hired armorers from abroad to enrich the trappings of knighthood. Around Tudor festivals, romantic images of the Middle Ages proliferated, castles and enchanted lakes, magicians and hermits and "salvage men"—along with princesses for whom feats of derring-do must be performed. This was a clever way of going back into English tradition without revivifying its Catholic elements, since Rome had never felt easy about the secularism of courtly tournaments and poetry or about the personality cult of nobles to rival the pope. In these arranged memories of a chivalric past, Henry VIII figured as a knight of great prowess. But Elizabeth would figure as the princess for whom noble deeds were to be performed. Her subjects became her champions, and they wore her signs of favor as badges of love. Her womanhood became the greatest icon for extravagant expressions of reverence for the Tudor monarchs.

The godlike power of kings was a growing commodity in this time, but it was harder to imagine King Henry VIII (for instance) as Apollo than to see a Diana in Queen Elizabeth. It was even harder to express a personal and almost erotic emotion toward a godlike king than to a godlike woman, a princess of medieval myth, aspired to by all the knights of the kingdom. Elizabeth combined the idealization of women in Renaissance Neoplatonism with the cortesia to women in neomedievalism. She was like the exalted but unattainable Beatrice of Dante or the Laura of Petrarch. "Manifestations of beauty were virtual theophanies for many sixteenth-century Platonists." But she was also like the Queen of the Fairies attended by the Lady of the Lake in Arthurian legend (passed on by Chrétien de Troyes and Thomas Malory). The key element was that of emotional fervor in the relationship. Elizabeth's Reformation court had to replace heated devotion to the Virgin Mary and other saints with some comparably personal link to one's idol. For that, courtly love was a perfect vehicle.

The term courtly love has been a contested one among medievalists. That is because it was oversold by its nineteenth-century celebrant, Gaston Paris, who took literally the description of "courts of love" at the court of Marie of Champagne at the end of the twelfth century. Paris defined too narrowly the fin'amor for a midon (lord-lady) either as exalted but unfulfilled love for a high-placed but married woman or as fulfilled (adulterous) love with her, under rules legislated by a court of ladies. Joachim Bumke argues that such "courts" were mainly a discussion game of aristocratic ladies. But a popular one and with a growing literary vogue.

There was, in fact, an elaborate courtly culture of the twelfth century, and the true nature of love was debated in its terms. Cortesia was a refinement that qualified one for participation in a court laboring to define itself over against the boorish condition of the lower order ("vilanie"). It sought validation from itself, not from the church: "The aristocracy, which felt itself to be somewhat independent of the church since it possessed a modicum of culture from outside the ecclesiastical realm, fashioned an obstacle to disorder out of refined eroticism itself: literature, fashion, and the forms of etiquette exercised in this way a normative influence on the life of love."

Crude measures for belonging to this court culture, such as property, were not enough in themselves to qualify one. Above the signs of wealth (a precondition, of course), one had to assert self-refinement as self-definition, and that was done by elaborations of style. Style meant curialitas (manners exalted to the court's level), urbanitas (ingratiation), and probitas morum (integrity of image).

There was a deep element of make-believe in such self-conscious adoption of a style. "Courtly love was a social utopia. It was the code word for a new and better society, a society that was unreal and could exist only in the poetic imagination." Thus, though courtly love was not exactly a fact of history, it is a historical part of literature. As Johan Huizinga put it: "That the love-court was a poetic playing at justice (with, however, a certain practical validity) accords well enough with the customs of Languedoc in the twelfth century. What we are dealing with is the polemical and casuistic approach to love-questions, and in play-form."

And the courtliness of literature would linger:

There is nothing in classical literature comparable to the exaltation of woman that arises with the troubadours of the Pays d'Oc in the twelfth century and is transmitted from them to the rest of Europe; to northern France and the trouvères, to Germany and the Minnesänger, to Italy and the stilnovisti. These poets sing, time and again, of the woman who is the decisive event in a man's life, who makes all other concerns trivial in comparison ... Freud is right to see the elevation of the feminine object into the alpha and omega of existence as in some ways the special mark of postclassical western culture.

If this was true even of the original courtly ideals of the Middle Ages, then what the Renaissance did with it was the myth of a myth. The Renaissance ideal was one that opened a nobility of birth to a nobility of action and style, one that could be inculcated to exclude the unworthy but could also be cultivated with the help of proper guidance. "The literature of exclusion thus came paradoxically to empower social mobility." This was apparent in such sixteenth-century conduct books for the ruling class as Sir Thomas Elyot's The Boke Named the Governour (1531).


Excerpted from Making Make-Believe Real by GARRY WILLS. Copyright © 2014 Garry Wills. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Garry Wills is Emeritus Professor of History at Northwestern University. Among his nearly forty books are Rome and Rhetoric; Verdi’s Shakespeare; the Pulitzer Prize–winning Lincoln at Gettysburg; and Inventing America, a National Book Critics Circle Award winner. He lives in Chicago, IL.

Brief Biography

Date of Birth:
May 22, 1934
Place of Birth:
Atlanta, GA
St. Louis University, B.A., 1957; Xavier University, M.A., 1958; Yale University, Ph.D., 1961

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