16th Century Sex and Power Thrill Audiences

Eighty-Five Percent True

Mining history for drama is not a novel task, but the idea of televised period dramas with their expensive sets and long story lines often seems more the domain of PBS' "Masterpiece Theater" than a network known for groundbreaking shows like "Queer as Folk."

But "The Tudors" breaks the mold. The House of Tudor, which included Henry VII, Henry VIII, Mary I and Elizabeth I, was one of the shortest but most explosive dynasties to rule England and included some of British history's most famous monarchs.

That era of history is ripe with the sex, power and violence that are the fruit of today's dramas. It's "The Sopranos" and "The West Wing" meeting in the 16th century, creating a story line of which Hollywood could only dream.

Hirst told ABC News that Showtime had only one question when it called him about the script. "They asked, is any of it true?" Hirst said, "and I said, 'Oh about 85 percent of it."

Freed from the constraints of network television, which Hirst had originally scripted the drama for, Showtime told Hirst he could push the drama further if he wanted to.

And push he did.

"We have a very polite Jane Austen-ish view of history," Hirst told ABC News. "It's not true that people were very polite. They were hungry for power. Their life expectancy wasn't great. They wanted the good things in life. By showing it in a more extreme form, I believe we actually get closer to the truth."

"The Tudors" references the questions of that day -- humanism, the rise of Protestantism, Europe on the cusp of the Renaissance -- and Hirst promises that the politics of the period will play a greater role in future episodes.

But what intrigues and confounds the 21st century viewer is how the series portrays notions of 16th century sexuality, literally turning our modern-day notions of morality on its head.

The lusty young king need only cast a lingering glance at a young woman before she is in his bedroom, willingly shedding her robes. One of history's most notorious temptresses, Anne Boelyn lands in the king's bed at her father's bidding.

Anne, played by Natalie Dormer, is told by her father, "The king has tired of your sister. … I'm sure you can find a way to keep his interest more prolonged."

According to Northwestern University historian Ethan Shagan, these events ring true with the period.

"The sexuality of the male monarch is a very important symbol of the potency of the nation as a whole," Shagan said. "His sexuality represented the qualities of the nation, so it was important to have a son, and it was expected that the king would have several mistresses."

Shagan also says that 16th century women were more than just costumed dolls, waiting for marriage.

"There's always a sexual double standard," Shagan said. "A father would not be amused by his daughter's sexual escapades, but in a court culture where power involved physical access to the monarch, it was custom for fathers to trot out their daughters as a pathway to power."

Why We Just Can't Get Enough

The fascination with "The Tudors," according to Shagan, is that it lets people today talk about their own sexuality and how it might connect to power because sexual politics played such a crucial role in that period.

The period has proven to be a perennial favorite of the big screen, with such iconic films as "Anne of the Thousand Days" with Richard Burton to the more recent post-modern "Elizabeth," which recast the virgin queen as a sexual young woman.

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