Duty and Desire in The Crown

Liz Wann

There is a complexity of ideas at play beneath the authentic scenery and elegant costumes of the new Netflix series The Crown. This tactful English drama set in post-war Britain centers on the rise and reign of Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy). The camerawork and creative writing take us into the hidden realities of relationships between monarchy and family, monarchy and parliament, and monarchy and church. At the heart of it all is the interplay of duty and desire.

The crown represents the monarchy, which Queen Mary (Elizabeth’s grandmother, played by Eileen Atkins) describes in one of the early episodes as “a calling from God himself.” Mary goes on to tell Elizabeth that the monarchy is an example of nobility and duty, and that loyalty to the ideal she’s inherited is her duty above everything else.

As the 10-episode series progresses, we see how Elizabeth quickly learns her duty. In fact, throughout this entire first season, we can see the interplay of duty and desire in almost every character. First, Elizabeth’s uncle David (King Edward VIII, played by Alex Jennings) chose desire over duty when he abdicated the throne for the love of a divorced woman. Then the crown passed to David’s reluctant brother King George VI (Jared Harris), the stuttering monarch who put his public fears behind him to embrace his duty. When George VI dies unexpectedly, his young and unprepared daughter, Elizabeth, chooses the duty of the monarchy over her desire to be a wife and mother.

This battle is as ancient as the Garden of Eden and as contemporary as today.

This conflict over duty and desire comes to a head when Elizabeth’s sister Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) wants to marry a divorced man, which goes against the religious sensibilities of the monarchy, government, and church. So, Elizabeth calls a man who would empathize with Margaret’s situation: her uncle David. The phone conversation they have is a critical point in the series and clearly displays the agony of Elizabeth’s inward battles. “You are split down the middle. One half is sister. One half is queen. A strange hybrid creature,” David tells her. “We are half people. Ripped from the pages of some bizarre mythology, the two sides within us, human and crown, engaged in a fearful civil war.” He ends with a direct appeal for her to protect the crown. And so the man who chose desire over duty tells the queen to choose duty over desire.

This battle between duty and desire is as ancient as the Garden of Eden and as contemporary as today. When our duty and desire are one, there is peace. But typically we are at war inside ourselves. The Apostle Paul refers to this battle in Romans when he contrasts what he knows to be right and true (his duty) with his sinful nature. One half of us wants righteousness and the other half wants to fulfill desire. Yet duty represents a cause bigger than our personal wants, because duty means making choices that align with God’s Kingdom—his rule and reign, not ours.

The act of desiring itself is not wrong if it does not infringe on God’s Kingdom decrees. Yet when we desire something other than what God has intended for us, we are hybrid creatures like Elizabeth, caught between the knowledge of what is right and our contrary desires. Here are more words from Queen Mary, Elizabeth's grandmother: "I have seen three great monarchies brought down through their failure to separate personal indulgences from duty. The crown must win, must always win." Elizabeth sacrificed everything for her crown. Perhaps we can learn something from this monarch and her self-denial.

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