In the Shadow of the Queen: The Early English Epithalamium and the Female Monarch

Adrienne L. Eastwood


Perhaps the most significant aspect of the sixteenth-century English epithalamium is its scarcity. The form was prevalent elsewhere in Europe, and evidence drawn from ballads, prose works, and drama suggests a wide-spread awareness of epithalamic elements in popular English culture. Additionally, two influential poetics manuals from the period, J. C. Scaliger’s Poetices Libri Septem (1561) and George Puttenham’s Arte of English Poesie (1589), contain detailed sections on the form and instructions for its production. In spite of this, very few English poets, with the prominent exception of Edmund Spenser, tried their hand at wedding poetry until after Elizabeth’s death in 1603, when a veritable explosion in the genre occurred. In fact, some Elizabethan writers almost seem to deliberately avoid epithalamic material. John Studley, a student at Trinity College in Cambridge who published translations of Seneca’s Agamemnon and Medea in 1566, actually replaces the choral epithalamium in the first act of Medea with a verse he wrote himself. By way of explanation, Studley offers this:“ . . . I chaunged the fyrste Chorus, because in it I sawe nothyng but an heape of prophane storyes, and names of prophane Idoles: therfore I have altered the whole matter of it” (125-26). Studley’s reaction to Seneca’s epithalamium seems oddly overblown, especially considering that much of Seneca’s play (which is about a murderous woman with supernatural powers) could be considered “prophane.” Whatever his motive, Studley’s response points to a curious cultural unease about the form.

It is possible that tensions surrounding the epithalamium in Elizabethan England stem from the ideological patterns carried by the form itself. Examples of epithalamia written prior to Elizabeth’s reign, including those written for the marriages of Mary Tudor and Mary Stuart, indicate a variety of responses to the situation of female rule, particularly in the way they depict the sexual negotiation of power between the bride and groom; the few non-Spenserian texts written during Elizabeth’s reign tend to obscure this aspect of the form. I propose that poets who chose to write epithalamic poetry during Elizabeth’s reign inserted themselves into a complicated web of cultural debates that surrounded the Queen: impatience for marriage and succession, assumptions about gender and authority, anxieties about female rule. As Elizabeth aged and her subjects and courtiers gradually realized that she would never marry, wedding poetry could be seen to counter to the ideology surrounding the “cult of virginity ” propagated by Elizabeth and her court. The decision by a prominent poet—particularly one with political ambitions--to write an epithalamium in the political climate of the later sixteenth-century England was, I therefore suggest, a daring one.

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