I’m endlessly amazed by the different ways that we can see the same person. Whether it’s a friend, a colleague, or a celebrity, we’ll all view them in a slightly different light. That’s particularly obvious when the person is a historical figure, and one significant enough to have been made into fiction.
The Sex Lives of Henry VIII
Take King Henry VIII of England. More specifically, take the intimate life of Henry VIII, a man whose divorce birthed the Church of England and the international Anglican communion. What motivated Henry to get down with a series of eligible ladies is important historically. This isn’t just one man getting jiggy, this is a monarch re-writing the rules of church and state so that…
Well, possibly just so that he could get jiggy.
Wolf Hall: Powerful Passions
The TV adaptation of Wolf Hall shows Henry as a man driven by fierce romantic passions. Sure, he wants to put his genitals in places he maybe shouldn’t, but the fate of a nation isn’t decided by the fact that the king has wood.
This is Henry as a fierce romantic and man of complex depths. His motives get tangled up in his head, and no-one is going to call his subconscious on its bullshit. His intentions are very personal and emotional, but you couldn’t call them shallow.
The Tudors: Horny Henry
Then there’s another recent TV depiction – The Tudors. I’m only a couple of episodes in, but this seems like a very different take on Henry’s bedroom antics. Here he’s a total horn dog. If a pretty lady crosses his path, odds are he’ll be showing her his mighty weapon later. And if she’s not available, he’ll give one of her servants a trip on the royal roller coaster instead.
Yes, there are real emotions at stake here too. But fundamentally, Henry is portrayed as a man driven by his man parts, not his subconscious.
How About a Classic Henry?
There are all sorts of other historical interpretations of Henry’s love life. It’s possible to see his marital antics as entirely driven by stately concerns. After all, his lack of a male heir put the country at risk of foreign domination or civil war once he died. You could argue that his was a noble and well-intentioned sex life. Boning for the greater good.
So what’s the lesson here?
Both as writers and as readers, it’s worth being aware that even very specific areas of a person’s life are open to interpretation. As I discussed in a recent article for Re:Fiction, it’s worth knowing what the different interpretations are and what they exist for. Wolf Hall Henry is a literary fiction character, designed to explore the depths of the human soul. The Tudors Henry is history for a mass audience, exciting and accessible. Political penis Henry is Henry for patriotic historians, who want to see noble intentions behind the important moments in British history.In looking at Henry’s romantic shenanigans through this kaleidoscope of fractured images, we see a lot of different pieces of the truth, without ever learning all of it. And when we write about him, we have to choose which aspects to explore.
In looking at Henry’s romantic shenanigans through this kaleidoscope of fractured images, we see a lot of different pieces of the truth, without ever learning all of it. And when we write about him, we have to choose which aspects to explore.
We’ll never understand the whole of Henry, or of anyone else. These are just pieces of who they are.