Did Shakespeare see Elizabeth I during her summer progress through Warwickshire in 1575?
Elizabeth I and her court visited the Earl of Leicester at Kenilworth Castle in July 1575. The Earl welcomed her with a series of lavish and elaborate entertainments which included banquets, plays and pageants, and water displays and musical fireworks. On 18 July, a water pageant based on the Lady of the Lake took place, featuring a mechanical dolphin and a mermaid. People from nearby villages gathered to see what they could of the queen’s summer progress. William Shakespeare, then eleven years old, could have been one of them. Oberon’s memories in A Midsummer-Night’s Dream could have also been Shakespeare’s memory of ‘the imperial votaress [who] passed on/In maiden meditation fancy free’:
Since once I sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath
That the rude sea grew civil at her song
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres,
To hear the sea-maid’s music…
That very time I saw — but thou couldst not —
Flying between the cold moon and the earth,
Cupid all arm’d: a certain aim he took
At a fair vestal throned by the west,
And loos’d his love-shaft smartly from his bow
As it should pierce a hundred-thousand hearts:
But I might see young Cupid’s fiery shaft
Quench’d in the chaste beams of the watery moon,
And the imperial votaress passed on,
In maiden meditation fancy free.
(Act 2 Scene 1)
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