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Spotlight on Teaching
An in-depth look at a woman who would change the course of history.
ENG325: The Myth of Elizabeth
Four hundred years after her death, Queen Elizabeth I of England continues to enchant the world. The subject of countless poems, plays, novels, textbooks, and films, she remains both fascinating and elusive, the historical person often inseparable from the myths springing up around her.
Sarah Wall-Randell, assistant professor of English, invites her students to consider Elizabeth, the woman and the myth, in a course that often finds unexpected similarities between the 16th century and modern life. "The first time I taught this class was in Spring 2008, during the primary season in which Hillary Clinton ['69] and Barack Obama were vying to be the Democratic candidate for president," says Wall-Randell. Back then, "every day it seemed like some issue from class discussion was also being discussed on the news: should Senator Clinton 'use' her femininity or minimize it? Did she poll better in pants or skirts? Was she 'playing the gender card'? Should her husband be in the background or right beside her? Clothes, sexuality, age, gendered behavior, the overlap of public and private life—all these were aspects of Queen Elizabeth’s political self-presentation that were constantly examined and deconstructed by herself, her courtiers, her people, the 16th-century world. The more things change, the more they stay the same around women in public life. I look forward to perhaps teaching the class again in the next election cycle."
"The Myth of Elizabeth was an amazing and transformative course that was entirely different from anything else I’ve taken at Wellesley," says Alexandra Day '15. "We read and discussed every aspect of Queen Elizabeth I’s life and reign, from her role as monarch to her sexuality and romantic life. I was surprised by the extent to which modern depictions of Elizabeth have influenced my perspective about her, and I found it refreshing to delve into primary texts."
After discussing these questions and many others in the seminar-style discussion over the course of the semester, students prepared original research projects that they presented to the class. "I was thrilled to see in what original and brilliant literary and historical directions students had gone with their work," says Wall-Randell. "Among many others, we had projects comparing depictions of Elizabeth to 1980s media depictions of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; analyzing the love poetry Elizabeth wrote for her suitor François, Duc d’Anjou; and examining what kind of rhetorical statements Elizabeth was making with the elaborate clothing and jewelry that she wore and that she gave as gifts." The paper on this last topic, by Kendrick Smaellie '14, won the 2013-14 Student Library Research Award.
“Since I’m majoring in physics, I don’t often have the opportunity to write papers, so I loved being able to define my own direction for a project and explore it in depth. This course was a tremendously rewarding experience that showcased everything I love about Wellesley and liberal arts.”
—Alexandra Day '15