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Shakespeare & Beyond

“Eventful history:” The Shakespearean success of The Crown


Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown
Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown. Liam Daniel / Netflix

It’s no wonder that The Crown — nominated for a record six Golden Globes in this Sunday’s annual awards ceremony — is so successful and popular: its depiction of an English monarch struggling to rule Britain while navigating political threats and family tensions is downright Shakespearean.

More than a fifth of Shakespeare’s plays are histories depicting a succession of English monarchs during the Wars of the Roses (generations of conflict between the rival houses of Plantagenet, Lancaster, and York) and the eventual rise of the House of Tudor. (Chronologically, these eight plays, frequently referred to as the Henriad, are Richard II, the two parts of Henry IV, Henry V, the three parts of Henry VI, and Richard III). Shakespeare didn’t write this many plays about English kings just because he had a driving passion to do so (although he almost certainly managed, to paraphrase Hamlet, to assume a passion if he had it not); he wrote them because his theater was a commercial enterprise that needed popular, ticket-selling plays to survive. You have to think the biggest reason he ultimately wrote three parts to Henry VI was because the first part was so successful.

Whether Shakespeare planned at the outset to write that many English history plays or was chasing more commercial success is unknown. Peter Morgan, on the other hand, the creator of The Crown, pitched the series as a 60-hour story told across six seasons of ten hour-long episodes each, covering the entire reign of Queen Elizabeth II from her days as a princess in the early 1950s. Morgan is no stranger to this subject matter, having previously written several plays and films about Elizabeth and her prime ministers, including The Queen (2006), The Audience (2013), and The Special Relationship (2010). As Morgan is, like Shakespeare, a playwright — and an Elizabethan one, come to think of it — he might well be considered the (highly) unofficial bard of the House of Windsor.

Equally unofficially, Shakespeare was undoubtedly the bard of the House of Tudor. One reason he was able to get away with writing about English monarchs is because the ones he wrote about were safely dead and ultimately supplanted by Elizabeth I’s Tudor grandfather Henry VII when he defeated Richard III at the battle of Bosworth Field. Richard III, in particular, was depicted (unfairly, we now think) as a wholly evil (though entertaining) monster, and the conflicts of the Wars of the Roses, while still a cautionary tale familiar to Shakespeare’s audiences, could be seen as safely part of the past. Shakespeare’s plays were instrumental in reinforcing the so-called “Tudor Myth,” glorifying onstage the idea that the reign of his monarch Elizabeth was a golden age of peace after more than a century of chaos and violence.

Shakespeare’s history plays are epics, covering over a century of events featuring multiple generations and hundreds of characters. Similarly, The Crown has a cast of thousands (including extras) and a commitment to scope and detail in its production design that’s almost unfathomable to anyone working in the theater. (Consequently, it’s one of the most expensive TV series ever made, with an estimated total budget of close to $300 million.) Yet because of this commitment to how things actually looked, the series has drawn criticism from those who say it doesn’t depict how things actually happened criticism that’s been also leveled at Shakespeare’s histories. Critics insist some kind of content warning should be attached to each episode of The Crown to underscore the (one would think) self-evident idea that a TV show is fictional, and Helen Lewis argues, rightly, in The Atlantic that discussions about whether The Crown needs to be boldly labeled as fictional “would not be happening if the show were not so rigorously faithful to the historical record in every department except for its script.”

Yet political history professor Steven Fielding points out that “mixing historical fact and fiction has been around since Shakespeare,” something Shakespeare managed to get away with because he was only slandering the enemies of his monarch’s ancestors. Fielding, also the co-author of The Churchill Myths, a book examining the portrayals of Britain’s prime minister in popular culture, points out that “nobody complained…about the ridiculous presentation of Winston Churchill in [the film] Darkest Hour because it went with the myth, with the idea of Churchill the hero. Nobody’s bothered if fact and fiction are all mangled up, so long as it’s saying nice things” — a fact Shakespeare undoubtedly understood very well.

Prince Charles as Richard II in The Crown
Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) in a performance as Richard II in The Crown

If The Crown holds to Peter Morgan’s vision, the fifth and sixth final seasons (expected to premiere in 2022) will not, according to Morgan, “bring us any closer to present day,” concluding their narrative probably somewhere in the early 2000s. As the controversy over Season Four has proved, this is probably a wise move, and advice Shakespeare probably should’ve heeded. One of his final plays, written (likely collaboratively) when Elizabeth had been dead for almost a decade, concerned her father, Henry VIII, and is considered by most to be Shakespeare’s last-but-definitely-least history play. Its scattered and episodic structure fails to focus on the titular monarch, it was apparently known in its day by the dangerously provocative title All Is True, and a cannon going off in the fourth scene in one of its very first performances set fire to the Globe Theatre’s thatched roof and burned the playhouse to the ground. Coincidence? You decide.

Just as the success of Game of Thrones gave us The Hollow Crown, the success of The Crown’s structure of multiple hour-long episodes further reinforces my belief that filmed adaptations of Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies would be much better served, not by two-hour movies that cut significant chunks of the plays, but by multi-episode miniseries able to give proper focus and attention to every character and storyline, and using Shakespeare’s own act breaks as a rough episode guide. Wouldn’t that be awesome? Think about it, Netflix; I await your call.

UPDATE: The Crown ended up winning all the awards it was possible to win at Sunday night’s Golden Globes ceremony, including Best TV Drama, Best Actress and Actor to Emma Corrin and Josh O’Connor (as Diana and Prince Charles); and Best Supporting Actress to Gillian Anderson (from The X-Files), who played Margaret Thatcher. More pertinently, however, the day this post was published, the former Prince Harry (now known officially as Henry Charles Albert David Duke of Sussex) gave an entertaining interview to James Corden in which he seemed to agree that fictional dramatic series aren’t the programs that need content warnings. “I’m way more comfortable with The Crown than I am seeing the stories written [in the news] about my family, or my wife, or myself,” he said. “[The Crown] is obviously fiction — take it how you will — but this [media coverage] is being reported on as fact because you’re supposedly news. I have a real issue with that.” It’s impossible to imagine anyone in the court of Elizabeth I saying anything similar about Shakespeare’s history plays.