If all conservatives are, in some sense, Anglophiles, then every snob and reactionary in all these former colonies will delight in the High Tory verse-drama King Charles III, written by the young playwright Mike Bartlett. As the name suggests, it is a speculative piece about the first months of the reign of the current Prince of Wales, with the first scene taking place just after Queen Elizabeth’s funeral. Because the main characters of the play are real, still-living people, one must overcome some amount of voyeuristic discomfort, but this is easily done, partly because the iambic pentameter helps to separate the characters from their real-life counterparts, and also because it quickly becomes clear that the William and Kate, or Charles, or Camilla of the play are fictional constructions—that Bartlett has taken considerable liberty with their personalities.
The play’s verse is purposely understated. At several points one has to consciously scan the lines because they are so conversational, for example “of course| whate|ver sub|ject you |would like.” But this only serves to highlight by comparison important moments when the language becomes elevated, as in Charles’s first major speech:
My life has been a ling’ring for the throne:
Sometimes I do confess I ‘magined if
My mother hap’d to die before her time—
A helicopter crash, a rare disease
So at an early age I’d be in charge.
One cannot help but hear an echo of Shakespeare in this soliloquy with its dropped syllables. The Shakespearean echoes sometimes fall flat. Much like the Weird Sisters in Macbeth, the ghost of Princess Diana shows up a few times early in the play to tell Prince William that he will be “the greatest King we ever had.” (Cue eyeroll here.) This is a bit of far-fetched foreshadowing, and at the same time not strange enough to be effective; William is, after all, the heir apparent. Diana’s ghost only meaningfully appears just one other time (to Charles) and then is never heard from again.
The play also follows a more important but no less odious subplot (in prose, mercifully!) about Prince Harry’s love affair with a radical activist who urges him to give up his birthright. It’s not that we don’t want to care about their romance—indeed we do—it’s just that we are given very little reason to care. We are told repeatedly that Harry is in love, but we’re never shown it, and are left wondering why his “love for Jessica comes first.”
But these are minor quibbles. The power of the play is found in the way it essentially rehearses the half-millennium struggle between King and Parliament, showing how the Crown is a safeguard, rather than a hindrance, to freedom. Even Charles’ inauspicious name calls to mind the execution by Parliament of Charles I. When Charles III ascends the throne, there is a Labour government in place. The Prime Minister, Mr. Evans, secretly longs for a British Republic. After Charles refuses to give royal assent to a bill that would censor the free press, Evans brings a bill before the Commons that would completely curtail any remaining power of the Monarchy. As the bill is being debated, on the advice of Mr. Stevens, the opposition leader, Charles dramatically enters the chamber, pounding the floor with his scepter, and in one of the best speeches of the play dissolves Parliament:
Unlike you all, I’m born and raised to rule
I do not choose, but like an Albion oak
I’m sown in British soil, and grown not for
Myself but reared with single purpose meant.
Whilst you have small constituency support
Which gusts and falls as does the wind
My cells and organs constitute this land
Devoted to entire populace
Of now, of then, and those still to come.
It is refreshing that Bartlett does not feel constrained to write in an overly colloquial idiom, as do some contemporary poets who write in meter. This, surely, is not everyday speech, even for a king, and that is precisely from where much of the pleasure is derived. The play’s exalted language is much like the majesty of the Crown itself. Charles’ words bring to mind Edmund Burke’s insistence, against the French revolutionaries and their British sympathizers, that legitimate authority is hereditary. Parliamentarians come and go, but the monarch transcends time and space. He rules, not just over a “small constituency,” and with the same authority with which every sovereign from Alfred to Elizabeth II has reigned, and that authority is unavoidably divine. In this speech, one is almost tempted to hear an echo of Louis the Fourteenth’s absolutist maxim—L’estat c’est moi—but here Charles argues that the British monarchy is not a despotism; the King is the servant of all his people after the model of Christ. And we see his protection of his people in his refusal to sign the censorship bill, a bill that would, no doubt, benefit the king’s person. Or, as Mr. Stevens puts it, there never would be
“A Nazi party making British laws
Because the reigning monarch then would stand
His ground and being Head of State refuse
One can imagine any number of despotic laws being passed by any parliament. It is the king who provides stability.
The irony of Charles’ self-understanding is that he is perfectly willing to be a modern king. He believes in democracy and only asks Mr. Evans that the House debate the bill again, implying he would sign if it came to him a second time. But the ambitious Prime Minister takes this opportunity to affect the monarchy’s demise. However, Parliament, having been dissolved, cannot vote to strip away the King’s power. Charles, no doubt, would have been content to have a quiet reign, to be, as he says near the play’s tragic end, an old man who “potters round/ And talks to plants and chuckles to himself.” But this is not possible. Because Charles was heir to the throne for over sixty years,his sense of duty is too strong to neglect;it is this sense of duty, over a comparatively small issue, which brings him down.
The play ends in something of an anticlimax. Britain is nearing civil war, the stock market has crashed, and there are daily riots in the streets. (The stage directions have an assaulted monarchist protester dressed, appropriately, all in tweed.) Just as tensions are at their zenith, the tanks parked outside Buckingham Palace simply drive away. It’s as if Bartlett, having written this far, did not know how he was going to end it. Granted, William and Kate’s treachery was fairly heavily foreshadowed, but they affect it in a banal family ultimatum, which, from what we now know about Charles, we are unwilling to believe he’ll accept. And yet he does. He abdicates the throne, choosing personal relationships over what he’d so powerfully argued was his sacred duty.
Perhaps this ending, unsatisfying as it is, is appropriate. In the final act, Charles III loses its Shakespearean echo and becomes a distinctly modern artifact. Charles could not go down like Henry VI or Richard III, not in the 21st century, and we are reminded of Eliot’s famous prognosis of the modern condition: “This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper.”