It's been decades, at least, since the last time the Folger Shakespeare Library devoted an exhibition entirely to the first Queen Elizabeth.

That's surprising. We tend to use "Shakespearean" and "Elizabethan" almost as synonyms, as if the era in human imagination marked by the first of those terms overlapped entirely with the era in human political affairs marked by the second. If there is a message to be gleaned from the new exhibition "Elizabeth I, Then and Now," mounted at the Folger (to mark the 400th anniversary of her death), it is a cautionary one. One can find evidence of Elizabeth's doings in Shakespeare's works, and no poet better chronicled the zeitgeist of her reign; but she is her own figure, and for all the fascination of Shakespeare's poetic kings and queens, the reality of Elizabeth may be even more intriguing.

The exhibition, years in the making, documents Elizabeth's life (1533-1603), from coronation to funeral, with letters, books, documents, artwork and samples of the paraphernalia of everyday life.

Exhibition curator Georgianna Ziegler notes that Shakespeare was born five years after Elizabeth was crowned. "But his career didn't really take off until the final decade of her reign," says Ziegler. And as the exhibition makes clear, we know of only two of his plays that were definitely performed for her, "Love's Labour's Lost" and "The Merry Wives of Windsor." The belief that the latter of these was written at her behest (because she had so much enjoyed the Falstaff character in the earlier Henry IV plays) is apparently apocryphal.

Although Shakespeare is cited, occasionally, to make clear the mores and prejudices within which Elizabeth operated, his monarchs were almost uniformly less successful than Elizabeth. Shakespearean potentates don't often stay on the throne long (except in the comedies and some of the romances), and political power often seems to be merely a catalyst precipitating existential crises.

Elizabeth, by contrast, reigned almost half a century, surviving a poisonous climate of religious hatred, attacks on her realm from Spain and complex internecine political strife and rivalry. Even so, she lived well (fluent in five languages, adept at music and sport) and, according to Ziegler, seemed to die well (the ultimate proof of a successful run as a ruler). "We don't know of any particular thing she died of," says Ziegler. "I think she may simply have been exhausted and decided it was time."

Part of her success was the highly effective industry of imagemaking that surrounded her. In 1563, noting that there were some unfortunate images of her royal self circulating, a proclamation (never enforced) was drafted: "Her majesty perceiveth that a great number of her loving subjects are much grieved, and take great offence with the errors and deformities . . ." Here is the essence of her brilliant manipulation: The queen's distress is projected onto the people, and on their behalf, she condescends to regulate and control future images of her great person. Had she lived in the past century, we would have called her realm a vast cult of personality, and figures like Shakespeare would be dissected as mere toadies.

Despite efforts at royal control, the images still communicate remarkably well. The centerpiece of the exhibition is the Plimpton "Sieve" Portrait, painted by George Gower. The sieve is a reference to her supposed virginity (because virgins were said to be able to carry water in a sieve), though she looks positively worldly in this portrait. But even though Gower reproduces Elizabeth's head from an earlier painting, the portrait still registers a strong sense of personality. The lips are firmly set, the eyes cold and tired, the face a bit horsy. Given how much of any particular portrait of Elizabeth is taken up by the dress, ruff and jewels, it's remarkable how powerfully this borrowed face registers. (An intriguing display in the exhibition lines up a dozen images of Elizabeth taken from books in the collection; her nose, it seems, made a very strong impression.)

The Folger has gone all out with the new display. For the first time, the organizers have included an audio commentary (which is well produced and sensible), and they've published a catalogue that ties together the various threads of her reign far better than the limited space of the exhibition allows. Much of what's on display has a visceral appeal to that part of our nature that simply likes artifacts of the famous and dead: letters in her own handwriting, a large Bible from her chapel, a bill detailing her funeral expenses. Objects relating to her "favorites," the loyal adviser and friend Earl of Leicester and the ill-fated Earl of Essex (executed by Elizabeth for behavior somewhere between stupid and treasonous), are given their own little niche. A large wax seal, attached to a document, makes a powerful statement about the importance, and reverence, attached to royal papers, decrees, edicts and the like. A wax seal the size of a cheese wheel carries its own kind of shock and awe.

The Now part of "Elizabeth I, Then and Now" is relatively brief. A book on management wisdom supposedly derived from Elizabeth, a rubber duck with her visage, and a doll offer proof of the obvious: her enduring fascination. A few lines from a poem by the American Anne Bradstreet, penned in the middle of the 17th century, go further in explicating that fascination: "Let such as say our sex is void of reason, Know 'tis a slander now, but once was treason." It may seem glib and anachronistic to say, as the exhibition does, that Elizabeth was the prototypical "career woman"; but certainly she was remembered that way, and not just in our own time.

Elizabeth I, Then and Now, in the Great Hall of the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol St. SE, through Aug. 2. The free exhibition is open Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-4 p.m. As part of its celebration, the Folger is also presenting Maxwell Anderson's play "Elizabeth the Queen," starring Michael Learned, through May 4. Call the box office at 202-544-4600 or visit www.folger.edu

The sieve she holds is a symbol of chastity -- virgins were supposed to be able to carry water in a sieve -- but in this 1579 portrait by George Gower, Elizabeth looks remarkably worldly.Two "Great Seals" from the Folger Shakespeare Library's new exhibition, "Elizabeth I, Then and Now."