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Unquiet queens: Staging the (sexual) politics of queenship in Late Elizabethan History Plays, 1587-1603

Jones, Elisabeth L. L. 2022. Unquiet queens: Staging the (sexual) politics of queenship in Late Elizabethan History Plays, 1587-1603. PhD Thesis, Cardiff University.
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This thesis analyses how early modern English history plays deploy representations of ‘unquiet’ medieval queens to navigate contemporary concerns about gender and power. Addressing plays that were written in the late sixteenth century by Shakespeare and his contemporaries Peele, Marlowe, and Heywood, the thesis focuses on dramatisations of the women who occupied or controlled the throne of England before Mary and Elizabeth Tudor: consorts, regents, and dowagers. These plays were all produced between 1589 and 1599, in a socio-political moment framed by the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1587 and the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. This study suggests that the proliferation of history plays in the 1590s is fueled, in part, by an interest in interrogating the gender politics and geopolitics of the present through prisms of the past. It explores history plays’ frequent foregrounding and questioning of the agency of queens’ bodies and voices in relation to these plays’ contemporary moment, when England had had a queen regnant for four decades and other women such as Mary, Queen of Scots and Catherine de Medici had recently been in power elsewhere in Europe. Though there is a corpus of scholarship surrounding queenship, female rule, history plays, and (premodern) historiography, there is a gap in the field that my thesis redresses: it offers the first sustained study of medieval queens in late Elizabethan history plays, exploring the insights that these literary-dramatic representations of queens and history might engender. Chapter One looks at two plays about King John, by Peele and Shakespeare. It argues that these plays place a particular emphasis on older queens, and how these queens derive authority from motherhood even when their sons are grown; in these plays, the queen mother deploys her power to comment upon and shape matters of nation and empire. Chapter Two focuses on plays about the first three king Edwards, and explores how queens’ sexual and maternal identities and relationships impact upon these plays’ particularly pronounced investments in the insular (geo)politics of the British Isles. It argues that the history plays establish conventions for the roles of queens – conventions that are sometimes queered and/or treated self-reflexively. The third and final chapter focuses on plays set during the Wars of the Roses: Shakespeare’s first tetralogy and Heywood’s The First and Second Parts of Edward IV. This chapter examines dramatic and rhetorical patterning in the representation of queens’ sexual identities; considers queens as embodiments of the Lacanian extimité; and explores how the staging of rival and multiple queens interacts, again, with late Elizabethan contexts. By examining representations of understudied queens in (relatively) understudied plays, this thesis hopes to bring these female characters out of the wings of history and criticism and put them centre stage. Queen figures use their voices to offer alternative perspectives and political commentaries that sometimes threaten to upstage the historical narratives described by the plays’ sources and other characters: they interrogate history itself. They also interrogate contemporary female power in a way that neither straightforwardly celebrates nor critiques it: by staging a multiplicity of queens who variously adopt, struggle against, or reject gendered modes of authority and agency, history plays ask more questions than they answer about history, power, and gender.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Date Type: Completion
Status: Unpublished
Schools: English, Communication and Philosophy
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PR English literature
Funders: The James Pantyfedwen Foundation
Date of First Compliant Deposit: 31 March 2022
Last Modified: 31 Mar 2023 01:30

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