Editor’s Note: Kathryn Vomero Santos (@kathrynvsantos) is a scholar of early modern literature and culture who teaches English and co-directs the women, gender and sexuality studies program at Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi. She will be joining the faculty at Trinity University in August. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers.
“I’m not doing it.”
So said Benedict Cumberbatch recently about working on any project where women and men don’t receive equal pay. His comments came on the heels of a rally at the Cannes Film Festival calling for gender equality in the film industry.
Cumberbatch’s remarks also come at a time when storytelling is changing how we think about feminism, the monarchy and the role of history in our daily lives.
When it was revealed that actor Claire Foy, who played the role of Queen Elizabeth II in the first two seasons of the Netflix show “The Crown,” was paid significantly less than her male co-star and on-screen husband, Matt Smith, suddenly, the gender pay gap that women have been tirelessly pointing to for decades was thrown into stark relief: The queen – the lead of all leads – was not the one making the most money.
After their unsatisfying apology prompted a fan petition, the show’s production company Left Bank Pictures released a statement to the Daily Mail that expressed their commitment to “the fight for fair pay” and indicated that Foy would receive £200,000 in back pay, a gesture that will hopefully set a material precedent for fairly compensating women in entertainment and other industries.
It would seem that we are finally having the conversations that, as Foy herself put it, “people think we’ve always been able to have, but we haven’t.”
The decision to give Foy back pay for her undercompensated work is one that should be applauded, but it will only really pay off if it becomes a model for examining the structural inequities of the past and taking action to close gaps in both pay and opportunity for more than just those who wear the crown.
As the continued success and impact of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical “Hamilton” has recently reminded us, dramatizing history is rarely ever about the past alone.
In ways that the creators of art and entertainment cannot always anticipate, historical dramas on both stage and screen often expose the deep roots of present tensions about race, class and gender. And they do so while allowing us – if not explicitly inviting us – to imagine a different and more just future, to have the conversations we haven’t been able to have yet.
As compelling and well produced as it is, “The Crown” is a show about an institution that to many feels outdated and out of touch with the lived realities and political turmoil of the 21st century. But with the news of the show’s gender pay gap issues in the spotlight, royal history has unexpectedly become a vehicle for thinking not just about the past but about our present gender politics as we continue to fight for a future in which women – and not only women in Hollywood or white women – are paid equally for equal (and sometimes more) work. Telling stories about the past, it turns out, pays off.
Given the show’s interest in dramatic retellings of recent British history, it is hardly surprising that season 2 would conclude with the words of the writer who made telling such stories an enduring art form: William Shakespeare.
As the royal family poses to commemorate the christening of the then latest royal babies, Prince Edward and Lady Sarah Armstrong-Jones, photographer Cecil Beaton recites John of Gaunt’s famous patriotic monologue from Shakespeare’s “Richard II,” which celebrates the former glory of “this England” in order to lament its fallen state under Richard’s misrule:
This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
Viewers of “The Crown” who are familiar with “Richard II” might sense the uncomfortable irony of invoking a story about a weak monarch who is deposed and killed – but the choice to close the season with a nod to this particular play is a fitting one indeed.
It’s an appropriate ending because more than any other of Shakespeare’s plays, Richard II links the crown as an object to the problem of the “king’s two bodies,” the Tudor legal concept (introduced to scholars by medieval historian Ernst Kantorowicz) that each monarch’s mortal body is joined by coronation with the monarchy’s divinely ordained political body.
In both its narrative arc and the social controversies its stars’ salaries have engendered, “The Crown” has offered today’s audiences the opportunity to consider the meaning of the queen’s two bodies – as a woman and as the body politic – and the bodies of women as they have become increasingly present in today’s political landscape.
Season 2 of “The Crown” premiered late in 2017 well before the flurry of news coverage of Saturday’s royal wedding and the social media commentary on the most recent royal baby, but the show seems to anticipate these conversations about the public role of royal women’s bodies.
As the final episode concludes with Elizabeth’s last and “complicated” pregnancy, which forced her to step away from her official duties until she gave birth, it literalizes a line from Gaunt’s speech that immediately follows the selection that closed the season: “This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings.”
Taking pains to remind its audiences about the physical realities of pregnancy (which to some women, the Duchess of Cambridge so recently seemed to defy by leaving the hospital in heels just hours after giving birth), “The Crown” calls attention to the multiple roles that a woman in a position of political or cultural power must play.
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The royal family and Shakespeare are arguably the two most famous British exports, and both deserve to be asked versions of same questions in our present moment: Are they still relevant? And to whom? Why should we pay any attention to cultural institutions that feel so outdated and seemingly unrelated to what we care about today?
In many ways, they are decidedly not relevant and remain powerful markers of colonialism and the continued dominance of white Western culture. But what they have both shown us is that retelling what Shakespeare’s Richard II calls “sad stories of the death of kings” might help to give us the push we need to have the conversations we haven’t been able to have yet – about queens, actresses, the meaning of history and the future of the monarchy itself.