The Tudors

Season one on DVD. Season two debuts Sunday, March 30, on Showtime (not that I get Showtime, but for the record, there it is).

I always feel vaguely uneasy about historical drama. I feel guilty about not feeling guilty for the way storytellers tweak and compress and misrepresent the substance of real peoples’ lives for the sake of the tale. It seems unfair, for example, that we think of Richard III as a monstrous king when he almost certainly had nothing to do with the deaths of his royal nephews, yet I’d be loath to give up Shakespeare’s deliciously venomous antihero for the sake of rigid historical accuracy. Besides, the story behind the story—how and why Richard became so maligned even before the Bard got involved—is intriguing in its own right. Shifts and reinterpretations are half the fun of history, and dramatic interpretations are particularly entertaining. I just can’t get indignant the way my pedantic side feels I ought.

All this is to say that I know enough about the reign of Henry VIII to recognize that The Tudors is taking liberties. Henry and Katherine of Aragon were not more than a decade apart in age. Cardinal Wolsey did not commit suicide. And Henry’s younger sister was Mary, not Margaret, and she married the king of France, not the king of Portugal, and she certainly didn’t murder him.

But it’s liberties like those that help heighten the drama. The considerable age gap between Henry and Katherine emphasizes how Henry was motivated to divorce her in part because he wanted a younger, potentially more fertile wife to bear his children. Wolsey’s suicide emphasizes just how sudden and extreme the cardinal’s fall from favor was, providing a satisfying climax to one of the season’s principal arcs. And the misrepresentation of Henry’s sister simplifies the narrative (the story hardly needs another Mary, and the intrigues with France are complicated enough as is) and supplies a surprisingly compelling subplot about just how bad a princess’s lot in life was (a pet theme of mine, I admit). In other words, the writers often use falsity to illuminate truth, and to do so with flair.

Of course, I don’t want to overstate the case here. The Tudors is fun, even affecting at points, but it’s certainly not in the same league as Shakespeare. It’s a soap, albeit an unusually lush one, given to melodramatics and overripe dialogue and gratuitous nudity. That said, I have a weakness for melodramatics and overripe dialogue (gratuitous nudity isn’t so bad either), so I forgive the show its sins and delight in the morsels of substance beneath the froth.