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Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Elizabeth in 'Anonymous'

Good Queen Bess. The Virgin Queen. Elizabeth Tudor. Elizabeth Regina. Elizabeth I. No matter what name she goes by, the monarch who reigned over England for 43 years, until her death at age 69 in 1603, was a formidable presence.

The actresses portraying her on screen and TV over the years form an impressive club whose members include Sarah Bernhardt, Bette Davis, Dames Glenda Jackson, Judi Dench and Helen Mirren, and Cate Blanchett, among others. They’ve played her variously as domineering, calculating, powerful, coyly flirtatious, shrewd, amusing and everything in between.

The latest to take up the challenge of becoming Elizabeth I is the mother and daughter team of Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson. They don her crown in Anonymous, a literary thriller opening today (Oct. 28). The movie takes as its starting premise that the plays attributed to William Shakespeare (amusingly portrayed by Rafe Spall) were really the work of Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans).

Richardson plays a young Elizabeth, Redgrave the senior citizen version. Both portray her as a woman of wit and sparkle, who loved to be entertained and knew more about the intrigue going on around her than she let on.

Watch Redgrave discuss the Shakespeare authorship question with the BBC’s Andrew Marr.

Elizabeth has fascinated filmmakers and writers over the decades because so much is known about her and yet so little. We know the date she was born and when she died, we know when she ascended the throne and the battles her troops fought, and we even know which handsome courtiers she doted upon. But we don’t know, and likely never really will, how she really felt about being a woman in power, about never marrying, never having children, losing her looks to smallpox, etc. It’s the filling in of those blanks that offers both challenge and reward to the actresses donning her ruffled collars.

In recent years, we’ve seen contrasting Elizabeths on screens big and small. Dench’s brief, Oscar-winning take on the monarch in 1998’s Shakespeare in Love was an imperious and yet amusing one, her memorable Bess full of tart looks and lines, especially her most famous: “I know something of a woman in a man’s profession.”

Australian actress Blanchett played Elizabeth in two biopics, 1998’s Elizabeth and a 2007 sequel, Elizabeth: The Golden Age. She was nominated for Best Actress Oscars for both films and picked up a BAFTA award for Leading Actress for the first one. In the earlier Elizabeth, she was a lonely girlish princess who grew into the role of all-powerful monarch; in the second film, an action movie masquerading as a biopic, she suited up in shiny armor and rallied her troops before battle.

Mirren is believed to be the only actress to have played both Elizabeth I and her current reigning namesake. A year before she won an Oscar for maintaining such an impressive stiff upper lip as Elizabeth II in 2006’s The Queen, Mirren impressively ripped everyone in her court a new one as her long ago predecessor in Elizabeth I. The two-part mini-series aired on HBO in the U.S. and on Channel 4 in the U.K. Mirren nabbed an Emmy for the role. (Worth noting: the series was directed by Tom Hooper, who went on to make The King’s Speech.)

That same year, in 2005, Anne-Marie Duff scored with BBC and PBS viewers when she played Elizabeth I in a four-part BBC mini-series called The Virgin Queen. In one of his early notable roles, Tom Hardy turned up as Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, a statesman and suitor to the queen.



Sarah Bernhardt as the Queen in the 1912 silent film, Queen Elizabeth

Flora Robson as Elizabeth in 1937’s Fire Over England:

Bette Davis as Elizabeth I in 1939’s The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, co-starring Errol Flynn:

Jean Simmons as the young Elizabeth in 1953’s The Young Bess:

Agnes Moorehead as Elizabeth I in 1957’s The Story of Mankind:

Glenda Jackson as the Queen in the 1971 BBC miniseries Elizabeth R:


Who is your favorite Elizabeth I?


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By Leah Rozen