No, I’m not referring to the Disney feminist remake of the story of the Snow Queen. I’m referring to another queen who actually is still alive–Queen Elizabeth II–and to the six-season Netflix special about her life and reign. “The Crown,” as this immensely popular series is called, just began its third season. As some of you will know, Netflix contracted to make six seasons, each to cover approximately a decade of Elizabeth’s fantastically long reign. After two years with one cast and production crew, the program finds new actors to be Elizabeth, Philip, Margaret, and other players. Though the figure at the center of this dramatic. epic is Elizabeth, the title tells us a lot about what the production is really about. It’s about what is exacted from the human beings who are chosen or forced to wear the crown. And Shakespeare had it entirely right when he said so long ago “Heavy is the head that wears the crown.”
What the Netflix production is making utterly clear is that “head” may be heavy but at least it is supposed to stay functional. As for other important organs, most notably the heart, they must be shut off, hidden away, sacrificed on the altar of monarchical power and control. In the first two seasons, when Elizabeth is first a child and then a very very young head of state, we see her as shy and reluctant to step into the limelight. Then she falls in love with Philip and for a little while, until the mandatory children/future heads of other states begin coming with exhausting regularity, their ardor wanes way too fast. A turning point in their relationship, in my view, came when Philip asks her not to make him kneel before her at her coronation. He says he’s fine with proclaiming her his sovereign, making him–her husband–kneel before her in public is just too demeaning and erases their intimacy. Though she wants to let him off the hook, her all male advisors use so many laden words about duty and honor and al lot of other cold virtues until she bows to their wishes. From that point, Philip begins first a flight into flirtations/gambling/carousing with the “boys,” and, in this new season has settled into mostly detached interactions or advisory meetings in which he upholds the same values that caused her to make him kneel in the first place.
Season three gives us an Elizabeth who is almost never a person, who admits to Harold Wilson, her new Prime Minister, that she is “emotionally deficient” because she can’t cry even when faced with the devastating coal disaster in Wales that killed over 100 children caught in their grade school classroom. I remember when this happened and the Queen did not visit the town for almost a week. My black and white TV ventured a weak pronouncement about it’s perhaps being too long to have delayed. When the Netflix program shows her finally agreeing to go, we hear her being told that in Wales they “expect” tears, not her usual stoicism. So, once she has paid the mandatory visit to an actual dwelling of one family who has lost their child, as she exists to the press and cameras, she uses an elegant hanky to wipe at eyes that have not watered. Midway through the third season, however she leaves the palace to go look at prime race horses with her Master of Horses, a commoner with whom she clearly enjoys relaxed conversation about withers and such details. At dinner, she talks to him about how being with horses is what makes her “truly happy,” and as she elaborates on that feeling, genuine tears come into both eyes.
Elizabeth has a sister who is just a little her junior–the infamous Princess Margaret. Margaret would have relished being a monarch and done it with élan if not wisdom. Her people would have loved her even if they didn’t revere her. In the opening episode of Season Three, the director has made a stunning decision: he shows them as little girls again at the moment their father dies and Elizabeth is told she must be coronated. Margaret says she would love to do this and thinks she’d be good at it; Elizabeth agrees as her eyes and tight little body signals that she definitely does NOT want to do it and thinks she won’t be good at it. The last thing young Margaret says is “It will be better for us both.” Elizabeth asks her advisors to let Margaret become queen but primogeniture will have none of that. The wooden advisor tells little Elizabeth that once she is queen, she will cease being a person. Rather she will be the figure wearing the crown.
As this monumental commitment continues to unfold, I remain fascinated by how powerfully it illustrates the destructive downside of absolute rule. And, since I assume the living Queen Elizabeth is watching, I have to wonder what she makes of it all. For example, if she watches the episode in which her son Charles is made to give up the life he would like to life as an actor and go to Wales so he can stage his eventual investiture as the Prince of Wales and next in line to the thrown, how does she feel when the superb young man playing Charles tells her she knows nothing about him or his views. Olivia Coleman, playing the Queen to stoic and lonely perfection, answers by looking him directly in the eye and saying “And no one wants to know [what his views are]–NO ONE.
Watching what happens not only to the person Elizabeth once she becomes queen but also to those closest to her as part of the royal family makes me sad. It also lets me read Shakespeare’s history plays with more nuanced responses as one damaged monarch after the other becomes more and more frozen into a role that neither nourishes them nor promotes good governance.