The Hunter and the Hunted: The Crown’s “The Balmoral Test” (S4.E2) – by Kimberly Rhodes

In a 1994 interview with Jerome Brooks for The Paris Review, Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe reflected on his impetus to write:

There is that great proverb—that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. That did not come to me until much later. Once I realized that, I had to be a writer. I had to be that historian. It’s not one man’s job. It’s not one person’s job. But it is something we have to do, so that the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony, the travail—the bravery, even, of the lions.[1]

In Achebe’s case, the hunted lions represent the peoples of Nigeria whose bodies were appropriated first by Portuguese and then British enslavers and colonizers, whose voices were suppressed and distorted, and whose stories are told in his fiction. The proverb is generally useful, however, as a clarion call to articulate the perspective of the dispossessed and victimized, whether they be human or non-human animals, to acknowledge their agency as we reflect on the nexus of territory, control, power, and suffering, especially in the context and history of the British Empire into which Achebe was born in 1930. These themes reverberate throughout Season Four of The Crown, especially Episode Two, “The Balmoral Test,” which features the apocryphal hunt of a wounded Imperial stag (a red deer with fourteen points—seven per antler) on the grounds of Balmoral Castle in Scotland after the animal has been shot by a Japanese tourist visiting a neighboring estate. In the episode we witness, in equal measure, the bloodlust, callousness, and snobbery of Queen Elizabeth II (as played by Olivia Colman) and her family, as well as the deep suffering of the stag against the backdrop of the deprivation and despair of both royals and ordinary Britons during the Thatcher years. It seems as if the story is being told both by the hunter and the hunted, as prescribed by Achebe.  

Like the series in general, much of the content of “The Balmoral Test” embellishes historical facts quite liberally. However, using a stag hunt to evoke themes of territory, control, power, and suffering as they manifested in the 1980s, and setting the episode at Balmoral Castle, is fitting. As John Fletcher documents, between 1603 and 1831 the sale of venison was illegal in England, making those who desired the food reliant on the aristocratic owners of deer parks (including the royal family), the only locale legal for deer hunting, to provide them with gifts of venison.[2] These gifts often came formally from the monarchy through the Royal Warrant (established in the thirteenth century), whereby they could legally bestow haunches of venison to, for example, keep in good graces with prominent political figures.[3] Coincidentally, Margaret Thatcher banished this practice during her time as Prime Minister in one of her attempts to dismantle aristocratic privilege.[4] While Thatcher’s act goes unmentioned in The Crown, her distaste for all things royal, including deer hunting, is made abundantly clear, as are the actual and symbolic connections between royalty and deer as possessions the monarchy both controlled access to and were uniquely empowered to breed and kill, thereby colonizing the natural world. We see this aristocratic privilege in “The Balmoral Test” when the wounded stag runs away from those who have shot it, crosses a stream onto the grounds of Balmoral, and thereby becomes property of the Queen, who will decide the animal’s fate.

Fig. 1. Still from Season 4: Episode 2 of The Crown  (“The Balmoral Test”). Image source: Netflix. www.netflix.com.

By the time Balmoral was purchased by Prince Albert for Queen Victoria (Queen Elizabeth’s great-great-grandmother) in 1852, there was a scarcity of deer in royal deer parks. The monarchy depended on its Scottish park to supply venison to the royal table, which it did, with great abundance.[5] Indeed, Balmoral is rich with stag hunting lore, particularly in the Victorian period, and “The Balmoral Test” references this legacy several times. Allusions to Albert’s passion for stag hunting while in residence at Balmoral abound, including Denis Thatcher’s (played by Stephen Boxer) reading aloud from a copy of the Hunting Memoirs of Balmoral Castle left on his bedside table and the suggestion that the formidable stag’s head mounted in the dining room was the prince’s quarry. Much of the episode’s visual imagery (Fig. 1) seems to be appropriated from Victorian sources as well, including Sir Edwin Landseer’s many paintings of stags (Fig. 2) and photographs of Prince Albert’s hunting expeditions at Balmoral.

Fig. 2. Edwin H. Landseer, The Monarch of the Glen, c. 1851, oil on canvas. Scottish National Gallery. Image in the public domain. Image source: Wikipedia.

While these historically appropriate (albeit sometimes inaccurate) nods to the Victorian era sit lightly on the episode’s surface, eighteenth-century sensibilities running contrary to the bloodlust of the aristocratic hunters are buried under its skin—like the Japanese hunter’s bullet lodged in the hindquarters of the stag, whose suffering we witness quite viscerally in stages.  In European intellectual thought, acknowledging the pain and suffering of non-human animals in a moral framework as analogous, both metaphorically and literally, to that of humans (especially those without overt power, Achebe’s “hunted”) is believed to have its roots in the eighteenth century and to be largely a product of the work of utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. In An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Bentham notably asserted that:

The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may come one day to be recognized, that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate….The question is not, Can they reason? Nor, Can they talk? But, Can they suffer?[6]  

Yet Bentham’s ideas can be pushed back at least two centuries earlier to the work of William Shakespeare. According to Johannes Kniess, Bentham likely refers to Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure when imagining that “the poor worm you tread on in corporal sufferance feels a fancy as great as when a hero dies.”[7] Segments of Shakespeare’s 1599 play As You Like It also resonate with Bentham’s notions of animal ethics, especially when Melancholy Jaques notably remarks with great empathetic and ethical vigor upon the sight of a stag wounded in the hunt, and condemns the aristocrats who stalk them in the Forest of Arden. This scene takes place offstage and is relayed to the audience by the First Lord:

Thus most invectively [Jaques] pierceth through
The body of country, city, court,
Yea, and of this our life, swearing that we
Are mere usurpers, tyrants, and what’s worse,
To fright the animals and to kill them up
In their assigned and native dwelling place. (2.1.61-66) [8]

As You Like It enjoyed a robust theatrical presence in the eighteenth century, first as a thinly disguised pastoral from 1723 entitled Love in a Forest. It transformed Jaques from a somewhat minor character to the leading role, played by the English actor Colley Cibber.[9] In this version, Jaques speaks his “moralizing” lines about encountering the wounded stag directly to the audience, intensifying the empathic and critical power of the scene. Indeed, even when Shakespeare’s version of the play was restored to the stage in the eighteenth century, this performance convention was curiously retained. The art history of the scene was in its nascency during Bentham’s life span, during which time William Blake produced an extraordinary, moving watercolor (now in the British Museum) depicting Jaques and the wounded stag in close proximity to one another on the bank of a stream. In the image Jaques points to the blood coursing down the stag’s side, dramatizing both the agony of the animal and that of the empathic human who witnesses the animal’s suffering.  

Achebe, Bentham, Shakespeare, and Blake all urge us to consider hunting from the animals’ point of view. “The Balmoral Test” does too, notably when we see the stag wandering through the Scottish highlands, bellowing in pain. The audience also witnesses humans mocking the animal’s misery, when Princess Anne (as played by Erin Doherty) gleefully mimics the stag’s cries over breakfast with the royal family, increasing the viewers’ distaste for aristocratic bloodlust. However, just as Bentham’s thoughts on animal ethics were inspired by Enlightenment-era human rights campaigns, The Crown also positions animal and human suffering in conversation with one another. The title of the episode refers to the series of trials Margaret Thatcher (as played by Gillian Anderson) and Diana Spencer (as played by Emma Corrin) endure while visiting the royal family at Balmoral, including stalking the abovementioned stag at the break of dawn during wet, windy weather. While Thatcher resoundingly fails her tests, Diana emerges triumphant when she plays a pivotal role in helping Prince Philip (played by Tobias Menzies) bag the deer, thereby securing her role as the future Princess of Wales.

Witnessing the stag’s acute suffering in the episode conditions the viewer to be alert to the human misery attached to the tests administered at Balmoral, and, as the series continues, to the general distress of the nation in the 1980s. By showing us the humiliation of Margaret Thatcher as well as the dejection of Prince Charles (as played by Josh O’Connor)—who, as he is told by his father that he must marry Diana, responds by comparing himself to the stag being skinned in the other half of the frame—the episode suggests that those with power suffer as well. Hunters can also be the hunted, as Actaeon was by his own dogs when Diana, goddess of the hunt, transformed him into a stag to punish him for spying on her and her attendant nymphs while they bathed. This likening of Diana Spencer to her namesake goddess turns on itself later in the series, when her eating disorders, loneliness, and insecurities are triggered by chilly interactions with the royal family. No longer the victorious hunter, the Princess of Wales becomes a victimized, wounded deer.

 “The Balmoral Test” seems to ask of the powerful, as Bentham did of animals, “can they suffer”? Furthermore, if the human hunters in the episode are also being stalked and wounded by other humans, who is then presiding over this human and animal carnage, directing its lethal course? The eight episodes following “The Balmoral Test” relentlessly pursue these questions. They continually bounce back and forth between points of view so that ordinary humans suffering the consequences of British rule in the 1980s, among them the unemployed and hopeless Michael Fagan, Black South Africans living under Apartheid, and the citizens of the colonized Falklands Islands struggling for their freedom, are allowed have their painful stories witnessed. The episodes also continue to explore the difficulties of those with power exposed in “The Balmoral Test” in counterpoint with the dispossessed and colonized. Returning to Bentham perhaps aids in grappling with this somewhat uncomfortable parallel structure. Kniess points out that Bentham developed “his method primarily with an eye to human pleasure and pain.”[10] Moreover, in considering whether hunting should be legal in his Theory of Legislation, Bentham focused his arguments on the hunter’s pursuit of happiness rather than the agony of animals, suggesting that hunting should be banned since it does not alleviate unhappiness: “Let pains be taken to enlighten the people, to make the motives of the law evident, to exhibit it as a means of peace and security, to show that the exercise of this right reduces itself to almost nothing, that the life of a hunter is miserable.”[11]

The final episode of season four of The Crown, “War,” circles back to the hunting and happiness theme, graphically showing brilliantly plumed game birds being pinned to hooks by faceless servants in preparation for the royal family’s Christmas celebration at Windsor Castle. “War” also reunites Princess Diana with Prince Philip, who attempts to curb Diana’s desire to leave the royal family in order to live a happier life and puts their roles in perspective in relation to the Queen: “Everyone in this system is a lost, lonely, irrelevant outsider apart from the one person, the only person who matters. She is the oxygen we all breathe. The essence of all our duty.” And so, it seems, The Crown answers the queries posed at the beginning of this paragraph as “yes” and “the Queen.” However, by telling the story partially from the perspective of the hunted stag, and by using the stag to symbolize a broad class and race spectrum of suffering humans, “The Balmoral Test” and The Crown’s ensuing episodes consider critically the larger implications of monarchy and its political and emotional injustices in a more universal manner. In Benthamite terms, the hunter and the hunted are both miserable, indeed.


Kimberly Rhodes is Professor of Art History & NEH Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Humanities at Drew University, Madison NJ


[1] Chinua Achebe and Jerome Brooks, “Chinua Achebe, The Art of Fiction No. 139,” The Paris Review, https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/1720/the-art-of-fiction-no-139-chinua-achebe (accessed January 24, 2021).

[2] John Fletcher, Gardens of Earthly Delight: The History of Deer Parks (Oxford: Windgather Press, 2011), 80.

[3] Fletcher, Gardens of Earthly Delight, 208.

[4] Fletcher, Gardens of Earthly Delight, 208.

[5] Fletcher, Gardens of Earthly Delight, 209.

[6] Quoted in Johannes Kniess, “Bentham on Animal Welfare,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 27:3 (2019), 556.

[7] Kniess, “Bentham on Animal Welfare,” 570.

[8] William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Barbara Mowat, ed., Folger Digital Texts, https://shakespeare.folger.edu/shakespeares-works/as-you-like-it/act-2-scene-1/ (accessed January 24, 2021).

[9] George Odell, Shakespeare from Betterton to Irving, vol. 1 (London: Constable & Co., 1921), 245.

[10] Kniess, “Bentham on Animal Welfare,” 559.

[11] Jeremy Bentham, Theory of Legislation (London: Trübner & Co., 1871), 167.


Cite this note as:  Kimberly Rhodes, “The hunter and the hunted: The Crown’s ‘The Balmoral Test,'” Journal18 (February 2021), https://www.journal18.org/5498.

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