Brown, Elizabeth A. 1999. “’Companion Me with My Mistress’: Cleopatra, Elizabeth I, and Their Waiting Women” in Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England edited by Susan Frye & Karen Robertson. Oxford University Press, New York. ISBN 0-19-511735-2
Brown, Elizabeth A. “Companion Me with My Mistress”
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Drama often draws on contemporary dynamics to depict historic stories, and in this article Brown uses the relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and her female courtiers to examine the depiction of Cleopatra’s court in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. And, given the focus of this collection, it particularly looks at the types of alliances within the court between a queen and her waiting women. Brown’s position is that these relations strengthened Elizabeth’s position and goals, while Cleopatra is depicted as weak in this department.
Elizabeth’s female courtiers had both practical and ceremonial duties, which notably included controlling access to the queen. Although they were technically forbidden from participating in politics, their position as gatekeepers made political involvement difficult to avoid. The senior female courtiers were a relatively stable group, including both married and unmarried individuals. (The “maids of honor” were more changeable, younger, and famously forbidden from marrying.) Many of these women were drawn from the extended network of Boleyn relatives including members of the Howard, Carey, and Knollys families.
The existence of the power of these positions is documented in how others commented on it: seeking support and favor from those close to the queen, who in turn worked to promote the interests of friends and relations. But Elizabeth also used this female “fence” as a way to distance herself from petitioners. There was less need to say no to someone’s face if she could simply decline to respond to the intermediary.
The female courtiers also provided an emotionally supportive circle for the queen who, in turn, often had strong emotional ties to them, not surprising as some of the ladies were part of her household from the time of her ascension to their deaths. Given both personal and familial ties, the queen’s women functioned to extend her “presence” more widely than one woman on her own could manage.
The representation of Cleopatra’s court, in Shakespeare’s play, gives the two waiting women Charmian and Iras similar functional roles to Elizabeth’s women—greatly expanded from the characters they are based on in Plutarch’s history--but they are depicted as isolated and connected only to the queen, without the extensive family connections that shaped the real-world court. The article goes into some detail of how Cleopatra’s women act and function. (Which I’m going to skip summarizing.)
In both cases, there is a tightly-knit relationship between the queen and her women, which is somewhat mutual despite the differences of status and control. It is an entirely different type of relationship than the queen has with her male courtiers. The author points to the contrast in connectedness for Cleopatra’s women, but I wonder if this is a fair comparison—given that they’re fictional characters for whom complex back-stories would only muddle the plot.
The relevance of this article to the Project lies in the contemplation of the woman-centered culture of Elizabeth’s private life (to the extent that she had one). Within such a context, a never-married woman such as Blanche Parry could achieve an influence and functional social status that ordinarily would come only through marriage. And emotional connections between the women of the court would not raise the same concerns regarding loyalty and influence that marriage sometimes did.