I like teasing out cause, effect, and consequences: this is why I watch all versions of “Law & Order” except for “Law & Order: Special Dead and Beatup Ladies Unit.” I like history, which is why my paperback copies of Shelby Foote’s The Civil War all have creases in the spine from being reread so often. And I like sexy people who aren’t wearing a lot of clothing, which is why I continue to watch “Lost” even as it builds up to a conclusion that is going to be the network TV version of being poked in the eye by an annoying seven-year old who chants “Nyaa-nyaaa-nyah.”
So it’s little bit surprising, even given that I didn’t have Showtime until recently, that I never got around to the you-like-it-despite-yourself trashiness of “The Tudors.” Intrigue! Wars! Conniving ecclesiasticals! Surprisingly modern French! Lovers who have clearly been reading Ye Aulde Joie of Sexe! (In an age of missionaries, that seems to be about the least common position the show’s May dance of lovers use.)
Now, “The Tudors” is revisionist history in both the good and bad ways you can do revisionism. You might know one of the bad ways, it’s playing in theaters now:
I mean, this is a Tea Partier Robin Hood. Forget rebelling against the hyper-rich and redistributing wealth to the needy! Russell Crowe is fighting for freedom from high taxes! He’s a libertarian Robin Hood! A Randian Robin Hood! A… backlash Robin Hood.
I doubt you’re surprised. It’s been a big couple of years for anything that is even lightly scented with the redolent odors of sending brown people to the fields, queers to the closet, and ladies to the kitchen.
Make no mistake, “The Tudors” is Backlash Entertainment as well. The main character, after all, is a guy who divorced two of his wives and killed two others because they couldn’t give him a son. You don’t get much more patriarchal than that. Yet because the show is revisionist to its core–the whole point of it was to radically revise the popular perception of Henry VIII–their are some sneaky moments of… something else shining through.
Casting a handsome, young actor as the youthful Henry is far more historical than you might realize: he was the son of Elizabeth of York, widely considered one of the most beautiful women of her day, and he inherited her good looks. As a young man he was an athlete, widely read, and possessed of deeply humanist philosophical convictions. He was also a bad-tempered, spoiled lout with little compunction about shoring up his relatively weak claim to the throne with the exercise of brutal absolute power. And in a move that is either cynical, inspired, or both, he’s played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, a handsome, bad-tempered lout. Is it acting or is it Memorex? I sure can’t tell.
Henry is played like the douchebag as Renaissance Man. But that makes sense. Because the Renaissance was the time when not only the modern nation-state came into being, but the modern patriarchy. “The Tudors” is more than a modern backlash myth; it shows the foundation of what the backlash defends, and the story of the very first attempts to defend it.
After all, it was a period of tremendous change and social mobility. Distrustful (with good reason) of the old nobility, Henry’s court was filled with New Men, ambitious gentry who rose to great station despite their background. And in addition to these New Men were New Women. It was the time of St. Catherine of Genoa’s theology (she was the first woman to be given the title Doctor of the Church), and Christine de Pisan’s The City of Ladies. Joan of Arc was winning battles against the English; Margery Kempe was inventing the autobiography; Isabella of Castille was conquering a continent. Something had to be done.
“The Tudors” shows What Was Done in its sordid glory. The calculating Thomas Boleyn quite literally pimps out his daughters to catch the King; Anne of Cleves is booted like a football between her German uncle and unsatisfied English husband; Catherine Howard is (ahistorically) pulled out of a brothel to distract a depressed monarch. Women are tokens passed around, tools for the advancement of the men who own them, and ultimately, mere petri dishes for the creation of a male heir.
To its credit, though, “The Tudors” gives us ladies who aren’t such willing pawns–especially Natalie Dormer’s Anne Boleyn. She refuses to be the mere tool of her father’s calculation, but pursues her own ambitions as well. Her embrace of Protestantism is shown as more than just a method of gaining a husband, but a sincere expression of her personal belief. (Given that the most ardent Protestants in the government were either Boleyn retainers or people Anne used her influence to bring to power, she probably deserves to be called the mother of English Protestantism.) She struggles with the demands of being a ruler, and with satisfying her unstable and treacherous husband. She acts unheroically, scheming to eliminate Princess Mary and the king’s lover Jane Seymour, but her death has a dignity that the gruesomeness of the show’s graphic special effects cannot dispel.
There’s something like that in the portrayals of all of Henry’s wives so far–Catherine of Aragon’s noble resignation and burning anger at being tossed aside like a worn out shoe, Anne of Cleves’ elation at going from being a wallflower, locked away and out of view, to a trusted friend of the king (after their star-crossed marriage) and center of her own social whirl. Catherine Howard’s disastrous affair becomes much more sympathetic when you realize she was barely out of her teens, suddenly rich and powerful and married to a worn-out, ill-tempered grump with no time for her. (She alone of the people we’ve seen executed refuses to ask for forgiveness or to offer bland sanctimony from the scaffold: “I die a Queen, but I would rather have died the wife of Culpeper.”) Even Jane Seymour, depicted (as always) as sweet, pure, and too damn good to be true, might have concealed her own ambitions (bringing Princess Mary back to court was more than getting her stepdaughter back into her father’s good graces; for the anti-reformist Seymour family, it was a way to find a Catholic successor to the king) and is also constantly aware that her own survival depends upon giving birth to a son.
That of course is the crucial matter. While depicted as a lover of sex, Henry also never forgets that women are only a means to the end of his ambitions: “I am your Lord and Master!” he bellows at women several times, and he means it literally: he owns them, and while he may give them leave to enjoy their frivolous pursuits (like, I guess, the Protestant Reformation), in the end his is the only law, the only resort, the only mercy, the only judgment.
Of course, that doesn’t apply to just the women. Henry is as fickle with his male favorites as he is with his wives, and one by one his most trusted advisors find their way to disgrace–or the block: Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, the Boleyns. Every member of court is constantly aware that their very lives depend on the satisfaction of the king’s desires. And a curious thing develops. We find these men aping the current styles, slavishly agreeing with Henry’s pronouncements, in constant fear of losing at a moment’s notice all the gifts he has bestowed on them. Only custom, tradition, and obsequiousness protect them.
In short, they act a lot like women have had to act throughout most of Western history: trapped by the whims of a patriarchal tyrant, without a legal existence outside his good graces. Even at its inception, patriarchy gnawed upon itself, and the story of liberation from absolute tyranny has, until very recently, been mostly the democratization of who does the gnawing and who gets gnawed. “The Tudors” may be trashy soap opera, but it can’t escape the tragedy of its subject any more than we can escape the tragedy of our history.