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By Shannon Stockwell
Explore how Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III echoes Shakespeare in this three-part series.
An Arc of Redemption?: Prince Harry and Prince Hal
Although Bartlett has said that most similarities between his characters and Shakespeare’s are incidental, there was one comparison he intended—Prince Harry and the character of Prince Hal in Henry IV. When the audience first meets Hal, who is next in line for the throne, he is hanging out in a tavern with his bawdy friends. Our first impression is that he is unfit to be king, given the company he keeps: womanizers, drunkards and robbers. Similarly, very early on in King Charles III, we see Harry forego spending time with his royal family to hit up a club with his pals. Both Harry and Hal spend time with the “lower” classes and they enjoy their experiences there. But they spend time away from royalty for different reasons. Hal divulges that he spends time in the tavern to familiarize himself with the people he will one day rule over. Unlike Hal, Harry is probably never going to be king. He is destined to have the title of prince forever, and he must follow all the rules of royalty without the promise of power.
Being Nothing: Charles III and Richard II
In many reviews of King Charles III, Bartlett’s tragic lead character has been compared to Shakespeare’s Richard III, Lear, and Hamlet. Charles certainly bears some similarities to all of these characters, but he also very closely resembles the king in Richard II. Both that play and King Charles III follow the downfall of an English king. Both characters end up as fascinating meditations on the nature of kingship. Comparing Charles to Richard reveals some of the ways that Bartlett may have been influenced by one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known history plays.
When these two characters are laid alongside each other, one of the first things that becomes clear is an essential difference in motivation. As a king, Richard serves his own interests before those of his people. He is vain, wasteful, and surrounded by sycophants. Only after he is forced to abdicate do we feel for him, partly because his poetry is so eloquent and partly because his identity is so shaken:
Thus play I in one person many people,
And none contented: sometimes am I king;
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am: then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king;
Then am I king’d again: and by and by
Think that I am unking’d by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing: but whate’er I be,
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing. (Richard II, Act V, Scene 5)
Compare this speech to Charles’s words:
So there, it’s done, the king is at an end.
I will retreat to bed, and when I wake
To a new dawn, I’ll simply be an old
Forgotten gardener, who potters round
And talks to plants and chuckles to himself,
Whilst far away the king and queen do rule
Over a golden age of monarchy,
That bothers no-one, does no good, and is
A pretty plastic picture with no meaning.
Unlike Richard, Charles is not so upset at the loss of identity. He might not like it, but at least Charles knows who he’ll be after giving up the crown. Instead, he seems more distraught that the monarchy has lost any actual political purpose it might have had. Arguably, Charles’s mistakes were made not in his own self-interest (like Richard II’s), but in the interest of the monarchy as an institution and the country as a whole.
The Immortal Bard
These are only a few of the fascinating comparisons to be drawn between King Charles III and the Shakespearean canon. Just as Bartlett dreaded, writing his play in a Shakespearean form did indeed invite audiences to lay it “alongside the greatest literature in the English language,” but his worst fears never came true. King Charles III doesn’t pale in comparison to the works of Shakespeare. “What could have been only a cleverly executed stunt is instead an intellectually and emotionally gripping study of the strangely enduring anachronism that is the British monarchy,” says New York Times critic Ben Brantley. “And for Bardophiles, King Charles III provides the bonus of confirming the immortal topicality of Shakespeare.”
This article by Shannon Stockwell first appeared in American Conservatory Theater’s performance guide series, Words on Plays, in 2016. For more information about Words on Plays, visit www.act-sf.org/wordsonplays.
SOURCES Mike Bartlett, “How I Wrote King Charles III,” The Guardian, September 20, 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/sep/20/king-charles-iii-mike-bartlett (accessed June 6, 2016); Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (New York: The Berkeley Publishing Group, 1998); Ben Brantley, “Review: In King Charles III, Glimpsing the Near Future of Monarchy,” The New York Times, November 1, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/02/theater/review-in-king-charles-iii-glimpsing-the-near-future-of-monarchy.html?_r=0 (accessed June 6, 2016); Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare After All (New York: Random House, 2004)