Scene 1. Outside a tilting yard in London. Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex waits his turn to joust in a tournament before the Queen. Inside, the crowd acclaim Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy’s victory in the tilt. When he enters, the jealous Essex provokes him to a fight in which Mountjoy wounds him. The Queen enters with her Court and scolds the two lords for their quarrel. Her Captain of the Guard, Sir Walter Raleigh mocks the pride of both men, winning their undying enmity. The Queen reconciles her fractious nobles.
Scene 2. Elizabeth’s apartments at the Royal Palace of Nonsuch. The Queen gossips about the duel with her Secretary of State, Robert Cecil; the Earl of Essex’s own sister, Penelope Rich is scandalously known to be Mountjoy’s lover and Elizabeth relishes her certain discomfiture. Cecil is uneasy about the Queen’s own relationship with the ambitious and arrogant Earl, who has been her favourite for some time. He warns Elizabeth that the King of Spain has laid plans for a fresh invasion of England. Essex’s entrance provides the Queen with a welcome distraction from affairs of State and she asks him to sing to her. She responds with tender flirtation and then a
sudden, violent declaration of her passion for him. He seizes his chance to petition her for the prestigious Lord Deputyship of Ireland, where the Earl of Tyrone is in open rebellion against English rule. He grows impatient at her prevarication, blaming the influence of his enemies Raleigh and Cecil. Elizabeth dismisses him and then prays to God for the strength to subdue her unruly heart and to wisely govern her people.
Scene 1. The Guildhall of Norwich. The Queen is on progress to her northern territories, accompanied by her Court. The Recorder of the City of Norwich officially greets her and a masque, celebrating the marriage of Time and Concord is presented in her honour. Essex is bored and impatient, complaining that the Deputyship of Ireland is still not his. Elizabeth thanks her loyal subjects for the tokens of their love.
Scene 2. The garden of Essex House in London. Mountjoy meets with Penelope in the safety of her brother’s house by the river Thames. They are interrupted by the sudden entrance of Essex, arguing with his wife, Frances; his patience with the Queen is close to being exhausted. Despite Frances’ pleas for caution and spurred on by his ambitious sister Penelope, Essex looks forward to the end of the ageing Elizabeth’s reign and the power that might then be his.
Scene 3. The Royal Palace of Whitehall. A ball is being given at the Queen’s palace. Essex arrives with Frances, who he has forced to wear an elaborate and expensive dress, rivalling the splendour of Elizabeth. When the Queen arrives, she immediately orders the courtiers to join her in dancing an energetic dance, La Volta after which she commands the ladies to withdraw to change their linen underclothes. Frances returns in agitation; her magnificent gown has been stolen. Elizabeth suddenly enters, to the embarrassment of all wearing the missing dress and publicly humiliates Essex’s wife. After she withdraws, Penelope and Mountjoy attempt to comfort Frances but Essex explodes in furious indignation at the Queen’s insult. Unexpectedly, Elizabeth returns and then surprises the whole Court
by declaring that Essex shall, after all be made Lord Deputy in Ireland. The Court dances in celebration.
Scene 1. The Queen’s apartments, several months later. Elizabeth’s ladies gossip about the Earl’s disastrous campaign in Ireland. Her chief Lady in Waiting has heard a great disturbance in the courtyard below and Essex suddenly bursts in, insisting on seeing the Queen. He tears aside the curtain to her private chamber, revealing the Queen undressed and without her make-up or wig. Dismissing her ladies, Elizabeth sadly allows Essex to see her as she truly is. But when Essex tries to justify his failure in Ireland with news of a truce, she flares up in anger and accuses him of incompetence and disloyalty. He is dismissed and, once dressed by her ladies, she consults
with Cecil as to what to do with the Earl. He warns her that the recalcitrant Essex, backed by his returned Irish forces, presents a real threat to her power. She orders Essex to be placed under house arrest.
Scene 2. A street in London. In a tavern, a blind Ballad Singer recounts the latest news to some citizens of London. Essex has broken out of his house and is trying to rally the City to his cause, declaring Cecil and Raleigh traitors and intending to storm the Queen’s palace. Henry Cuffe, an ally of Essex bursts in with troops to try to persuade them to join the rebellion but they are seen off by the tavern landlady. The Town Crier is heard proclaiming the news that Essex has been declared a traitor and will be arrested.
Scene 3. The Palace of Whitehall. Essex has been captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Led by Raleigh and Cecil, the Queen’s council has declared the death sentence but the Queen is reluctant to sign. She dismisses them but her tormented thoughts are soon interrupted by the arrival of Mountjoy with Frances and Penelope, who have come to beg her to spare Essex’s life. She receives Frances kindly but is enraged by the proud and wilful Penelope who presses the rank and glory of the treacherous Earl. Elizabeth furiously signs the death warrant before Penelope’s eyes. The deed done, time and place now have increasingly little meaning to the ageing Queen. Her mind wandering, Elizabeth’s life and reign draw to a close.