DESPITE THE inclusion in the Folger Shakespeare Library's new Queen Elizabeth exhibition of a "Celebriduck" rubber ducky modeled (only vaguely) in the likeness of the famed Virgin Queen and an "Elizabethan Queen" Barbie (complete with a va-va-va-voom figure the real Liz never had), "Elizabeth I, Then and Now" is far more "then" than "now."
What else would you expect?
Marking the 400th anniversary of the end of Elizabeth I's reign, and drawn from the world's largest collection of artifacts related to the Tudor queen outside England, the Library's show is a celebration -- mainly in musty book and manuscript form, but also including maps, art, sheet music and a modern theatrical replica of an actual dress -- of the reign of one of history's best-known monarchs.
Along with gift lists, coronation records and historical documents illuminating the Protestant queen's troubled relations with, for example, colonial Ireland and the Catholic Church, there are many versions of Elizabeth's face here, not the least of which is painter George Gower's so-called "Sieve Portrait" of 1579. In a bit of chaste symbolism whose factual basis is still being debated by scholars, she holds the cooking utensil in which, according to Roman legend, virgins were said to be able to carry water without spilling a drop.
More than anything in this show, I found myself searching for clues to Elizabeth not in the texts but in other representations of her face. Oddly enough (or perhaps not so oddly, given the fact that she could have you beheaded just for looking at her funny) there is little mention in any of the contemporary documentation on view of the queen's rather, um, distinctive physical appearance. Oh, there is talk of the sumptuousness of her jewels and gowns and of her symbolic association with the godesses of ancient myth, but no one says anything about her looks.
Which is more than a little funny considering that her mug, to a large degree, is precisely what we recognize most about her today. Despite minor, and in some cases, not so minor differences in the depiction of the queen -- some of which are drawn not from life but from other pictures -- there is a sameness to the versions of her, in the way that there is a sameness to the pictures of Shakespeare. Just as he has become caricatured for his balding pate, longish hair, Errol Flynn mustache and funk chunk of beard beneath a slightly bee-stung lower lip, Elizabeth is known for her bulging yet deep-set eyes, ghostly complexion, high, nearly eyebrowless forehead and tiny, bordering-on-cruel mouth. (Interestingly, there are those who say that the Martin Droeshout engraving of the playwright from the First Folio is actually modeled on Queen Elizabeth!)
In all probability, the queen was not a very attractive woman, despite some pretty obvious idealization, notably in a portrait modeled after one by John de Critz. Not by the stretch of most imaginations, and certainly not the Cate Blanchett beauty of Shekhar Kapur's brilliant but revisionist 1998 film. Yet there is something about her face that compels looking.
Is it that she was powerful beyond comprehension, especially for a woman who, against the advice of many, refused to marry? Is it that she was, in essence, the personification of England itself, with some of her wealthier subjects subjecting themselves to what the show's Acoustiguide narration -- a first for the Folger -- calls "crushing debt" just in order to entertain her royal highness during one of several "progresses," or road trips, she would make around the country?
Elizabeth certainly was, as people in positions of power almost inevitably are, feared, particularly by those who sought her overthrow. After all, she placed her own cousin and perceived rival, the Catholic Mary Stuart (aka Queen of Scots), under house arrest for years, ultimately beheading her, ostensibly for treason. A similar fate befell Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex, one-time royal favorite and stepson of Elizabeth's beloved, Robert Dudley.
Yet if anything can be read into the enigmatic, sphinx-like demeanor of this show's many Elizabeths, perhaps it is not hauteur but a kind of world weariness, a sadness that can only be known by a 25-year-old who was thrown into an arena where she was given everything but before she was able to find what she most needed. Whether that was love or the liberty to feel weakness from time to time we will likely never know, except via the speculation of plays, books, movies and miniseries. Maybe that mystery is best expressed in this excerpt, quoted in the exhibition wall text from a 1601 speech Elizabeth gave to Parliament:
"To be a king and bear a crown is a thing more glorious to them that see it than it is pleasant to them that bear it."
ELIZABETH I, THEN AND NOW -- Through Aug. 2 at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol St. SE (Metro: Capitol South). 202-544-7077. www.folger.edu. Open Monday-Saturday 10 to 4. Free. Monday-Friday at 11 and 2 and Saturdays at 11, 1 and 2, docents offer free guided tours of the exhibition and Folger building. No reservations necessary. Free tours are available for groups of 10 or more by calling 202-675-0395. A smaller, traveling panel exhibition featuring highlights of "Elizabeth I, Then and Now" is on view at Union Station, 50 Massachusetts Ave. NE, through April 13.
Actress Michael Learned stars in Maxwell Anderson's play "Elizabeth the Queen" at the Folger's Elizabethan Theatre through May 4. To purchase tickets, call 202-544-7077 or visit www.tickets.com.
Public programs associated with the exhibition include:
Saturday from 10 to noon -- "Elizabethan Swordplay." Children ages 8 to 14 accompanied by an adult learn about the technique of theatrical sword fighting and stage combat. $10. Tickets required. Call 202-544-7077.
April 27 from noon to 4 -- Shakespeare's Birthday Open House, featuring Renaissance music, performance, theater, dance, stories, birthday cake, children's activities and tours of the Reading Room. Free; charge for some food and drink.
April 28 at 8 -- John Guy, visiting fellow of Clare College, University of Cambridge, and honorary research professor of the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, lectures on "Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots." Free.
May 9-11 -- "Shakespeare and Elizabeth." The Folger Consort performs music likely to have been heard in the Bard's plays and instrumental music honoring the queen. Friday and Saturday performances at 8; Saturday matinee at 5 and Sunday at 2. The May 9 performance will be preceded by a discussion with WETA's Robert Aubry Davis at 7. $27. Call 202-544-7077.
June 7 from 10 to noon -- "Shakespeare and the Queen." Children ages 8 to 14 accompanied by an adult use improvisation, theater games and wordplay to explore Skakespeare's plays. $10. Tickets required. Call 202-544-7077.
June 14 from 10 to noon -- "Elizabeth and Her Court." Children ages 8 to 14 accompanied by an adult make their own ruffs and perfect their curtsies and bows as they learn about court manners and courtly entertainment. $10. Tickets required. Call 202-544-7077.
May through June -- Films related to Elizabeth I will be screened in collaboration with the American Film Institute.