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In the classical and medieval traditions of the courtly love ideal, the male Lover pronounces his undying love to the Lady of his desires who is cruel and unobtainable. Writing about courtly love, Denis De Rougement argues that it is ‘the passion of the two lovers [that] creates obstruction‘ (De Rougemont 42). He implies that the Lover’s feelings for the Lady who feigns disinterest creates a playful discourse masking sexual interest. In the picture below, for instance, the courtly love couple are playing chess. No doubt, they’d rather be in bed together.

A Courtly Couple

Queen Elizabeth I revived the courtly love ideal to encourage courtiers to woo and flatter her. She maintained ‘control’ over a patriarchal society because, in order to gain political favour and increased wealth, Elizabethan aristocrats and middle class gentlemen or merchants had to praise Elizabeth in this fashion. Sir Walter Ralegh is a perfect illustration. In 1587, he petitions the queen to remain her favourite following the Earl of Essex’s promotion to master of the horse:

Fortune hath taken away my love,

My life’s joy and my soul’s heaven above.

Fortune hath taken thee away, my princess,

My world’s joy and my true fantasy’s mistress.

Fortune hath taken thee away from me;

Fortune hath taken all by taking thee.

Dead to all joys, I only live to woe:

So is Fortune become my fantasy’s foe. (Lines 1-8)

Ralegh’s melancholic complaint implies he has lost his beloved Elizabeth to ‘Fortune’, a possible metonym for Essex. The Petrarchan oxymoron ‘Dead to all joys, I only live to woe’ emphasises Ralegh’s zombie-like existence, as does the plaintive repetition of ‘Fortune’.

Queen Elizabeth’s reply to Ralegh’s poetic suffering is less embarrassing:

Ah, silly Pug, wert thou so sore afraid?

Mourn not, my Wat, nor be thou so dismayed.

It passeth fickle Fortune’s power and skill

To force my heart to think thee any ill.

No fortune base, thou sayest, shall alter thee?

And may so blind a witch so conquer me?

No, no, my Pug, though Fortune were not blind,

Assure thyself she could not rule my mind. (Lines 1-8)

Elizabeth’s dismissal of Ralegh’s foolish fantasies and her use of the affectionate nicknames ‘Pug’ and ‘Wat’ reaffirms her status of queen. She is no love-struck maid that ‘Fortune’ can rule, but a strong woman who controls her own heart and mind.

The poetic exchange between Ralegh and Queen Elizabeth also demonstrates the deferment of physical intimacy. The continual repetition of ‘Fortune’ becomes the barrier to sexual passion, as their banter adheres harmlessly to the themes of loss and friendship.

Ralegh’s concerns over losing his ‘love’ is only one facet of Elizabethan courtly love. In sonnet 32 of Astrophil and Stella (1581-3), Sir Philip Sidney uses the Petrarchan blazon to indicate Stella’s beauty: ‘Whence hast thou ivory, rubies, pearl and gold/To show her skin, lips, teeth and head so well?’ (32, lines 10 & 11). The list of Stella’s body parts that focus on her face and hair correspond to the material wealth obtained from the Indies – the ‘ivory, rubies, pearl and gold’. In English Renaissance cartographic terms, the Indies is the furthest point on the edge of the world. The metaphoric conceit therefore compares Stella’s beauty to exotic objects, which are not easily obtained. 

In his defense of poetry entitled English Poetics and Rhetoric (1589), which is dedicated to Queen Elizabeth, George Puttenham comments on how exotic treasures enhance a Lady’s appearance:

…in praising of…pearls, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and other precious stones, specially of fair women whose excellence is discovered by paragonizing or setting one to another, which moved the zealous poet, speaking of the maiden Queen, to call her the paragon of queens. (Puttenham 272)

The comparison of precious stones to ‘fair women’ not only accentuates their beauty but as Puttenham implies with the adjective ‘excellence’, they are comparable to a woman’s virtuosity.

Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth I in 'Elizabeth: The Golden Age' (2007)

The metonymic association of precious stones with moral values is clarified by ‘The Rainbow Portrait’ (1600) that promotes Elizabeth as the virgin queen. In the portrait, pearls are prominently displayed in her headdress and the translucent veil around her shoulders to symbolise her virginity. Adorning her left arm is a jewelled snake signifying wisdom and immortality because of its ability to shed its skin and begin life anew. The snake guards or protects the ruby-shaped heart that symbolises the queen’s heart. Therefore, ‘the queen’s passions are controlled by her wisdom’ (marileecody). Elizabeth’s courtiers, as Ralegh’s pitiful poem shows, may vie for her affections but a game of chess with the queen would remain exactly that. Even if she won.

The Rainbow Portrait (1600) by Isaac Oliver


De Rougemont, Denis. Love in the Western World. 1963. Trans.Montgomery Belgion. Princeton: PrincetonUniversity Press, 1983.

Puttenham, George. The Arte of English Poesie. 1589. Eds. Gladys Doidge Willcock & Alice Walker. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press, 1970.

Sidney, Sir Philip. Astrophil and Stella. 1581-83. The Poems of Sir Philip Sidney. Ed. William A. Ringler jr. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962.

Tudor, Queen Elizabeth I & Sir Walter Ralegh. ‘Verse Exchange Between Queen Elizabeth and Sir Walter Ralegh, Circa 1587’. 1587. Elizabeth I: Collected Works. Eds. Leah S. Marcus, Janel Mueller & Mary Beth Rose. Chicago & London: The University of ChicagoPress, 2002.


http://cla.calpoly.edu/~dschwart/engl513/courtly/images.htm, accessed 07/09/11.

http://www.marileecody.com/gloriana/elizabethrainbow1.jpg, date accessed 07/09/11.