Historically Speaking: When Royal Love Affairs Go Wrong

From Cleopatra to Edward VIII, monarchs have followed their hearts—with disastrous results.


The Wall Street Journal, August 8, 2018

“Ay me!” laments Lysander in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” “For aught that I could ever read, / Could ever hear by tale or history, / The course of true love never did run smooth.” What audience would disagree? Thwarted lovers are indeed the stuff of history and art—especially when the lovers are kings and queens.

But there were good reasons why the monarchs of old were not allowed to follow their hearts. Realpolitik and royal passion do not mix, as Cleopatra VII (69-30 B.C.), the anniversary of whose death falls on Aug. 12, found to her cost. Her theatrical seduction of and subsequent affair with Julius Caesar insulated Egypt from Roman imperial designs. But in 41 B.C., she let her heart rule her head and fell in love with Mark Antony, who was fighting Caesar’s adopted son Octavian for control of Rome.

Cleopatra’s demand that Antony divorce his wife Octavia—sister of Octavian—and marry her instead was a catastrophic misstep. It made Egypt the target of Octavian’s fury, and forced Cleopatra into fighting Rome on Antony’s behalf. The couple’s defeat at the sea battle of Actium in 31 B.C. didn’t only end in personal tragedy: the 300-year-old Ptolemaic dynasty was destroyed, and Egypt was reduced to a Roman province.

In Shakespeare’s play “Antony and Cleopatra,” Antony laments, “I am dying, Egypt, dying.” It is a reminder that, as Egypt’s queen, Cleopatra was the living embodiment of her country; their fates were intertwined. That is why royal marriages have usually been inseparable from international diplomacy.

In 1339, when Prince Pedro of Portugal fell in love with his wife’s Castilian lady-in-waiting, Inés de Castro, the problem wasn’t the affair per se but the opportunity it gave to neighboring Castile to meddle in Portuguese politics. In 1355, Pedro’s father, King Afonso IV, took the surest way of separating the couple—who by now had four children together—by having Inés murdered. Pedro responded by launching a bloody civil war against his father that left northern Portugal in ruins. The dozens of romantic operas and plays inspired by the tragic love story neglect to mention its political repercussions; for decades afterward, the Portuguese throne was weak and the country divided.

Perhaps no monarchy in history bears more scars from Cupid’s arrow than the British. From Edward II (1284-1327), whose poor choice of male lovers unleashed murder and mayhem on the country—he himself was allegedly killed with a red hot poker—to Henry VIII (1491-1547), who bullied and butchered his way through six wives and destroyed England’s Catholic way of life in the process, British rulers have been remarkable for their willingness to place personal happiness above public responsibility.

Edward VIII (1894 -1972) was a chip off the block, in the worst way. The moral climate of the 1930s couldn’t accept the King of England marrying a twice-divorced American. Declaring he would have Wallis Simpson or no one, Edward plunged the country into crisis by abdicating in 1936. With European monarchies falling on every side, Britain’s suddenly looked extremely vulnerable. The current Queen’s father, King George VI, quite literally saved it from collapse.

According to a popular saying, “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” That goes double when the lovers wear royal crowns.

The Sunday Times: Torture porn goes pop

Torture porn goes popLet me tell you a tale of two sex tapes. One is a seven-minute music video called Bitch Better Have My Money, starring Rihanna. It was released earlier this month and has been viewed more than 22m times. The other is, well, I’ll get to that in a minute. It is Rihanna’s that is the controversy du jour, so let’s concentrate on her first.

BBHMM, as the video is known, has a simple plot. The singer’s character decides to take revenge on the man who has embezzled her money. She enlists the help of three friends to kidnap his wife and hold her to ransom until he agrees to cough up the missing dough. But the no-good, lying, cheating husband prefers to let his wife rot in the hands of her captors while he lives happily off his ill-gotten gains. However, he has not reckoned on Rihanna, who succeeds in both exacting her personal revenge and getting her money back.

Anyone who was not born yesterday will recognise the premise of Elmore Leonard’s 1978 novel The Switch, the 1986 black comedy Ruthless People and the 2013 crime caper Life of Crime, starring Jennifer Aniston. But BBHMM is no mindless rehash of an old favourite — Rihanna’s version takes the trope of the kidnapped-wife-in-the-boot to a whole new level of candied cruelty.

The wife in question is strictly fodder for the Occupy Wall Street crowd: thin, pretty, blonde and expensively clad. Every mincing step she takes is a signpost that says “she has it coming”. Having put the audience in the right frame of mind, Rihanna spends the next five minutes humiliating and torturing the woman.

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The Sunday Times: In the land of sexual confusion a threesome is fine, adultery’s a crime

Photo: Scott Webb

Photo: Scott Webb

Was last week a great one for sex? Well, that depends. If your taste runs to threesomes then life just got even better. There’s now an app for that: 3nder. After only six months in business it has registered more than 200,000 users.

Life also improved last week for gay couples living in the 11 American states where same-sex marriage became legal. Only 20 more states to go and the country will have finally fulfilled its constitutional mandate to grant equal protection under the law to all citizens of the United States.

Otherwise, I would say that on balance it has been a mixed bag of sexual transgression and religious fundamentalism. Stolen nude photographs of the actress Jennifer Lawrence were shared online; a Texas law closing 80% of the state’s abortion clinics came into effect; and Phil Robertson, the gay-bashing patriarch of the popular TV docudrama Duck Dynasty, issued another fire and brimstone statement about biblical sex versus the rest. And that’s only seven days in the life of a nation.

British attitudes to sex could fill an entire library. But I’m telling you, Americans are all over the place. This is the country, after all, that invented the scarlet letter as well as the celebrity sex tape.

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