Why Period Dramas Are So Relevant Today

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How a handful of shows set in the Early Modern Era inform the world we live in today.

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As television has affirmed time and time again, there is a fascination in popular culture with the periods of the 16th and 17th century. Shows like The Tudors, Wolf Hall, and Versailles demonstrate the opulence and political intrigue of these two centuries in European politics; this raises the question as to why these periods in world history and – perhaps more importantly – why now. While audiences might gravitate towards these shows for their elaborate costumes and displays of historical grandeur, there are many political issues that make these shows the perfect parallel for the current state of world politics.

The first is the element of globalization. Whether the show exists in the early 1500s, the early 1700s, or any period in between, there are themes of globalization and modernity that seem just as applicable in contemporary times. You can read a quick summary on the University of Pennsylvania website as to the effect that these centuries had on tensions between countries and international trade, but the general theme is that nations like France and England could no longer view themselves only in an isolationist manner. Trade with Asia and the Americas played an important role in their own development as global powers, and as such, their fates were inherently linked to the successes and failures of other nations.

This comes at a time when America is increasingly steeped in an isolationist agenda. There is a large population of our country that believes that the United States should take a step back from world conflict – especially regarding wars and trade agreements with other nations – and there is no better corollary for this than the original period of globalization in world history. How the first tenuous connections were formed between Europe and Asian countries – centered on either trade, exploration, or military conflict – can offer us a look at the development of globalization around the world, even if the situations themselves are largely fictionalized. It is a history for those who may not seek out long texts on world events.

There is also the element of internal political intrigue that drives the nation. Anyone who has read Wolf Hall is familiar with the political and religious conflict that existed at the heart of the English empire; the Washington Post, for example, refers to subject Thomas Cromwell as a “ruthless Machiavellian,” a man who will stop at nothing to amass political power through the means of manipulation and political subterfuge. This is further explored in a show like Versailles, which tackles a time in history where King Louis XIV quite literally moved the key stakeholders of France to his private estate to ensure that his friends were close but his enemies were even closer. Royalty in France would fall with Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution, but the political machinations of the elite pointed to a period where intelligence and manipulation were increasingly more important than the strength of your surname.

Much like this, modern political conflicts are stepped in the concept of political lineage and the ability of outsiders to bend the political courts to their will. More importantly, there is also the increasing conflict between church and state. Where some voters believe that these two institutions should remain separate, there are those who believe that government should be subservient to organized religion – or, at the very least, that religious influence is a weapon to be wielded by those in a position of political power. Again, these conflicts set the stage for a long-form narrative that both harkens back to Europe’s roots as continent ruled by aristocracy and religion in equal amounts, and helps shed some light on the duality of religious and political belief systems today.

In the end, there will always be a desire for shows about celebrity, and the former systems of aristocracy offer some of the best jumping off points for people looking to explore the difference between the haves and the have-nots. While these shows may vary in their focus and nations of origin, they do all highlight a period of immense change for world politics. At worst, they give us beautiful locations and glamorous people doing their best to thwart the schemes of their opponents. At best? They bring into the light the origins of many of the problems facing our worlds today.

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Matthew is a feature writer for Film School Rejects and a freelance film critic at the Austin Chronicle. His writing can be found at /Film, RogerEbert.com, Playboy, and more.