It Was Mother

It Was Of

It Was Of
Wayras Olivier
MAY 2019

OF COURSE, IF WE ASK “why are Catholics and Protestants not one and the same?” There is a divisive rule game: when behind the eight ball the former try to make things happen by sinking themselves into prayer, whilst the latter see hard work as their only shot. Perhaps best known inside the dark corner pockets of sixteenth century Germania is Martin Luther, who, altogether suspicious of indulgences, first took notice of monk Johann Tetzel’s poor sportsmanship. Thinking of sinning in the next few days? Buy an indulgence and be forgiven for your as-of-yet uncommitted transgression. Tetzel’s message got the masses hooked on German efficiency, good behavior withdrawals without the shakes.

But imagine Johannes Gutenberg, a blacksmith who had labored tirelessly on Europe’s secular version of the second coming—the printing press. Luther, waiting in the wings, knew the invention could be used to pullulate Tetzel’s confirmation of indulgences as heretical. In the years therebefore, the Bible was inked in a rather unhurried way in Latin, making it somewhat undecipherable for the uneducated (let alone illiterate). Understanding the text would itself be a birthright, but would require obstructions such as out-of-order evangelical priests, the sole oral translators and broadcasters of the times, to be put in their place.

That the Bible ought to be available in German (say later) English (or) French, for example, and printed with escape velocity from the gravitas of German-Catholic theocrats, became the key means to an end which eventually exerted itself as Protestant, whereby the release of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses launched his splinter group in 1517. (Incidentally, William Tyndale, a spirited scholar whose death was ensured from hanging and fire because his English translation of the New Testament, Tyndale’s Bible, caused a spark—over his work and under his body—in 1536, leaving his crisp corpus behind and a corpse well done.)

Of course, none of this is in the marvelous Elizabeth. That is to say Luther, the printing press, Tyndale or countless other players. Such as Old Coppernose—who upon growing tired of his wife Catherine of Aragon, bedded Anne Boleyn, producing baby Elizabeth, eventually prompting the English Reformation of 1534, when Rome refused to grant philandering Henry a divorce. By the time the curtain is raised on Elizabeth in England, 1554, milady is already taking it on the chin for all the doings (and undoings) of her chinless papa.

“She was born a bastard. She will never rule England!” I am now quoting Aragon’s daughter, Mary Tudor, making a reference to her half-sister Elizabeth, whose mother was beheaded long ago by their father. Mary has since reversed her bygone father’s position and restored England’s ties with Rome. “You will promise me something,” a sickly Mary, requires of her Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth. “When I am gone, you will do everything in your power to uphold the Catholic faith. Do not take away from the people the consolations of the Blessed Virgin, their Holy Mother.”

“When I am Queen,” Elizabeth responds, “I promise to act as my conscience dictates.”

The filmmakers stay clear of overstating the said conscience as but a Protestant one. Just a few scenes later, we hear a most grave observation from spymaster Francis Walsingham, whose cunning Elizabeth leverages to help steer her clear from her court advisors, securing ultimately her throne, upon ignoring their crankery. “There’s so little beauty in this world. And so much suffering,” Walsingham says to a young apprentice. “Do you suppose that is what God had in mind? That is to say, if there is a God at all. Perhaps there is nothing in this universe but ourselves and our thoughts.”

Indeed, the film is itself, on the surface, a dialectic between Catholicism and Protestantism, its gradual synthesis being Anglicanism embodied within the Church of England. However, a much more exciting dialectic emerges once Elizabeth is behind the eight ball, between innocence and corruption when she’s playing the game, its synthesis being psychological maturation embodied within nerve and discretion, convictions that when pooled together can’t be said to be one and the same.