Netflix has produced a new series, called The Crown, about the reign of Elizabeth II. It is beautifully shot and wonderfully acted. The initial series of ten episodes explores the first few years of her tenure and the broad and subtle canvas provides yet more evidence that long-form television is one of the most innovative art forms of the last two decades, generated by the greater competition for viewers from ever more stations and networks.
But what is most impressive about the series is its sustained mediation on an important social idea—that the monarch must recognize that she has two personas—the natural and the political. In the first she can be an individual, but in the second she must follow conventions that lend dignity and stability to the state.
The idea is not itself new. Ernst Kantorowicz’s Two Bodies, one of the greatest books ever about medieval political theory, shows that kingship in the Middle Ages consciously reflected this idea. Monarchy included all sorts of rituals suggesting that political body of the King or Queen was directly connected to the divine and thus provided a source of stability beyond the vicissitudes of ordinary politics. The writers of the Crown seem familiar with this book, because they underscored the transcendent rituals in the coronation of Elizabeth, such as the anointing ceremony.
But while the ideal that body of the sovereign rises above the natural person is not new, The Crown raises the profound political question of whether it can survive in age devoted to individual authenticity and democratic equality.