BRITISH LITERATURE: Thematic Paper: The Fairy Queen and Queen Elizabeth I
Women have acted in numerous powerful roles throughout history, but they often struggle against patriarchal forces that strive to subdue and marginalize the feminine. This is true in both fact and fiction, evidence of the battle between tradition and the will of women, whether intentional or not. Additionally, this tradition is often rooted in male romantic idealization of what a woman should be, attempting to trap even queens in a fiction of rose-tinted domestic bliss. The Fairy Queen in Marie De France’s Lanval, and Queen Elizabeth I in her A Speech to a Joint Delegation of Lords and Commons each have their boundaries tested by the men they supposedly rule, demonstrating how even women in power are not free from male romantic expectations and desires.
The Fairy Queen is a powerful and influential ruler over the men in her life, a fact unusual for her time and unfamiliar to her male counterparts who often are at a loss concerning proper conduct. To establish the Fairy Queen’s authority, it is stated that Lanval “would have stayed longer, if he could / and if his love had consented,” the qualification of consent being of particular note (De France 157-8). This is the first point of tension along gender lines. Because of the Fairy Queen’s influence over Lanval, he leaves her when he would rather have stayed, respecting the need for consent in a relationship. The use of the word “consent” shows that Lanval asked his love if he could stay and was refused, demonstrating a role reversal of power in this romance that is opposed to the pervasive Middle Ages idea that a man should be able to take what he wants from his lover. However, even though the Fairy Queen had carefully instructed Lanval not to reveal their relationship, the example of litote revealed when Lanval “was not slow to answer” his human queen suggests that his love’s wishes were not forefront in his mind (De France 258). Litote is used to make ironic understatement, so it can be assumed that Lanval did not hesitate to respond to Arthur’s queen when provoked, revealing his lack of concern for the Fairy Queen’s wishes. Even though the Fairy Queen held supreme power over the relationship between herself and Lanval, Lanval’s speed in forgetting her command shows the lack of practice concerning obedience to women to which the male mind is subjected. Additionally, the diction in the use of the words “could not” in the statement “The king could not detain her” reveals how unaccustomed King Arthur must have been with the idea of a woman infinitely more powerful than himself (De France 631). De France could have used the words “would not” to generate a more respectful tone toward the Fairy Queen, but “could not” instead implies that the king would have tried to stop the Fairy Queen if he had the ability. As a king, Arthur would have been used to having the power to command everyone around him, especially women who were often seen as property. The fact that he “could not” keep the Fairy Queen longer than she pleased emphasizes King Arthur’s physical incapability to exert his will on a woman in power, calling attention to the implication that he would have tried.
Similarly, Queen Elizabeth I was a female monarch leading a thriving state filled with men unaccustomed to serving a woman, though her rule was carried out in human history. In her response to sixty male members of the Lords and Commons concerned with her single status and lack of an heir, she says, “A strange thing that the foot should direct the head in so weighty a cause” to contrast the members’ status at the foot with her own at the head (Elizabeth I 755). The juxtaposition of foot and head serves to emphasize the difference in authority between Queen Elizabeth I and her subjects, literally setting herself above the rest. The head is where important decisions are made, where logic resides, and where the crown of authority rests; the foot is the head’s humble servant, existing only to take the head where it wishes to go. In this way, male intrusion into a powerful woman’s personal life is addressed and repulsed. Queen Elizabeth I also speaks of the members’ hypocrisy by saying that her words of assurance were “not accepted nor credited, although spoken by their prince,” using diction in her word choice of “prince” instead of “princess” or “queen” (Elizabeth I 755). This careful word choice illustrates the importance of reminding her subjects that although she may be a woman, Queen Elizabeth I has all the characteristics desired of a strong king. While calling out her subjects as contradictory, she smoothly reminds them that she is not the weak figure many would suppose her to be because of her sex. Her sarcastic tone in the statement, “A strange order of petitioners, that will make a request and cannot be otherwise ascertained but by the prince’s word, and yet will not believe it when it is spoken!” indicates the careful line that Queen Elizabeth I must tread as a monarch (Elizabeth I 755). No matter how angry she may become, the queen must not lose her temper but must instead veil her irritation in double meaning and nicety. If she were to come out screaming, Queen Elizabeth I would merely be labeled emotional and irrational, the opposite of her intention.
In opposition to being disrespected by the men around her, the Fairy Queen takes control of her love life, dictating when and whom she will love in addition to protecting her private life, which demonstrates her willingness to disobey traditional gender roles in a romantic relationship even though the vestiges of patriarchal patterns remain. When speaking to Lanval, the Fairy Queen says, “I command and beg you,” creating an odd dichotomy of authority and submission (De France 144). The positioning of “command” before “beg” could indicate through meaningful syntax that asking Lanval to do as she wishes could be an afterthought dominated by an imperial demand, but the addition of “beg” at all means that the Fairy Queen feels the need to cater to male ego despite her power. In addition, when the Fairy Queen says, “Go away now; I shall remain,” she is commanding, yet she also invokes an image of the man doing great deeds while the woman waits at home (De France 161). The inversion of her demand for Lanval and her declaration for herself requires a comparison between the two statements that are so obviously opposites. The Fairy Queen’s powerful demand does break from traditional female roles, but the statement itself smacks of a patriarchal pattern because it separates male and female into work and domestic life. In the line “he called on his love, again and again,” the repetition on the word “again” serves to underscore the literal meaning of the word, emphasizing Lanval’s distress at the Fairy Queen’s absence as well as the never-ending pool of conviction from which the Fairy Queen drinks (De France 339). The Fairy Queen denies Lanval his desires repeatedly as a consequence of his betrayal, placing herself in control of her love life instead of the male, yet when Lanval is threatened with death, she calls for him the be “set free by [Arthur’s] barons” (De France 624). The diction demonstrated by the word “free” has a double meaning in this context because Lanval was held captive by his own repetitive calling and misery more so than he was by his king’s chains. Because the Fairy Queen rescued Lanval from both sets of constraints, she could be seen as weak in certain lights, giving in to her own emotional attachment to Lanval instead of abiding by her word. Her double role as both provider of both justice and mercy plays on traditional gender roles of male logic and female emotion, neither rejecting nor embracing either side.
Queen Elizabeth I is likewise determined to reign over her own private life, becoming protective of her rights in the face of the presumptuous members of the Lords and Commons. In response to the members’ concerns, their queen said “again that I will marry as soon as I can conveniently, if God not take him away with whom I mind to marry, or myself, or else some other great let happen,” inserting several safeguards into her assurance and imbuing her decision with divine authority through a biblical allusion (Elizabeth I 755). Queen Elizabeth I uses “if God” to imply that if she does not marry, it is God’s will and is uncontestable by the members of the Lords and Commons. In this way, she defends her right to her own love life separate from her public duties as queen and certainly not subject to her subjects. Queen Elizabeth I also identifies herself with traditional male rationality in her statement, “And if my will did not yield to reason, it should be that thing I would gladly desire, to see you deal in it” (Elizabeth I 756). Through diction, the queen places herself on the side of “reason,” implicating the members as irrational and bolstering her own character as worthy of respect. She resists the members’ attempt to restrain her independence by cloaking herself in the qualities her subjects wish to see in a male ruler. Queen Elizabeth I also states that she “will never be by violence constrained to do anything,” playing on the double meaning and ambiguity of the word “constrained” (Elizabeth I 756). Her previous anecdote of her time locked inside the Tower of London assures the members that she has experienced physical constrainment and speaks on good authority while the more relevant meaning of marital constrainment slips in almost unnoticed. Her view of coerced marriage as constrainment breaks one more traditional female role of the mindless, contented wife, once more rebelling against the societal norms of her time.
In both fiction and reality, women are bound by male expectations and desires, often focused on romantic and sexual life, regardless of objective power. Even though the Fairy Queen was in complete control of her relationship, men attempted to control and influence her actions, and although Queen Elizabeth I ruled a blooming country, her male subjects tried to control her through marriage. Although this pattern may occur in fiction and in history, more recent examples of attempted female subjugation could tie these ideas more accurately to the present day. Even so, both Marie De France’s Fairy Queen and Queen Elizabeth I are powerful women in patriarchal times, and their actions in response to this pressure reveal that power is not enough to completely shield a woman from discriminatory influence.
Professor: Dr. Michael Saenger