The Reading Room

John Milton—Secret Fan of The Crown?

For those of you who, like me, became hooked on Netflix’s award-winning drama about Queen Elizabeth II and the modern British monarchy during the Covid lockdown (or, in my case, shortly thereafter), the end of The Crown was somewhat bittersweet. 
On the one hand, for those of us who associated the show with needing to be shut down from the normal flow of life, its end symbolizes (and coincides with) our ability to return to our regular activities. On the other hand, because of how wonderful of a show it was—because of the way we relished the ability that every episode gave us to sink into the splendor of the world’s only still-relevant monarchy and bathe in the exquisite trappings of royalty (and also because of how fun it was to spend time with Prince Philip and to get a sense, if possible, of the oft-inscrutable Queen Elizabeth)—its end leaves us with a sheen of sadness, and the wish that perhaps, just perhaps, this really was not the end. (“Come on, Peter Morgan!”, you, like me, may have found yourself yelling at the TV. “How can you stop now?! You’re only going to go up to Charles’ and Camilla’s wedding?! You still have so much more to do! Will and Kate’s marriage! Baby boy George! Charles’s coronation! And Meghan and Harry!! We need Crown episodes on all this!!!”) For now, though, although the series’ creators haven’t completely ruled it out, one of the best modern TV shows (and perhaps the greatest show of the streaming era) appears to be over. All good things must come to an end, they say. I just wish that this maxim didn’t also need to apply to The Crown. 
The solace that those who have become fascinated with the British monarchy can take is that while the fictional Crown may have come to an end (at least for now), the real Crown shows no signs of disappearing anytime soon. Prince (now King) Charles’s coronation last year was watched by an estimated 400 million people, evidence of the enduring relevance of the only royal family that still matters to people from all over the world. And the continued interest in Harry and Meghan-related material, from the couple’s 2022 Netflix docu-series to Harry’s 2023 memoir Spare (or, as I prefer to call it, “Waaagh”, South Park’s brilliant title for it), showcases our continued concern with the inner workings of this singular family—and how we sense that there is something seriously wrong (though we may not be able to put our fingers on exactly why) with one of its members acting to undermine it. There is also the matter of our continuing concern with the health of the royals, after the recent news of King Charles’s and Princess Kate’s cancer diagnoses (may G-d send them both a swift and complete healing). Would we be this preoccupied with the health of any other complete strangers in the world?Though we may take comfort in the Crown’s continuity, not all royal watchers are pleased with its persistence. Approximately two-thirds of Britons prefer to keep the royal family as their national figureheads, while a third would rather get rid of the hoary institution altogether. This increasingly vocal (and growing) minority of Britons may appear to be radical in comparison with the more conservative pro-monarchy majority, but in their apparent radical anti-monarchy stance they may be in league with a British figure whom we today often regard as a cultural conservative: the poet and Paradise Lost author John Milton. 
 Milton is most known to us today as the author of the aforementioned Paradise Lost, an epic poem that expands on the biblical story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, giving us a sort of prequel to the Genesis narrative that explains why and how this event came to pass. But Milton was not only a poet; he was also a deeply passionate and committed political figure. Milton transmitted many of his political opinions through his writing—in his poetry as well as in pamphlets—and eventually came to the conclusion that the British monarchy had become corrupt and should no longer exist. Milton accordingly supported the anti-monarchists during the mid-seventeenth century English Civil War, and when the Parliamentarians emerged victorious over the Royalists and executed King Charles I, Milton wrote a pamphlet defending those who had committed this “regicide” (a new coinage that wouldn’t need to be used again in Europe until the French Revolution over a century later).   
Milton’s outspoken defense of the regicidists and his anti-monarchical views garnered him a position in Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth government, as Secretary for Foreign Tongues to the Council of State—a rather fitting post for Milton, considering the fact that he could read about ten languages and had recently become acquainted with continental Europe through his travels to France, Switzerland, and Italy.
 Milton’s tenure as a foreign secretary came to an abrupt end in 1660, with the demise of Cromwell's government and the Restoration of the English monarchy. When King Charles II ascended the throne, all those who had served in Cromwell's government understandably lost their jobs, including Milton. It was only at that later point in his life—now beginning to go blind, and after having fallen into penury—that Milton began in earnest to compose his masterpiece Paradise Lost.  
 Although it appeared as if he had backed the wrong horse, Milton never renounced his anti-monarchic sentiments, even though they had caused him to become destitute. Indeed, it is possible to read Paradise Lost—an ostensibly religious poem—as a profoundly political work, and as an anti-monarchical poem in particular. 
 For John Milton, then, it would not be enough that The Crown has come to an end; the actual Crown should be abolished as well. Or should it? One could argue that Milton was only opposed to the corrupt, tyrannical, absolute monarchy of his day, and that if he were alive today, he would feel no need at all to speak out in opposition against the politically neutered constitutional monarchy of present-day Britain. Milton’s ire—and his zeal for rooting out tyranny and corruption—would more likely be directed at the institutions that are actually oppressing people today: shadowy financial consortiums, an unchecked (and seemingly uncheckable) military-industrial complex, unaccountable big pharma, unwholesome big agriculture, and the censorship-industrial complex of non-independent media (recall Milton’s fervent advocacy for freedom of the press in his discourse “Areopagitica”). Compared with these antidemocratic forces, what harm is there in keeping the innocuous Crown going for a few more seasons? 
 If Milton were alive today, we might even be able to hear him say—gasp!—“Long Live the King!” (And, to Charles III, a “get better soon!”)


Garth Bond

Speaking specifically to Harry's memoir Spare: though I haven't read it, I was intrigued to learn that it's ghost-writer also also ghost-wrote Andre Agassi's brilliant (if somewhat whiny) autobiography as well. It made me think about where we are more or less likely to be sympathetic to the difficulties that accompany privileges (of different sorts).