Friday, October 18, 2013

TV Kings and Queens

The American airing of The White Queen - the story of Queen Elizabeth Woodeville, wife of England's Yorkist King Edward IV (mother of "the Princes in the Tower" and ancestor of every British monarch since England's Henry VIII and Scotland's James V) - concludes tonight on Starz.  Since the final outcome of the main plotline is historically certain - Henry Tudor ascends the throne and marries Queen Elizabeth's daughter Elizabeth of York, thus uniting the two warring houses - one wonders what dramatic subplot surprises the finale may produce. The series favors some historically debatable interpretations (among them a modestly more benign reading of Richard III) and more dubiously decides to take seriously the allegation that Elizabeth was a witch. The latter certainly adds to the series' entertainment value, but for those less convinced by allegations of witchcraft it offers less historical explanation than might be desired. For all its dramatic license however, it faithfully follows the broad outlines of the story and gives a good portrayal of the English family quarrel history calls the Wars of the Roses. Meanwhile, PBS  recent drama series The Hollow Crown offered four of Shakespeare's familiar history plays - Richard II, Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II, and Henry V - which follow the story of late medieval England's dynastic conflicts (culminating in the glorious reign of Shakespeare's model king, Henry V) to shortly before the historical moment at which The White Queen begins. Shakespeare's take on England's late medieval monarchs is well known, and The Hollow Crown wonderfully does exactly what one expects from first-rate British Shakespeare productions. Between the two, television has done a rather good job of dramatizing that era of constant conflict leading up to the critical turning point represented by the Tudor ascendancy.

Humanity's fascination with the romance of royalty is virtually universal. No surprise there!But this focus on such a distant - and seemingly different - period in European history merits reflection. It's hard not to wonder whether all that domestic mayhem was necessary, whether a different cast of characters among the English elite might have figured out a quicker and better solution. Yet, even without projecting back onto 15th-century noble families that sense of nation and  ethos of public-spiritedness that their descendants would someday herald as their great contribution to public life, it seems hard to imagine any other way out.

And isn't that so often the way in politics? Counter-factual history can be fun, but it cannot change the fundamentals of human ambition and behavior. All it can do is posit this or that alternative  accident. If the weather had been different and this or that battle had turned out otherwise! If so-and-so had died sooner - or lived longer! If this king or that queen had listened to a different duke or earl or baron! So, yes, of course, the story could have played out differently and maybe had a different ending, perhaps in some sense even a better one. But, while circumstances change and people's resulting responses vary accordingly, the fundamentals of how people behave just don't seem to change very much.

Perhaps that is why the chaotic and dysfunctional politics of the Wars of the Roses resonate so well with us. We may not be as overtly attached to aristocratic notions of honor and may not acknowledge the influence of supernatural forces the way they did, but deep down we aren't really all that different.

1 comment: