Sunday, March 16, 2008
Love In The Time Before Washing
I'm watching the first season of the Showtime series The Tudors, an exploration of the reign of King Henry VIII and his struggles with the church and the essential concepts of marriage. While presumably chronicling actual events, it seems the series is only tenuously tethered to historical fact. Many of the events depicted in the series have some kernel of verity in recorded history, though the timeline of these events and the connections portrayed between people are fashioned to make for good TV rather than as an educational exercise.
But no matter. (Wasn't it Mark Twain who said "Never let facts stand in the way of a good story"?) It's a really interesting time in history, close enough to present times that we recognize the behaviors and motivations easily enough but far enough back that life must have been very different than today.
Though it's not their primary motivation, I know, it's fascinating to see what life was like in the absence of science (and, by inference, to contemplate what life would be like if religions were allowed free reign again). Medicine especially was a genuinely hazardous endeavor, the doctor very likely killing far more people than he saved. It's morbidly fascinating to listen to the physician authoritatively pontificate about things of which we now know he hasn't the slightest clue, and watch him put people in real peril with bleedings and hogwash potions and elixirs and poultices. (The religious pontificating seems completely modern, of course, since it's exactly the same snake oil then as now.) There was no awareness of sanitation or any of the principles of infectious disease, so people wandered pell-mell into the jaws of self-destruction blinkingly unaware. Thank god procreation was rampant, as death was all around.
Over several episodes in this first season, we see England ravaged by an incendiary case of what was called sweating sickness, a probably viral infection which killed a high proportion of those who showed symptoms, often as quickly as 24 hours from first sign. What a terrifying thing: there was a vague sense that being around someone who had it put yourself at risk, but nobody had any real clue. And it came and went with such rapidity that everyone felt in mortal peril from it. Which, of course, they were. Naturally, the superstitious speculation about what message god was sending--and what sins He was punishing--spread like wildfire through the terrorized population. (If only they had our present means of knowing god's will.) You can see how the guy who managed by luck to call things right might gain a foothold as a "wise man." Such are the things that run through my mind as I watch.
The production values are a bit cheesy--there is a sense of budgetary constraints and all--but they've put the emphasis on the things that matter: the writing and acting are really first-rate, and there are a number of quite compelling characters among the cast. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is excellent as the vain and ambitious monarch with a touch of paranoia, and Maria Doyle Kennedy is really splendid as Queen Catherine of Aragon. Other cast luminaries include Sam Neill as the ambitious Cardinal Wolsey and Jeremy Northam as Thomas More, plus the intriguing Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn, the woman around whom so much of the series' plot developments revolve.
The second season is about to Launch on Showtime; we'll have to wait a bit for the DVD release.