Queen Elizabeth I played a role in fostering Shakespeare’s poetic genius during the final decades of her reign as England’s monarch. Elizabeth loved the theater, which was a popular institution in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and actually created her own theater company called the Queen’s Men, which competed with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the company to which Shakespeare belonged. Nevertheless, Elizabeth invited Shakespeare’s company to perform his works in her court on numerous occasions. Such invitations helped secure the playwright’s reputation and success on the London stage. For his part, Shakespeare makes numerous references to Elizabeth in his plays. One of his most famous references appears in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when Oberon tells the story of the enchanted flower:
A certain aim he [i.e., Cupid] took
At a fair vestal thronèd by the west
And loosed his love shaft smartly from his bow
As it should pierce a hundred thousand hearts.
But I might see young Cupid’s fiery shaft
Quenched in the chaste beams of the wat’ry moon,
And the imperial votress passèd on
In maiden meditation, fancy-free. (II.i.)
Oberon’s reference to a “fair vestal” (i.e., a beautiful virgin) is typically interpreted as an allusion to Elizabeth, who never married and was known as the “Virgin Queen.” Oberon’s language graphically makes the point about the queen’s virginity. He describes how Cupid’s “love shaft” (i.e., phallus), “fiery” with desire, is quenched by the “chaste beams” of the moon. The moon’s chaste beams deflect a sexual advance from Cupid, enabling the fair vestal to remain a “maiden.” Oberon’s allusion underscores the positive associations of the queen’s virginity, which made her seem especially fit to rule due to her apparent ability to resist temptation. In making this complimentary reference to Elizabeth, Shakespeare followed in the footsteps of other poets who’d paid similar tribute. Perhaps the most famous example from Shakespeare’s own time is Edmund Spenser, whose epic poem The Faerie Queene (1590) celebrates Elizabeth. Spenser’s depiction of Elizabeth as the “faerie queene” quickly became a touchstone literary trope.
Just a year after Spenser’s poem appeared, Elizabeth attended a performance at an estate called Elvetham featuring a fairy queen singing Elizabeth’s praises. The fairy honored the queen with a garland that had once belonged to “Auberon the Fairy King.” Because of the similarities between Auberon and Oberon, as well as the Fairy Queen and Titania, some scholars believe A Midsummer Night’s Dream alludes to the Elvetham performance. However, there are crucial differences between the fairy queen Elizabeth met at Elvetham and Titania. Whereas the Elvetham fairy queen served as a flattering royal reflection of Elizabeth, Titania makes a less favorable double. Shakespeare depicts Titania in a near-bestial love affair with the donkey-headed Bottom. Titania’s affair may allude to Elizabeth’s love for Lord Robert Dudley, a married Earl whose father had been executed for treason. Although the queen’s love for this lord was well known, Dudley lacked both a suitable status and general popularity, and so could never marry the queen. Just as Titania is blind to Bottom’s quite obvious flaws, so did Elizabeth seem to either not notice or not care about what an unlikely couple she and Dudley made.