Thursday, January 5, 2012

"Body Natural" and "Body Politic," or, What I Thought about While Watching a Movie

One of the pleasures of these days when the family has gone back to school and I haven't yet is that I have control of the TV remote.   A few days ago, I found the movie Elizabeth with Cate Blanchett, and today I got the chance to watch it.  I wasn't completely thrilled with it, but I enjoyed the historical "spectacle" with all those great costumes, I learned something about British history (from going to read stuff after watching the movie), and I discovered Joseph Fiennes is a beautiful man, ha ha.

The movie seemed to jump around from one genre to another. Sometimes it was historical epic, sometimes it was spy flick, sometimes it was love story, sometimes it was philosophical drama.

As history, it's clear the movie took some license with events to improve the story, and especially that the timeline for events was collapsed. The broad strokes are accurate enough; the struggle between Mary I and Elizabeth over the succession to the throne was real, as was the constant pressure on Elizabeth to choose a marriage with political benefits. I admire the filmmakers for finding a way to make Elizabeth's efforts to create religious compromise interesting as a plot device, and I liked their portrayal of her initial ineptitude as a ruler, taking advice that led to a disastrous invasion of Scotland. On other important points, though, the movie definitely distorts history; there's no evidence Mary of Guise was assassinated, and Robert Dudley most certainly was not involved in a plot to remove Elizabeth from the throne. Dudley apparently remained as one of Elizabeth's favorites for the rest of his life.

Speaking of the treasonous plot - honestly, I was confused at times about who was allied with whom and with how Elizabeth and Walsingham knew who was involved. I got that there were two separate but intertwined plots perpetrated by the French and the Spanish, with involvement by key English figures high in the government. But wait...there's really nothing historically accurate about the plot (or plots) as portrayed in the movie. The fictional plot pulled together pieces of several actual events and made a mash-up that, while it was narratively tidy and entertaining, did violence to the historical facts of the reputations for several men, including Norfolk (who seems to be the instigator of the whole thing), Walsingham (who comes off as a completely Machiavellian character except for his loyalty to Elizabeth), and of course, Dudley.

Speaking of Dudley - There was something poignant (intentionally, of course) about the love story between Elizabeth and her favorite, Robert Dudley. I find the truth even more poignant, in a way. Dudley married young (at 18 or 17, depending on which birthdate you use), then became embroiled in his father's efforts to create a queen of Robert's sister-in-law, Lady Jane Grey. The scheme was ultimately foiled, and Robert was sentenced to death and imprisoned in the Tower of London - at the same time as Elizabeth. Once Elizabeth became queen, Dudley was appointed as Master of the Horse, which put him in frequent, close contact with the queen. From that point on, he saw his wife very little and was constantly at court with the queen. The gossip of the day (even the political wisdom that passed between officials) was that Elizabeth would marry Dudley if he were free, and she kept him close and guarded his friendship and attention jealously. However, when Dudley's wife did die within a couple of years (from a fall down a short set of stairs), the resulting scandal tainted him as a uncaught murderer (although he was not with her at the time, rumor was he arranged her death), which made him even more unsuitable as a husband for the queen. It was clear that Elizabeth, being the shrewd politician, would never marry him, and yet for the next 18 years, he was in limbo - he couldn't marry Elizabeth, but she was so jealous of his attention he didn't dare marry anyone else (although he did have a longstanding affair with Lady Douglas Sheffield, ha ha). When he finally did marry Lettice Knollys, he kept it a secret from Elizabeth - she found out from some of his enemies at court. Although he kept his position as a favorite, his decision to marry was not without a cost; Elizabeth publicly humiliated him frequently, and she was openly unfriendly to his wife.

That brings me to the thing I found most interesting about the movie: the divide between the "body natural" and the "body politic." This contrast was brought out most sharply through the love story as it was portrayed in the movie. Although Elizabeth clearly loves Robert, she is constantly bombarded with offers of marriage to foreign princes, offers that would have political consequences. From the moment she becomes queen, she is continually harassed by her advisors that she needs to "marry and produce an heir." For someone in Elizabeth's position, consideration of what her "body natural" wants always has to come second to what her "body politic" must do to hold on to power. I believe that principle extends to Robert (the real one) as well; his desire to stay in the queen's favor (or maybe I should say, his desire to avoid the queen's wrath) clearly took precedence over the desire for his own home and family - at least for 18 years. (I should also remember, though, that he didn't deny himself totally; there was that long-term affair that produced a son...)

That theme came to its crescendo at the end of the film when Elizabeth is physically shedding all remnants of her "body natural"; her hair is chopped off, her face is painted white, and she becomes the embodiment of the "body politic." While the movie no doubt makes this more dramatic than it really was, I also have no doubt that Elizabeth made that transformation - but she kept stringing Dudley along, just to have a connection to that "body natural" she once had.

1 comment:

Mary Obrink Schaffer said...

Have you seen "Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown"? At least, I think that's the name. Judi Dench plays Queen Victoria. The movie is also a love story and a story on your topic. That divide between the woman and the queen is really well played here.