Elizabeth: The Golden Age – A study in womanhood

 

 

Elizabeth has been, historically, referred to as the virgin queen. In fact, the British colony in North America that was named in her honour was not called by any manifestation or mutation of her given name, Elisabeth, or even of her family house’s name, Tudor. No, it was called Virginia, in recognition of her singlehood. The irony of this focus upon Elizabeth’s sexual status has not been lost on any historian, all of whom agree, and many of whom strive to make it clear that, while Elizabeth never married or bore children, she did not die, and certainly did not live, a virgin. Still, she did, throughout her long and illustrious time upon the throne of England, make it clear that no man could own her heart as England did, no duty could come before her duty to her country and its citizens, and that she would not, ever, allow a ring upon her finger if it weakened, in any way, the balance of the crown upon her head.

 

This is not to say that Elizabeth was not tempted. In Elizabeth: The Golden Age, as in its prequel, Elizabeth, Elizabeth does fall in love and does feel her resolve falter. Still, Elizabeth and England do not have the luxury to allow her personal life too much foreground and so, once again, Elizabeth makes her choice and watches love slip away.

 

It’s actually quite ironic when you think about it. Elizabeth’s royal epithet is all about the sexuality she was compelled to, for all intents and purposes, subsume for the very sake of her royalty. In watching this film, as a Jew, i.e. as a member of the Chosen People, it is, therefore, not hard to empathise with Elizabeth and imagine the well-worn joke – we wish sometimes that, perhaps, we were a little less chosen – reworked to fit a fiery auburn-haired Christian princess who had no choice but to don a crown and die alone.

 

But then I note the phrase applied to Elizabeth by one of the characters in the film, “prince of the female gender,” and not princess, and that is when the point of the movie, maybe not the intention of the creators, but the point of the movie, for me at least, comes into blinding focus. That’s when I begin watching the film as a Jewish woman. Or, more precisely, as a Jew of the female gender.  

 

Orthodox Jewish women today have hit a point of no return; two roads lie before us and both are uncertain. The Judaism we have become educated in is a male Judaism; few girls learn Halacha, Hashkafa and Aggada in the kitchen anymore. Like their brothers, women sit, heads bowed over the same books, parsing out the very same ancient words to extricate God’s intent. But the books speak in a generic tone and it is often, after the translation from Aramaic or Hebrew is complete, that the true translation begins, as women try desperately to determine what the feminine conjugation of Jew is, in all its particular glory.

 

Elizabeth had a similar problem. What exactly was a “prince of the female gender”? The term itself is a study in paradox since prince is a gendered term. (In actuality, Jew is also a gendered term, something that becomes clearer when considering the Hebrew, or even French, equivalents.) As this film unfolds, and the viewer watches Elizabeth struggle, it becomes clear that it will never be easy. Often it is overwhelmingly tempting to consider putting one role in the foreground and forgetting the other. Elizabeth actually comes quite close to that precipice once or twice in the film and, probably, many times throughout her life. However, what made her such a striking leader and compelling heroine is the very fact that she was so well acquainted with the cliff but not the valley stretched out beneath it. Elizabeth chose from among her roles which one to put first, but she did not abandon the other. Yes, she never married but that was because she could not find a way to do so without sacrificing a more important role. Because it is true that, in the singular case of Elizabeth, queen was a role that took precedent over wife or mother. But not over being a woman. 

 

It is truly troubling to me how many times women have been offered the platitude that Judaism has distinct but equal roles for women and men, only to have the role for men described in terms one would most aptly use to describe the role of a Jew (with the obvious inclusion of Mitzvot that women are exempt from or prohibited to perform), whereas the role for women is reduced to wife and mother. A man can be a Jew and a husband and a father and a man without having all these descriptors collapse in on each other. A woman, it seems, is doomed to suffer the collapse. For what is the alternative?

 

Elizabeth cultivated her image as virgin and her people clung to it. It put her in the ranks of the Virgin Mary and Greek goddess Athena. Virginity and solitude as a necessary part of a role is a very non-Jewish mentality and some might argue that Elizabeth’s purposeful pursuit of just such a state makes her a decidedly inappropriate role model for a Jewish woman. Others might point out that Elizabeth did not simply remain unmarried for her image but faced strong political reasons not to marry. For to pick one alliance over another would only risk making an enemy of the scorned country and, in any event, would relegate England to the disfavoured status of province to another, more powerful, empire. Some might then look at Elizabeth’s life as a lesson to Jewish women as to why Judaism frowns upon women in the public sphere (as some feel it does) arguing that a woman must sacrifice her womanhood to maintain a public position.

 

Thus we are back to the definition of proper womanhood as hearth and home and to be a good Jewish woman is to be purposefully anti-Elizabeth who gave up everything that made her a woman so that she could be King.

 

Without tackling head-on the question of women in the public sphere (not being a posek, after all), I must disagree. Elizabeth’s life is no cautionary tale (although it did contain within it much danger and poignancy) and should not be treated as such. Furthermore, Elizabeth is, perhaps, one of the most crucial role models for Jewish women, especially today as the very definition of Jewish woman waxes and wanes in such a state of heightened flux.

 

From the first moments of this film to the very last shot, Elizabeth makes decisions. And many of the decisions she makes are unimaginably difficult. She chooses religious tolerance while the Inquisition sweeps across the mainland of Europe. [1] She goes to war with Spain, whose Armada, at that time, was the most powerful naval force in the world. She signs the death warrant of her treasonous cousin, Mary Queen of Scots. She, as she has before, gives up love, and, even before that, lust. She remains in England rather than actually cross the Atlantic and see her Virginia. She blesses other women’s babies. She knows she will never have a child but she reassures her people that she could. She greets the possibility of death with dignity. She prays.

 

And, in the hours before battle, when the future of England hovers uncertainly in the stormy waters off its coast, Elizabeth dresses herself in armour and goes to speak to her men, to rally her own troops. Her words are powerful and she sits in the saddle of her horse like a man. She is, without a doubt, a prince. But her hair flies freely in the wind and trails down her back, unbound, as it has not been seen before – she is, no mistaking it, a woman.

 

But here’s the kicker: Elizabeth always wore wigs. The hair that dances in feminine contrast across the metal of her breastplate, is not hers. It is, as is the armour, a symbol. She is a prince of the female gender. She is not one or the other. She is both. She chooses to be both. She is, and always will be, Elizabeth Tudor. But, she is, just as potently, Queen of England.

 

I don’t think that Elizabeth, if asked, would say that to be a political leader as well as a wife and mother are mutually exclusive. Other women have successfully done all three. However, it is not motherhood, wifeliness or leadership that define woman as woman. I think that is something else.

 

Every morning I, and many women around the world, thank God that He made us according to His will, while my brothers, and many men around the world, thank God that He did not make them women. Perhaps, Elizabeth could appreciate the sentiment; a man could have worn the crown and the ring. However, only Elisabeth transformed an island into an empire. Only Elizabeth kept the auto de fe on the other side of the channel.  Elizabeth was not a prince who happened to be a woman or a woman who happened to be a prince; she was in every way both. And it was as both that she fulfilled her role before God, Man and herself.

 

If all Jews are princes then there is much to be learned from Elizabeth. At the very least, this film is a powerful reminder that some definitions are still unclear. That, perhaps, when next I thank God for making me according to His will, I will ponder Elizabeth’s creation ex nihilo of what it is to be a female prince and I will know that God’s will entitles us to more than either a ring or a crown. And, more importantly, perhaps someone else will think upon this unknown and realise that to perfectly equate wife and mother with Jewish woman is as inferior and unbalanced an equation as to say that Elizabeth was just a virgin and a queen. Even if she was.

 

Dodi-Lee Hecht

[1] And, for those who do not realise the true magnitude of this, consider the unity of the Catholic Church, a political unity that transcends borders. Elizabeth was a protestant queen, she never hid her religious loyalties, and so the Pope and all of Catholic Europe hated her. Elizabeth, thus, allowed those citizens who were, by the very nature of their religion, against her, free and peaceful existence in England, so long as their actions never reflected their Church’s feelings towards her.

2007 NISHMA