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Sunday, December 9, 2012

Dude of Earl

Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VIII

A few weeks ago, bleary-eyed, I finished watching The Tudors (Showtime Networks, 2007-2010), the Elizabethan costume drama series, starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers as King Henry VIII. The movie poster for the production features Rhys Meyers, grim-faced, arms outspread, eyes fixed in a primal stare – a Christ-like figure for Anglicanism, perhaps, but for the Church of Rome, not to mention a few Henry VIII wives, an aspect of impending doom.

The Showtime production is but the latest in a host of films about Henry Tudor and his famous daughters, Elizabeth I and Mary I (“Bloody Mary”). The narrative is familiar: the English king who, defying a Medici pope, declares himself head of the Church of England, the better to divorce or murder a succession of wives in his quest for a male heir. 

Inevitably the melodrama – dĂ©couper des tĂȘtes plied to serial uxoricide – eclipses the finer points of ecclesiastical governance, no doubt the reason Hollywood keeps reprising this tale.  With sibling tropes of lust, greed, power, false piety, and homicide to amuse you, who cares about papal politics?

As usual with Showtime, the series relies mightily on steamy sex as a draw, in this case legions of lords a-leaping, twelve ways ‘til Christmas, into the sack with ladies-in-waiting. 

Maybe I’ve seen one too many of these betrothal-and-beheadal Henry VIII flicks, but for me, Ann Boleyn’s trundling noggin seems almost as well-traveled as Sisyphus’s famous boulder.  So this time around, more compelling than custom decollation by a mail order French swordsman, was the film’s focus – more focused than usual for such films, I thought – on the styles of address of the English peerage. 

The dialogue is replete with:

“Sire...” 

“Your majesty...“  (King Henry, popeless and self-appointed head of his church, yet stopped short of “Your Holiness.”)

“Your Grace,” “Your Grace,” “Your Grace” – there are oodles of Graces in this film. The series positively surfeits with Graces (three would’ve done for me), sometimes nearly to the point of, well, clumsiness.

And in addition:

“My Lord.”  “My Lords...”

“My Lady.” “Your Ladyship.” “The Lady so-and-so…” 

“Sir.” 

“Madame.”

So what’s up with all these prefixes?  

It’s how the English peerage, nobles with hereditary or honorary (albeit, legal) titles, address one another. 

Paradoxically, the peerage consists of five ranks (in order of importance) that aren’t at all equal: Duke/Duchess; Marquess/Marchioness; Earl/Countess (Count is the European equivalent of Earl); Viscount/Viscountess; Baron/Baroness.  

Each rank has its not necessarily distinctive call signs. Thus, you’re supposed to address a duke as My Lord Duke or Your Grace. But archbishops also go by Your Grace. Just about everyone else in the line-up can be hailed as My Lord, My Lady, The Most Honourable, or The Right Honourable. 

Still further down the ladder are the gentry and minor nobility – baronets, knights, dames – whom you address as Sir, Madame, or Dame. 

Occupying the lowest rung are blokes and blokettes – commoners, to you and me – who don’t rate any special acknowledgement.

To most Americans, all of this sounds like affected gobbledygook, although its often been the inspiration for creativity and humor.

Gene Chandler famously dubbed himself  Duke of Earl (Vee-Jay Records, 1961), co-opting two English titles at once!

“Duke, Duke, Duke, Duke of Earl… 

And when I hold you
You will be my Duchess, Duchess of Earl
We’ll walk through my dukedom…”

Fine, but best ye nay tell His Majesty!

My favorite American treatment of “duke” comes from the Clint Eastwood Western, The Unforgiven (Warner Bros., 1992). At one point in the film, we find Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), sheriff of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, confronting expat British gunfighter, English Bob (Richard Harris), who’s arrived in town – with his biographer,  W. W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) in tow, no less – for the purpose of doing some contract killing. 

Little Bill and his deputies have gotten the drop on the duo and in the course of searching them for weapons, find a draft of the biography Beauchamp is writing. 

Glancing over the title page, Little Bill asks “That you here, Bob, on the cover?  ‘The Duck of Death?’”

“Duke, Bill, Duke!” protests Bob, “It’s Duke of Death!”

Little Bill proceeds to give the Duke of Death a condign thrashing, and you quickly surmise there’s been bad blood between these two all along. But if that ain’t enough, since when does a snooty Limey gunslinger make bold to haughtify in America’s Wild West, anyway? 

Duke of Death, indeed – sic semper tyrannis!

Still, America has had its share of nobility. There was Elvis Presley, King of Rock & Roll,  John “Duke” Wayne, William “Count” Basie, Nat “King” Cole, and Edward “Duke” Ellington.  Benny Goodman was the King of Swing; Michael Jackson, the King of Pop (but only at Pepsi Cola).

Remember Leona Helmsley, the Queen who stood guard at Helmsley hotels ‘til she was thrown in the clink for tax cheating? JFK’s administration was dubbed Camelot, notably by Jack himself, though its sorely-taxed Guinevere (Jackie) wasn’t doing the cheating.

The good news in all this is that we Americans don’t have to call anybody “My Lady,” or ”Your Lordship.” Nor need we address the likes of, say, Richard Brodhead as Earl of Duke. We can just go for bloke, or here in the colonies, for dude or dudette.

But you'd better say “Your honor” to de jedge!





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