David Matzko McCarthy

The world is full of stories. We live by them and in them. They tell us who we are. Elizabeth, Shekhar Kapur's 1998 film about the Virgin Queen, is a wonderful example. The film has been criticized for its historical inaccuracies, but it is a great story with much to say about us and our history. Reviewers cannot help but disparage its outlandish historical liberties, but they love the film (Ebert 1998). Janet Maslin of the New York Times quips that "Elizabeth is presented as a glamorously stressed-out modern woman who must cope with a superintense case of having it all" (Maslin 1998). She notes that Kapur's ignorance about Queen Elizabeth I "only helps to make his Elizabeth that much sassier a sovereign, slouching on her throne." Kapur is obviously more concerned to entertain and enliven than to give "just" the facts. Maslin offers an accurate list of his priorities. "His film concerns itself with elaborate appearances, anachronistically modern flourishes, Roman Catholic-Protestant intrigue, the difficulty of resolving career with personal life and the small matter of Elizabethan history, pretty much in that order" (Maslin 1998). Kapur's efforts to lift Elizabeth I out of the "formaldehyde of historical accuracy" are welcomed by a critic from Time magazine (Fitzgerald 1998: 44). Elizabeth is hagiography at its best; it is a story about an exemplary figure told through a history not entirely her own.

Kapur's Elizabeth offers an apt starting point for a consideration of saints and desire. The setting for her story is not so much sixteenth-century England or the monarchy, but her body As the plot unfolds, she is told that her body is no longer her own, and in the end, she will give herself over to others, married to England as the Virgin Queen. I will use Kapur's Elizabeth as an exemplary story of the modern sexual self and as a site for inquiry about the relation between hagiography and the saints. Elizabeth will be juxtaposed with the story of St Rose of Lima. St Rose (1586-1617) presents a difficult case. Like Elizabeth, her body tells a story, but unlike Kapur's modern image of the Queen, Rose's flight from sexual desire will strike most readers as appalling. Her desire for God appears to set her against her own body. Rose seems to convey a story of oppression and violence, which are so thoroughly internalized in her as victim that she is the most formidable instrument of her own suffering. Without backing away from her suffering, I will suggest that Rose's story is redemptive only if it is distressing. If her story is wild with anguish, hers is passion of God.

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