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  • Shakespeare and Elizabeth: The Meeting of Two Myths
  • Linda Shenk
Helen Hackett . Shakespeare and Elizabeth: The Meeting of Two Myths. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009. Pp. 312. $35.00.

Helen Hackett's Shakespeare and Elizabeth: The Meeting of Two Myths deftly explores the multitude of scenarios that scholars and artists have concocted over the centuries to portray a fictional meeting between William Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth I. As Hackett notes early in the book, no documents exist that prove these two figures ever met directly, and yet, beginning in the eighteenth century, their individual biographies began to be embellished and interwoven into what Hackett calls a "double myth."

Whereas previous scholars have devoted at most a chapter to the fascination of imagining Shakespeare and Elizabeth together, Hackett provides the first full-length study, and her extensive publications on both Elizabeth and Shakespeare give her the necessary credentials to do justice to this complex topic. Her book makes a much-needed contribution to the field, particularly because of the sheer range of examples she analyzes—from a warily antagonistic relationship between queen and bard to ones that are scandalously risqué. What is more, her witty prose makes this book as pleasurable to read as it is intellectually provocative.

Hackett examines how the myths of Shakespeare and Elizabeth "have met and intertwined over the centuries" in Anglophone culture (6). She states that her "aim has been to give a broad sample of their range and variety, while tracing significant trends and pointing out influential interventions" (20). In her analysis of representations from the eighteenth century up to such recent examples as a 2007 episode of Doctor Who, she includes such diverse genres as plays, poems, historical fiction, paintings, films, political cartoons, minstrel shows, parodies, and television shows. Hackett examines these artifacts side by side in chapters that are organized most frequently by chronology (eighteenth-century Britain, nineteenth-century Britain, "Shakespeare and Elizabeth Arrive in America," twentieth- and twenty-first-century Britain and America) and by a few key themes ("Criticism and Interpretation: Elizabeth as the Key to Shakespeare" and "New Intimacies: Elizabeth in the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy").

In part, what unifies the book is Hackett's interest in how different historical periods have appropriated the myths of Shakespeare and Elizabeth to address issues of gender, sexuality, class, and nationhood. For example, when Hackett discusses the popular appeal of Shakespeare and Elizabeth's "posthumous relationship" in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain, she explains how writers linked "a man claimed as the greatest writer of all time with a woman claimed as one of the greatest rulers of all time to create a potent and irresistible image of the preeminence of the British nation" (4). In tracing this appeal, Hackett examines the perception of Shakespeare as the Bard of Britain—a figure so frequently [End Page 533] connected to nationalistic and imperial agenda that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert attended performances of Shakespeare as a means of publicly demonstrating both their patriotism and their support for imperial expansionism.

Hackett's array of specific representations and her succinct close readings of quintessential moments in them are two of the book's many strengths. Significantly, Hackett does not try to reconcile these representations—even those contemporaneous depictions that present conflicting images of Shakespeare and/ or Elizabeth. At times, this diversity tends to cloud what Hackett articulates as the prevailing trend for each particular historical and critical period. Such ambiguity arises, in large part, from the task of including so many examples and from allowing each one to speak on its own terms. As Hackett moves through these examples, she adroitly layers in historical context to show how this "double myth" responded to existing social and political factors. Particularly with Shakespeare, she demonstrates how elements of his biography are selected (or fabricated) to create a specific image of the playwright. One notable illustration is the myth of Shakespeare as a deer poacher—a legend that, over time, has been employed for various purposes. It was used to portray the poet as a Robin Hood figure supporting the common people, even as it was evoked to forge a link between Shakespeare and his own characters such...