Elizabeth I may have been the 16th Century’s regal Mae West—a sexual tease who liked to have herself surrounded by pretty boy studs. She relished playing the coquette, deliberating enticing her many suitors into believing they had a chance to do more than kiss her hand and bow. The royal vamping started early: it was hotly rumored but unproven she consummated an affair at 14 with Lord Admiral Thomas Seymour. As her charms manifested, which included formidable intelligence (she spoke five languages) but not true physical beauty, she thrived on as well as encouraged flattery. She selected “pets” and consorts like the Earl of Leicester (her “Sweet Robin”) and the Earl of Essex (Robin’s stepson) because they were unacceptable partners in marriage. She was resolute throughout her child-bearing years she’d never marry—no matter the long list of royal kings and princes who wished for union, no matter the pressure applied by her close circle of council, who seldom let up on the need for her to give birth to an heir. By all acceptable accounts, the queen remained a willed virgin out of survival instincts. The bastard offspring of Henry VIII and the beheaded Anne Boleyn—scholar J.J. Scarisbrick calls the infant “the most unwelcomed royal daughter in English history”—Elizabeth became necessarily cognizant of her need to stay alive at the age of eight when her stepmother, the beloved Catherine Howard, was also sent to the chopping block. Shortly thereafter her brother Edward died prematurely and she had to outfox a conspiracy lead by her Catholic sister Mary Tudor’s minions, who saw heresy in Elizabeth’s Protestantism and mortal threat to Mary’s reign and succession. Not above the self-serving, Elizabeth “converted” to Catholicism as a means by which she kept her head, though such fears never dissipated, not even during the more secure portion of her reign: the murderous machinations of the Royals of Europe and her own court’s hangers-on precluded the feeling of safety. Elizabeth understood marriage and heir would not merely lessen her own position, but would increase the likelihood of successful plots against her. As Sir James Melville whispers into the queen’s ear in part two of Elizabeth R—“For now you are both king and queen, but if you are married, someone else would be king.” Born out of the dread of the ax, this Elizabeth, like Claudius some fifteen centuries before, survived by the wisdom of political acrobatics.

As Elizabeth, Glenda Jackson grows from lion’s cub about to be devoured by prey to lioness—a feline whose ferocity ruled England for forty four years. If she’s long in the tooth to attempt to play the queen as teenager—she looks a tad ridiculous trying to, and she resembles Washington political writer Elizabeth Drew, irregular teeth, bad epidermis and all—the moment Jackson starts to outwit her conspirators and then dons the title with its powers of governance, any misgivings are wiped out, any purposed duels with Flora Robson or Bette Davis or most recently Cate Blanchett sent straight away to the trash heap. (Only Helen Mirren’s work in 2005’s Elizabeth I dares a contest, and Anne-Marie Duff a very satisfactory understudy of Jackson in the BBC’s 2005 production of The Virgin Queen.) Though Jackson’s got the peremptory gestures, the roaring fearsome voice and hardy physique for Imperialism—and her preeminent hard-edged, semi-masculine aura helps magnify the imagery—she’s agile enough as actress to pull off the come-hither game playing so integral a part of Elizabeth I. She convinces us her beloved Robin and all the others were kept from the royal bed chamber, feats borne out of the queen’s own fears about marriage. She confesses to Sussex, “I can’t do it. Every day, I am more and more afraid.”

Historians continue their fascination with her fears: some suggest her doctor discovered a “woman’s infirmity”; Ben Jonson the playwright believed she had “a membrana on her, which made her uncapable of man,” and others surmise she could have suffered from Rokitansky’s syndrome—a very shallow vaginal canal and an underdeveloped uterus. Whatever the impediments to marriage, they’re all guesses, and mine is she recognized what sex had done to her family and suffered severe trepidation over the potential consequences; her public pride of virginity acted as shield by which she could protect herself. As one hears Jackson’s queen periodically proclaim in vainglory her state of purity, it’s more than a guess the actress is using it as her character’s nucleus.

Some of the casting in Elizabeth R vexes: as Mary Tudor, Daphne Slater is mea-culping like Martha Scott crossed as Jean Harris; David Collings the traitor Anthony Babington a male Maggie Smith; Michael Williams’ Duke of Alencon about as appealing as the frog Elizabeth refers to him as; Stephen Murray emblematic stereotyping as Francis Walsingham (though no where near the duplicitous murderer portrayed by Geoffrey Rush in Blanchett’s Elizabeth); and Robert Hardy’s Earl of Leicester and Robert Ellis’ Earl of Essex far removed from what most of us would see as handsome beaux to the queen. Inflecting as sharp as a serpent’s toothache, Vivian Pickles comes close to juvenilizing Mary, Queen of Scots: recalling Nancy Marchand, Pickles grates and you’re not altogether sure if this is intended as fair view, or if the voice is being used as a means by which the character will be denied even a trace of sympathy. Pickles goes to her death with the class of a royal, and the script of this episode, “Horrible Conspiracies,” ends on the just the right notes of horror and rue.

A few regrets: the series offer up little evidence of the explosion of the arts, and while there are discussions about commerce, trade, standardization of coinage, judicial reform, ruinous monopolies, these subjects are brought in as scene introductions, leading to the more urgent and dramatic matters of petitioning for a decision about marriage and heir, consoling bruised egos, battling over or preparing conspiracies, decreeing punishments for treachery and treason. (In “Horrible Conspiracies,” Elizabeth demands a new killing scheme for Babington, and Richard Topcliffe, the Queen’s chief executioner, tells Babs: “In such matters, I have the delicacy of a practiced seducer...the sword begins here...with the privities. Castrated, ripped up...bowelled alive...quartered yet still living. So many wonders await you.”) Watching the series, you get the impression she saved her wrath against Catholics only if conspirators, but history records the real Elizabeth regularly persecuted Catholics and Puritans alike, and tried to wipe out gypsies. The basic subject of part five entitled “The Enterprise of England”—the defeat of the Spanish Armada—is maladroit and confusing, with budget as excuse because this series was done on the cheap except for costumes. Incoherency still rules: the sea battles remain baffling in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Elizabeth I and Duff’s The Virgin Queen. Over all, the writers of Elizabeth R have refrained from the heavier colloquialism and lofty prattle of the time, but no line is fakespeak: this is the vernacular of the educated using language as instrument of precision as well as crafty evasion.

Our Internet age of trashing everything hasn’t reduced the magnitude of Jackson’s portrayal, which remains luminous as in just and resonant and rich. And it’s no small feat, either, to burrow through all the powdered and rouge grotesquery of the queen’s smallpox-scarred last years to conquer the horrors of Dawn Alcock’s spot-on kabuki makeup and Elizabeth Waller’s bejeweled wigs and progressively more majestic costumes—you can get too easily transfixed by them—and still keep the character paramount. Entrenched in her vision yet never overwhelmed, Jackson’s not about to let us forget she’s playing—and becomes—the absolute Gloriana. As with Derek Jacobi’s in I, Claudius, hers is a performance as a supreme example of the balance of artistry. Both renditions are history as art and an art form as history.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 1997 RALPH BENNER (Revised 11/2018) All Rights Reserved.