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Historical Dramas: Is Versailles educational or purely entertaining?

The statement that ‘Game of Thrones has nothing on Versailles’ is just one of many headlines to emerge about the BBC’s summer period drama. Telling the story of Louis XIV of France, known the Sun King, the show aims to draw in a younger audience with explicit sex scenes, decadent parties, and sensational personal drama.

There is much to be said for the artistic side of Versailles. It does not lack in beauty: the costumes, the set recreating the famed Palace of Versailles, and the people (Louis’ brother Philippe may be the most exquisitely beautiful character to grace our screens this year) are all of such perfection that at times it can be hard to focus on the actual events. The show scores well dramatically too, with a strong focus on complex relationships both romantic and other that is genuinely compelling and – at times – tragic. At the end of the day, however, this is not just a period drama but a historical drama. So how well does Versailles fare in accurately portraying one of the most iconic figures of French history?

The short answer is: surprisingly well. You might think Philippe’s passionate affair with the flamboyant Chevalier was a standard bit of token representation. Not so, and the directors portray the tension it is known to have created in Philippe and Henriette’s marriage with nuance. Other more socio-political aspects of life in the French court are also fairly well depicted, if exaggerated. Philippe, as the younger royal brother, was made to wear dresses and assume the role of a ‘sister’ in order to lessen his appeal to potential plotters. The inclusion of this, and the appearance of the queen’s servant Nabo (dwarfs were kept as ‘pets’ by European nobles), provides a candid insight into 17th century society.

Likewise, if we allow that the primary aim of the drama is scandal and spectacle, Versailles fairly successfully charts the beginnings of absolute monarchy in France. Whilst making him seem like a self-indulgent adolescent, the attention given to Louis’ obsession with himself as the Sun King with total authority is historically important. From his advisors explaining new found evidence that the earth rotates round the sun, to powerful lines such as “I am France”, we do see the historical development in ideas of the role of the state and monarch peek through the sex and violence. The bizarre spectacle of Louis’ daily routine being watched by courtiers, from waking to getting dressed, is a well-chosen inclusion by the directors in terms of portraying evolving methods of power at court.

Versailles uses a lot of artistic license to heighten the drama. Key characters such as Fabien and Beatrice are completely fictional, while the central romance – between Louis and Henriette – almost definitely did not happen, as under 17th century law it would have been incest. In other cases, the directors simply stretch the truth. Where the mixed-race baby is concerned, there were indeed rumours that the queen had given birth to a black baby, but it was most likely a case of oxygen-deprivation. Similarly, rumours abounded throughout the court that the climactic death of one key character (who shall not be named here) was at the hands of poison.

So, is this a problem? On the one hand, portraying rumours as events that actually happened (even if the show makes little pretence of being entirely true to fact) is misleading and perhaps underplays the extent to which false rumours influenced courtly politics. Besides, there were enough peculiar happenings at the Palace of Versailles that it is not really necessary for the directors to add fictionalised accounts. Yet ultimately Versailles is a drama and we cannot ask too much of it. The biggest inaccuracies do not necessarily detract from the historical and political sides of the show and some exaggeration of fact might even be useful in translating the scale of the scandal of the court to a modern audience. So pull on your breeches and heels, sit back and simply enjoy the decadence.

Image: Ninara @ Flickr

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