Queen Elizabeth has a long history of appearing on stage at the Folger. She was recently played by Holly Twyford in last season’s Mary Stuart, by Michael Learned in 2003’s Elizabeth the Queen, and by an un-credited baby doll in the last moments of Henry VIII in 2010.
Shakespeare gives the infant queen an epic entrance in that play in what must be one of the longest stage directions in the canon. Her arrival is quickly followed by a 40+ line speech in which the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, is divinely inspired to describe all the wondrous things the future Elizabeth I will be:
She shall be loved and feared. Her own shall bless her;
Her foes shake like a field of beaten corn
And hang their heads with sorrow. Good grows with her. In her days every man shall eat in safety
Under his own vine what he plants and sing
The merry songs of peace to all his neighbors.
To which her amazed – and no doubt slightly baffled – father responds: “Thou speakest wonders“.
Elizabeth I appears at least once a year at the Folger. The Queen has a history of turning up at Shakespeare’s Birthday Celebration and distributing free cake to the assembled children. The Queen is very popular.
There are photographs of actresses playing Elizabeth I in the Folger collection dating back to the 19th century. The picture on the bottom left is of Clara Marion Jessie Rousby who played Princess Elizabeth in the play ‘Twixt axe and crown.
The play was popular on both sides of the Atlantic and was performed on Broadway in 1870 with Mary Frances Scott-Siddons – the great-granddaughter of famed Shakespearean actress Sarah Siddons – in the role of Elizabeth.
Twixt axe and crown was written by the playwright Tom Taylor, who also wrote Our American Cousin. Mrs. Rousby was an eager subject and the National Portrait Gallery in London has at least three more photographs of her in character as the Queen.
We invite you to explore more about Elizabeth I in the Folger collection – the Elizabeth I: Then and Now exhibition is a great place to start – and join us for texts&beheadings/ElizabethR to see four very talented actresses play the Queen. Performances start September 19!