This rare pamphlet is a festival book produced to commemorate Elizabeth I’s visit to Elvetham in September 1591. It describes the lavish entertainment put on for her by Edward Seymour (1539?–1621), the Earl of Hertford, that spanned four days. As we see in the woodcut illustration, the estate was dressed with spectacular and fantastical scenery, including an artificial half-moon pond with three islands (a ship island, a fort and a snail mount that could turn into a flaming monster), all specially constructed for the occasion. There were boats with musicians, and everything was decorated with flags and streamers. Elizabeth was entertained at the various locations by allegorical displays of music and dance by performers in extravagant, often symbolic costume. There were also poetry, speeches and songs that flattered the Queen and asserted the Earl’s loyalty, as well as feasting and other displays including fireworks, sports, the shooting of cannon and gifts. Elizabeth’s visit was part of her royal progress – a journey through the country during which a monarch could be seen by his or her subjects and would meet with important local people. The in-person presence of the monarch encouraged loyalty and asserted his or her royal authority.
This is one of two editions of the pamphlet, both produced in 1591. Q1 (i.e. quarto 1) survives in just three copies (all with variations), including one at the British Library, C.33.e.7.(9.), which is missing (or possibly never had) the foldout woodcut. The pamphlet shown here from the Royal Collection is the only known surviving copy of Q2, which was ‘Newlie corrected, and amended’ from Q1. The foldout plate and the title page of the Royal Collection copy are hand-coloured, most likely by the printing house prior to publication as a deluxe copy.
Elizabeth I meets a fairy queen
On the fourth day of the entertainment, Elizabeth was met by a fairy queen attended by a train of dancers. The Fairy Queen planted a staff in the ground and placed on it a garland in the form of a crown, much like a maypole. She gave a speech, saluting Elizabeth with the garland, given to her ‘by Auberon the Fairy King’. The Queen and her maids danced and sang a song, ‘Elisa is the fayrest Queene’. Q2 says they danced around the garden, where Q1 says the garland. The revision in Q2 may be a puritanical response to the pagan associations of the ring dance around a pole. Elizabeth was so delighted with this piece that she had the performers sing and dance it three times.
With the exception of Robert Greene’s The Scottish History of James IV (c. 1590), fairies in performance before Shakespeare were only seen in courtly contexts such as this and not on the public stage.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
In Act 2, Scene 1, Oberon remembers witnessing Cupid firing one of his arrows. His description of the scene, listening to the song of a mermaid with a fair vestal (i.e. virgin) throned by the west, is usually interpreted as an allusion to Elizabeth (the vestal) and the entertainment at Elvetham, which on the second day featured a spectacular water pageant in the pond by performers dressed as sea-people. Popular legend has it that Shakespeare was part of the Queen’s party at Elvetham, and even that A Midsummer Night’s Dream was first performed here, but these are entirely unsubstantiated.
Reading the festival book alongside the play emphasises the festive qualities and pageantry of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It also highlights the frequency of allusion to Elizabeth in the play, for example in the references to Cynthia or Diana, the moon goddess who is often associated with Elizabeth, as in the song of Nereus and the oration of Silanus on the second day at Elvetham. However, in alluding to a mode or genre that is highly allegorical in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play that accommodates a deeper, more realistic exploration of character and emotion, Shakespeare also has the opportunity to trouble the stability of some of these tropes, for example in the role of Titania, who is a far cry from the Fairy Queen of Elvetham.