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MAJOR WORKS AND THEMES

elizabeth elizabeth’s speeches devotion

Remembered primarily for her statecraft, Elizabeth was also an accomplished author. She wrote and translated poetry in addition to composing most of her own letters and speeches. Of the various poems attributed to her, two were etched into the house at Woodstock, where she was confined as a child. These poems deal with the themes of fortune and entrapment, which reappear in another poem, written nearly thirty years later on the subject of love. This poem, “On Monsieur’s Departure,” perhaps grew out of the prolonged marital negotiations with François of Valois, duke of Alençon, which Elizabeth terminated in 1582. Most likely written by Elizabeth, the poem uses Petrarchan language to express the conventional sentiments of disappointed love.

Admired for her knowledge of French, Italian, Spanish, Flemish, German, Latin, and Greek, Elizabeth displayed her talent for languages in her own translations of Horace’s De Arte Poetica , Petrarch’s “Trionfo dell’Eternita,” and Boethius’ De Consolatione Philosophiae . At the age of eleven, Elizabeth translated Marguerite de Navarre’s The Mirror of the Sinful Soul , sending her text in a case embroidered by her own hand to Catherine Parr. This early gesture typifies much of Elizabeth’s later work. In its careful presentation and pious content, the translation shares with Elizabeth’s other writings attention to occasion and a thematic focus on her own devotion. Indeed, Elizabeth’s second book after the early Navarre translation was a compilation of prayers entitled A Book of Devotions . Elizabeth translated this collection of her own private prayers into French, Italian, Latin, and Greek.

While her poetry and translations reveal her literary and linguistic accomplishment, the bulk of Elizabeth’s authorial accomplishment lies in her speeches and letters. In these writings the typically Elizabethan theme of devotion emerges most strongly. Her devotion is twofold: to her country and to God. Nearly every speech highlights this devotion, emphasizing the personal risks she took to maintain it. Well known for her physical bravery, Elizabeth displays her courage in the delivery of one of her most famous speeches “To the Troops at Tilbury, 1588.” Disregarding her advisers’ warnings, Elizabeth risked injury to stand among the troops at Tilbury just after the Armada’s defeat. There Elizabeth uttered the now famous lines, “I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.” Nowhere is Elizabeth’s ability to move a crowd and to speak to the occasion more obvious than in these lines. Elizabeth’s pride is at once personal and national, a combination quite typical of the queen who wore a marital ring from the time of her coronation to signify her marriage to her country. Elizabeth juxtaposes her own courage with her awareness of her physical presence as a female sovereign speaking before men. Using a savvy awareness of her physical vulnerability, noted by her detractors, Elizabeth highlights her own courage in disregarding this weakness to defend the nation. As many recent critics have noted, Elizabeth charts a course that claims both male power and female virtue. Chaste and strong, she stands in her speeches, as she does in the poetry dedicated to her, as a Diana figure, from Ralegh’s* Cynthia, to Spenser’s* Belphoebe, to Shakespeare’s* Titania, to countless others.

Elizabeth’s love for her subjects offered a rhetoric appropriate at once for a sovereign speaking publicly to subjects and for a devoted woman expressing herself intimately to her family. Evoking Diana and the Virgin Mary in her chastity, Elizabeth presents herself as the devoted spouse of England as well. Yet the tone of vulnerability and intimacy of certain speeches often masks Elizabeth’s savvy reticence. Particularly in her speeches regarding marriage, succession, and the future of Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth adopts a candid tone while refusing to commit herself. This indecision allowed her to reassess continually her political returns in a given situation. Critics speak of Elizabeth’s last years as a less successful balancing of the ambiguous roles of sovereign and mistress, ruler and object of devotion, because her famous indecision by that point seemed less a matter of sophisticated politics than of fearful stagnation. Yet Elizabeth’s own letters and speeches from the last years of her reign reveal the same assertion of strength seen throughout her tenure, as in these lines from her famous “Golden Speech” of 1601: “[T]hough you have had and may have many princes more mighty and wise sitting in this seat, yet you never had or shall have any that will be more careful and loving. Should I ascribe anything to myself and my sexly weakness, I were not worthy to live then, and of all most unworthy of the mercies I have had from God, Who hath ever yet given me a heart which never yet feared foreign or home enemies.”

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