The Old Elizabeth I: Gross or Glorious?


This article has once more been making the rounds, and as 1/3rd of Frock Flicks, and a QEI fangirl, I feel contractually obligated to quibble with its premise. To whit: Modern depictions of Queen Elizabeth I go overboard with making her appear grotesque in old age, rather than sensitively presenting a realistic aging woman. While I agree with the author’s premise that our culture finds old women scary and tends to de-sexualize them once they hit menopause (see Amy Schumer’s brilliant “Last Fuckable Day” sketch which tackles this issue head on), I disagree with the use of QEI to illustrate this point.

My argument is that there have been far more depictions of QEI as a young/middle aged woman, often times over-emphasizing her sexuality than not, particularly in the last 40 years (I will address “age erasure” a bit in this context, but it really is a separate issue than the one Maltby is railing against). This trend carries over into depictions of post-menopausal Elizabeth, as well, and there’s something to be said for glorifying an older woman who knows she’s still got command over the opposite sex well into her “old age”. So, let’s take a look at the, in my humble opinion, more plentiful depictions of Elizabeth I as personifying beauty and power, before I talk about my issue with the “grotesque” Elizabeth argument presented in Maltby’s article.

First of all, I bring forth for consideration Glenda Jackson who portrayed Elizabeth from age 20 14 to her death at 69. (Thanks, Bess, for the age correction!) The bulk of the series took place during her “sexual peak” years in Elizabeth R (1971) and did not cut corners when it came to showing Elizabeth’s skilled use of her sexuality both within her court and outside of it.


The many faces of Elizabeth I.

And of course there’s Cate Blanchett, who is so gorgeous that even with 9 years between the two films, she doesn’t look a day over 30 in either one of them. Yet, in Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), she’s playing an Elizabeth well north of 40, but because the film is intended to be allegorical, Blanchett shows nary a wrinkle or waddle, only perfection. You may argue that this is evidence of “Age Erasure”, and yeah, I agree. But this QEI doesn’t fit into the “old and gross” category by any stretch. Also, I direct you to Exhibit A: Age Erasure in Elizabeth’s Portraits from 1580-1603. If I give props to anything about this film, it’s that it plays the allegorical Gloriana to the hilt.

Elizabeth (1998)

Even in clown white, Blanchett looks gorgeous.

1600-02 The Rainbow Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I attr to Isaac Oliver or Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger Collection of Marquesse of Salisbury

Exhibit A: This portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts, the Younger, was painted in 1600-1602, when Elizabeth was well into her late-60s. For more portraits of Elizabeth that spare no attempt at flattering her vanity, see here.

Even when Helen Mirren was cast as an “older” QEI in Elizabeth I (2005), a series that takes place the last 15 years of her reign, there was NO denying that Mirren was playing her with the sexual power at full tilt.


The older films like The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) starring Bette Davis and Fire Over England (1937) with Flora Robson (who many consider the definitive QEI prior to Jackson’s portrayal) were played by both actresses with an unsettling seductiveness that couldn’t be less subtle if it rolled up wearing gold lamé bootie shorts and 8″ come-fuck-me stiletto heels. Where Maltby lumps Davis’ role into the “grotesque” category, in my opinion the only thing garish about her Elizabeth is the fact that she was filmed in Technicolor. You think Bette Davis would have let herself be put out there as a “grotesque old woman”??

Bette Davis, Queen Elizabeth I

Pretty sure the answer to that would be “no.”

1937 Fire Over England

Flora Robson’s Elizabeth is in the prime of her life and ready to throw down.

And while it’s admittedly satire, Black Adder II (1986) has an undeniably gorgeous Miranda Richardson playing a QEI caricature, Queenie, whose favorite pastime, when she’s not tormenting Edmund with the threat of execution, is watching him squirm while she flirts relentlessly with him.

Queenie - Blackadder II

“I may have a body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a concrete elephant.”

There are only two Elizabeth portrayals that I could see falling into the “grotesque” category, and those are the depictions of her in Orlando (1993) and in Shakespeare in Love (1998).* Orlando’s Elizabeth was fairly subversive at the time, played by veteran character actor Quentin Crisp, in a casting decision that was meant to juxtapose Orlando’s male incarnations being played by the female Tilda Swinton. Crisp’s Elizabeth, seen only in the first few minutes of the film, is at the end of her life, weighed down not just by her magnificent robes, but her own impending mortality. This Elizabeth is old, yet still has enough sparkle to captivate the young Orlando. Crisp treats the role with dignity and respect, and avoids veering into the less-celebrated trope of a lecherous old woman, even as she clearly desires Orlando (or is it his youth?). But Crisp’s Elizabeth is not beautiful, at least not in the sense of sexual attractiveness. She is, however, undeniably awe-inspiring.

1992 Orlando

“Do not fade, do not wither, do not grow old.”

The same could be said for Judi Dench’s portrayal of Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love. Her portrayal is couched in the declining magnificence of the late-Elizabethan Age while the next evolution in English history waits impatiently in the wings. Dench’s Elizabeth, like Crisp’s, is not beautiful, nor should she be. She is “Gloriana” at this stage in her life, the virginal demi-goddess who has transcended the mortal world. Does that desexualize her? Perhaps. But I’d argue that if we are talking about desexualizing old women, turning her into a mythical being while she’s still alive is a far, far better treatment than simply erasing her.

1998 Shakespeare in Love

I think the issue isn’t that Queen Elizabeth is portrayed as “grotesque” in film and television, but that modern expectations of beauty are unequipped to handle a middle aged woman in sixteenth century makeup, in a weirdly proportioned gown that exaggerates odd parts of the body. It’s not that QEI is “always” portrayed like a bizarre old hag in clown makeup in order to strip her of her sexuality; it’s that modern concepts of beauty are pretty much diametrically opposed to sixteenth century concepts of beauty.

This was an era before face lifts, mind you. The garish white makeup employed by Elizabeth I was the best thing her era had to cover the ravages of age (compounding the issue is that it was made from toxic white lead, so it likely did far more harm than good). It’s also part of what makes Elizabeth such a fascinating character study — how does a woman in power cope when her sexual desirability begins to wane? How does she navigate a terrain that is, still to this day, something that women grapple with as they transition into old age and our culture decides they no longer are appealing/useful/desirable?

Portrait of Elizabeth I by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, c. 1595, via Wikimedia Commons.

Portrait of Elizabeth I by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, c. 1595, via Wikimedia Commons.

After all, we see in shows like The Tudors (2007) and Reign (2013-) what happens when period beauty ideals are thrown out in favor of modern ones. I’d argue that it detracts from the story, while others would say that it makes the characters more “relatable”, and we could have that debate forever (and probably will, thus ensuring Frock Flicks will always be relevant). In any event, modernizing a historical character with such an iconic look as Queen Elizabeth I means stripping an essential element of who she was out of the narrative. Wouldn’t it simply be better to educate oneself on the history of this particular woman and try to appreciate the differences in beauty ideals over 500 years as part of what makes that character so iconic rather than accuse the entertainment industry of making Elizabeth into a gross old woman, because Patriarchy?

  • I am aware that Vanessa Redgrave recently portrayed an old QEI in Anonymous (2011), but I haven’t yet seen the film, so I’m reserving judgement. You’ll certainly hear from me one way or the other about it, at some point!

What do you think about Sexy Elizabeth vs. Grotesque Elizabeth? Share with us in the comments!

16 Responses

  1. hsc

    “You think Bette Davis would have let herself be put out there as a ‘grotesque old woman’??”

    Well, given that much was made of Davis’ personal decision to shave her eyebrows and her hairline back several inches, I don’t think she was interested in portraying a physically beautiful QEI. The studio wanted her to be Davis with her usual glamour, but in period costume.

    And she reveled in portraying a “grotesque old woman” in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” to the extent of insisting on doing her own makeup to make sure Jane Hudson was grotesque enough.

    • hsc

      BTW, the photos of Davis and Robson in the text are from “The Virgin Queen” (1955) and “The Sea Hawk” (1940).

    • Sarah Lorraine

      “Well, given that much was made of Davis’ personal decision to shave her eyebrows and her hairline back several inches, I don’t think she was interested in portraying a physically beautiful QEI. The studio wanted her to be Davis with her usual glamour, but in period costume.”

      Exactly. The shaved eyebrows/forehead is one of the most iconic aspects about QEI’s look. Doing away with those “factual” elements of her features (in reality, it was probably just a high-forehead and fair eyebrows, at least until she was older) would render her as identifiable as if you cast a petite brunette as the 6-foot tall, red headed Mary, Queen of Scots.

      I’m looking at you, Reign.

    • bauhausfrau

      I’m with hsc. I DO see Bette Davis’ queen as grotesque. Magnificent and bejeweled and powerful yes, definitely. But I don’t see beauty or sexuality in that particular portrayal.

  2. Susan Pola

    I totally agree with what you wrote. I am totally Team Elizabeth. Therefore, I cringe at Hollywood’s inaccuracies in their portrayal of the Queen.

    Remember, she captivated Robert Devereaux Earl of Essex. He gave not a thought to her aging, until he saw her without her lead based makeup. Ergo, she must have done that to others of her court. That was part of her power.

    My favourite portrayals are without a doubt Dame Glenda Jackson and Dame Judi Dench. They conveyed both sexuality, age and power. I didn’t think Elizabeth portrayed by them was in any way grotesque. Instead, she was both the embodiment of sex, intelligence, power and beauty.

    Cate Blanchett was gorgeously dressed. But both movies were so inaccurate, I wanted to deprive the director and screenwriter of their Director’s Guild and Writer’s Guild memberships.

    • Sarah Lorraine

      I’ve always been of the opinion that what Elizabeth lacked in physical beauty, particularly as she aged, she made up for in sheer, terrifying magnificence. There were definitely aspects of Galadriel’s “All shall love me and despair” in her from the 1580s on, but there was also the undeniable charm and wit, and her intellectual prowess thrown into the mix. Those are qualities that do not fade with age (barring dementia, ofc) and it is pretty apparent from the historical record that she made excellent use of those right up until the end.

      In some ways, I feel like even focusing on her physical attractiveness is counterproductive, because she was the queen. She was de facto beautiful, even if she actually wasn’t. So, even if you assume that all the praise heaped on her physical beauty throughout her life was just a foregone conclusion because flattery will get you everywhere in court, her intellectual capabilities were far and away more important to her image and overall desirability.

      • bauhausfrau

        And there’s also the fact that we’re comparing her with other royalty. Elizabeth and Henry both WERE a hell of a lot more attractive than a lot of the other kings/queens out there. A mildly attractive person who is a politician is generally a knock out compared to the average politician. After all “politics is show business for ugly people.”

      • Donna

        Yes, intellect, power and sexuality without conventional beauty is why I’ve always put Flora Robeson as my favorite portrayal of Elizabeth.

    • Sarah Lorraine

      True, Duff’s Elizabeth is also a good example. It’s just hard to include every single portrayal of QEI and still keep the post a readable length. I tend to get lengthy and wordy. :P

  3. Teresa

    I think Queen Elizabeth must have been a lot less grotesque (or gross) than most people of her time who had the good fortune to reach their late sixties. Yes, she was a great queen, and even more, she knew how to act the part. I remember my first college history instructor saying that Elizabeth truly understood the role of a sovereign and that part of that role was to make herself loved. The same theme came up in graduate school discussions with friends who were specializing in early modern Europe. And I’m afraid I really don’t understand the idea that passing menopause makes a woman useless (unless you would agree that women exist only to bear babies). And Elizabeth had more important things to do!
    The whole concept of “relatability” is bizarre. Why bother watching a historical film, or reading a historical novel (or even some popular nonfiction), if the real people portrayed are going to behave like clueless contemporary adolescents in fancy (inaccurate) costumes?
    There’s a very nice portrayal of the older Elizabeth, by the way, in P.F. Chisholm’s novel An Air of Treason.

    • MoHub

      “I have the heart and stomach of a King.”

      My favorite quote from Elizabeth I and a statement that totally sums her up.

  4. ladylavinia1932

    I’m with hsc. I DO see Bette Davis’ queen as grotesque. Magnificent and bejeweled and powerful yes, definitely. But I don’t see beauty or sexuality in that particular portrayal.

    I do not recall anyone describing Elizabeth I as a “beautiful” woman, even when she was young. She had other qualities that made her attractive to men – vibrancy, wit, charm, and sexiness. But I do not think anyone would have described her as beautiful.

    I find it hard to regard Bette Davis or Judi Dench’s portrayal of Elizabeth as “grotesque”. Both of them portrayed the queen during the 1590s, when the latter was in her 60s.

  5. Roxana

    Elizabeth was never beautiful, as she said herself, yet she had the reputation of a beauty. Like her mother Anne Boleyn Elizabeth had charisma and an allure that had little to do with her physical appearance. She was still fascinating ambassadors and courtiers to the very end. One moment they’d be mercilessly describing the ravages of time, the next they’d be talking about her fascination and the ‘unmistakable remnants of beauty’.