‘Ripeness is all’: the death of Elizabeth in drama
By Lisa Hopkins
Renaissance Forum, Vol.4:2 (2000)
Introduction: In an important article in Shakespeare Quarterly, Steven Mullaney suggested that ‘[f]rom 1600 to 1607 – from Shakespeare’s Hamlet … to Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy – the various bodies of the queen go a progress…in the popular theater’. It seems to me that Mullaney is undoubtedly right in identifying the death of Elizabeth and the succession to the throne as important topoi in Renaissance drama, but I think he unnecessarily narrows down the dating of these concerns. The end of the Elizabethan era finds widespread representation on the stage right up until the 1630s, and it is often associated with a motif of ripeness or rawness.
As the life of Elizabeth I began to wane, rumours repeatedly circulated that her possible successor, James VI of Scotland, would not wait peacefully until her death, but intended to seize the English throne forthwith. In late 1598, John Petit, writing from London, told his friend that if James ‘can get money from abroad, he will not wait till the fruit be ready to fall’. In the spring of the next year, Petit reported from Antwerp that ‘the King intends to gather grapes before they are ripe’; the next month he affirmed again – this time from Liège – that James ‘would attempt to gather fruit before it is ripe’ (Kurland 1994, 285). Petit’s language is interesting because it touches on a strain repeatedly found in a number of Shakespearean tragedies: the issue of ripeness, the demarcation between the edible and the raw. Food imagery is indeed pervasive throughout the Shakespearean canon: Anthony J. Lewis suggests that ‘Shakespeare found such imagery an especially effective way of delineating character and of clarifying issues in his more mature plays’. But the idea of the ripe fruit which is ready to fall is a particularly insistent one, often accentuated by a contrast with imagery of the raw, the repellent or the inedible, and it is repeatedly found in conjunction with motifs associated with the passing of Elizabeth and the accession of James. Moreover, the pattern is not confined to Shakespeare alone, but recurs elsewhere in Renaissance drama in plays focused on the issue of succession.