Elizabeth I may have been non-binary, claims Shakespeare’s Globe

·4 min read
Queen Elizabeth I
Queen Elizabeth I

“I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman,” Elizabeth I once said to rally her troops to face the Spanish Armada, “but I have the heart and stomach of a king”.

And was a non-binary person too, according to academics working for Shakespeare’s Globe, who have cast doubt on the gender identity of one of England’s greatest queens.

Elizabeth I has been presented as possibly non-binary in an essay published by the theatre, which refers to the female monarch with the gender-neutral “they/them” pronouns.

The essay was written by a “transgender awareness trainer” in defence of the Globe’s decision to stage a new play featuring a non-binary Joan of Arc, but both the play and the essay have raised concerns that famous females are being written out of history.

The essay claims: “Elizabeth I… described themself regularly in speeches as ‘king’, ‘queen’ and ‘prince’, choosing strategically to emphasise their female identity or their male monarchical role at different points.”

This appears to reference the most famous speech attributed to Elizabeth, her 1588 address at Tilbury in which she braced the nation for battle with the Spanish, saying she had the “heart and stomach of king” and “a king of England too”.

‘Historical women adopted a male identity’

The essay on the Shakespeare’s Globe website, written by Dr Kit Heyam, suggests that historical women were not only rebels for performing what were considered typically male tasks, but also in some sense adopted a male identity.

Dr Hayem writes in regard to Elizabeth I as an armour-wearing military leader: “Inhabiting that social role and dressing in the clothes associated with it, while living and working among men, may not just have felt like gendered defiance: it may have had a profound impact on their sense of self.”

The essay defends Shakespeare’s Globe announcing a new play titled I, Joan, in which Joan of Arc is represented as non-binary. The teenage warrior, famed for leading the French against the English in the 100 Years War despite being a woman in a patriarchal society, has been given the pronouns “they/them” in Globe promotional material for the production.

Dr Hayem’s essay for the theatre argues that while historians have stated that Joan wore male armour out of “practicality” during her campings, “they” may have had “deeper motivations” related to “their” identity.

Author JK Rowling signalled her bemusement that Shakespeare’s Globe would be portraying Joan of Arc as non-binary by liking a Twitter post which read: “Coming next: Napoleon was a woman because he was defeated at Waterloo.”

‘Famous females will be written out of history’

Feminist thinkers have raised concerns that casting doubts on the womanhood of prominent women because they defied gender norms, and did supposedly “manly” things, will effectively write many famous females out of history.

Philosopher Dr Jane Clare Jones said: “This is a really great example of the inherent gender conservatism in gender identity ideology. Traditional gender conservatism says that men must do ‘manly’ things, and women must do ‘womanly’ things.

“Gender identity ideology reverses that and then we end up with the idea that anyone who does ‘manly’ things must be a man, and anyone who does ‘womanly’ things must be a woman.

“This is how we end up in a situation in which historical women who have performed traditionally ‘masculine’ roles end up being re-categorised as ‘trans men’ or ‘non-binary’ or ‘not-women’ in some way.

“This is a really regressive message to be sending out, especially to young women.”

‘A regressive ideology’

Joan Smith, author of the feminist volume Misogynies, said: “Women and girls are entitled to reject stereotypes without losing our sex.

“We didn’t have enough female role models to start with, we have spent decades rediscovering women artists, authors, leaders. And now a regressive ideology is trying to take them away.”

Born in 1533, Elizabeth I became England’s longest-serving female monarch until Queen Victoria, and was famed for overseeing the emergence of the country as an international power during her 44-year reign.

Named the Virgin Queen, she never married or had children despite this being the expectations of her contemporaries.

Shakespeare’s Globe has been contacted for comment.