14 November 2022

Love, Murder, and The Crown

In Shakespeare's day, royalty and the nobility were the only celebrities. Writers and players were merely part of the hoi polloi, to be dazzled and fascinated by their doings and, in the Bard's case, to write about them.

In the sixteenth century, the sovereigns of England ruled as well as reigned. Shakespeare would never have dared to write the Netflix TV series The Crown, which bares the most scandalous shenanigans and dysfunctional family secrets of the House of Windsor. Nor would the Lord Chamberlain's Men have dared to produce it at The Globe. Even in the history plays, Shakespeare was careful to make the current dynasty, the Tudors, the good guys. His Richard III was such a powerful a piece of propaganda that a lot of us didn't know a case could be made for the justice of the last Plantagenet's cause until we read The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, one of the best mysteries of the twentieth century.

There are plenty of murders among Shakespeare's characters. Indeed, some of his plays end with the stage strewn with bodies. Some murder for love—Othello kills Desdemona in a fit of jealousy. But more often, unhappy lovers kill themselves—Ophelia, Romeo and Juliet. There's an occasional McGuffin in Shakespeare—the handkerchief in Othello springs to mind. But most of Shakespeare's plays are about winning, losing, and pursuing power. His characters usually murder for power and ambition. The Macbeths, Hamlet's Uncle Claudius, all the killers like Julius Caesar's faithless friends and schemers like Iago and Edmund the Bastard want to topple those above them and either take their place or manipulate those who do for their own advantage.

In The Crown, there are no murders. I'd say this is because modern monarchs have no power. Indeed, landed aristocrats whose titles go back for centuries no longer sit in the House of Lords, ousted in favor of Life Peers, who according to the Parliament website, "have successful careers in business, culture, science, sports, academia, law, education, health and public service. They bring this knowledge to their role of examining matters of public interest that affect all UK citizens." (My personal favorite is Baroness Cohen of Pimlico, who wrote mysteries as Janet Neel, using her civil service experience in the Department of Trade and Industry. Death's Bright Angel is another of the best mysteries of the twentieth century.) There is no ambition the members of the royal family can fulfill by killing one another. Watching the real Charles take up the burden of his throne at his mother's funeral, I didn't think he looked triumphant, but as if he'd just taken the weight of the world on his shoulders, knowing he doesn't have the power to fix it. Watching the dramatized Charles agonize his way to a divorce, which only takes place when his mother finally agrees it's the only course, can you imagine him having killed Diana to gain his freedom instead? There isn't even any malice in the ways they repeatedly hurt one another.

In one episode of Season 5, having come as close as she ever will to apologizing to Princess Margaret for forbidding her marriage to Peter Townsend many years before, the Queen says, "I love you very much." Margaret says, "I love you too." (Or maybe it's the other way around.) Then there's a shocked silence. The Queen says, "How middle class! Let's never do that again."

First I was amused. Then I thought, How would she know what middle class people do? She's never met one except to shake hands. It reminded me of a moment in Murder in Provence, where Roger Allam, playing a French detective in the Police Justiciaire in a very English way, leans over in bed, pecks his wife on the cheek, and says, "Night night. Love you—as the Americans say." That was funny too. But does it really make us hopelessly banal to express our love verbally on a daily basis? Not to guilt-trip Roger Allam or the Queen (or their clever British scriptwriters), I've done it ever since 911.

It is readily apparent, as we watch the royal family live their lives in the spacious environs of Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, Kensington Palace, and their other stately dwellings amid beautifully landscaped grounds, why the middle classes commit murder over love while royalty does not. Space and money make quite a difference. I enjoyed the divorce episode in which several ordinary couples who've applied for their divorce decrees explain their irreconcilable differences. Then comes a scene in which Charles and Diana, attempting to have a moment of amicable closure, can't help turning it into yet another squabble. But they do it with plenty of room to get away from each other. Kensington Palace Green and Kensington Gardens stretching away beyond the palace give them a huge bubble of peace and privacy. The settlement at issue is a matter of millions of pounds. They don't even have to attend the divorce decree hearing personally.

How many of the murders we write in which love turns to hate take place when the characters are cooped up together with no place to go and one or both of them don't have the financial means to start over?


  1. Well, being trapped with someone is one reason for murder - but I think infidelity and control are the main two reasons for spouse murder.
    BTW, I totally agree about "The Daughter of Time". Wonderful book; indeed, I think the best Tey ever wrote.

    1. My favorite Tey is Brat Farrar, though many agree with you. As I watched The Crown, I was struck by the difference in motivation between royalty and ordinary people as well as between ancient and modern kings—though we're still going to Shakespeare plays and writing about old-fashioned kingship in the fantasy genre as if it still existed.

  2. I’m reading along, minding my own business, when whap! I get hit with the name Josephine Tey. It yanks me back decades to middle school when I was devouring English mysteries. Back then, I thought her surname was unusual and even now, I wonder how she derived it. I don’t recall titles as much as plots, but I was impressed enough to remember. Another visit to my library lies in the offing.

    I haven’t seen The Crown, Liz, but I enjoyed your history lesson. Well done.

  3. Tey was a pseudonym, and her nine mysteries are classics, Leigh, all still available and well worth re-reading.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>