On Saturday night I finally had the chance to see Mike Bartlett’s “Charles III” with the Shakespeare Theatre Company. If you’re unfamiliar with the premise of the play, it examines the hypothetical early days of the reign of the Prince of Wales in blank verse, conjuring up a number of Shakespearean archetypes. The basic plot is that upon ascending the throne Charles is faced with a bill that will more strictly regulate the press, and with which he disagrees. Instead of signing it, and thus acknowledging the will of Parliament, he decides to flex the no-longer-used muscle of his monarchical authority by withholding royal assent. The country devolves into chaos, protests erupting in London and Charles leveraging his control of the military as a show of force and protection outside Buckingham Palace. William, now Prince of Wales, is horrified by his father’s behavior, but it’s his wife, Kate, in the modern form of a Lady Macbeth, who arranges for him to replace Charles as monarch and essentially force his hand into abdicating. The play ends with the coronation of William and Kate as king and queen, while Charles watches, defeated.
On the side, Harry enters into a romance with a republican, and instead of her coming to terms with life in the palace, he decides to give up his royal status and live “as one of the people,” if you will. Meanwhile the ghost of Diana, Princess of Wales visits both Charles and William to tell them they were meant to be the greatest king in history.
So, quite a lot to unpack there and, frankly, the play’s success has less to do with being a realistic depiction of what Prince Charles’s reign will actually look like, and more with the production quality, the Shakespearean allusions and the slick use of iambic pentameter. It’s a bold play, telling this story with real figures and taking the characters that these members of the Royal Family have, at times, been portrayed as in the popular narrative and dropping them into a traditional dynastic drama with which their ancestors might be more familiar.
There’s no real sense in attempting to parse what could be true and what is wildly out of left field, because it’s obviously complete fiction. No, these are not the dynamics within the House of Windsor and no, that is not what Prince Charles’s reign will look like. But there is one element worth examining, and it is the sense some have that Prince Charles will have a hard time with a crucial aspect of monarchy: keeping his opinions to himself. The Queen has never given an interview; she has never opined on legislation, business or cultural trends. Prince Charles, as her heir, certainly has over the course of his life, speaking out on climate change, modern architecture and any number of political measures on which he sends notes to members of his mother’s government as he sees fit.
Now approaching 70, there is a concern that Charles will find the reality of kingship limiting. His potency, nimbleness and effectiveness could, in his mind, be numbed by the reality of fulfilling the sovereign’s duties. It’s a role that his mother had played remarkably well, but it is also one that she evolved on her own, seeing the monarchy from the 1950s well into the second decade of the 21st century (so far). What the Queen does versus what she *could* do is a matter of precedent and expectation rather than legal limitations. The question then becomes, will Charles rule as she does? Or will he attempt, in whatever time he has to rule (which will, for better or for worse, be far shorter than his mother had) to make his own mold?
If one sets aside speculation, it’s an impossible question to answer. Only time will tell. But it does lend itself to a looming dilemma that will face the monarchy this year, and that is the expected visit of US President Donald Trump. The Trump visit is fascinating not just for the immediate news cycle, but rather what it implies about the monarchy’s role in all of this and how the Queen is being leveraged. Nearly two million Britons signed a petition that forcing the Queen to meet with Trump would be beneath her dignity. Her personal dignity, perhaps – we have no way of knowing her inclinations – but certainly not her professional dignity, which has withstood visits from all sorts of unsavory characters, including Romania’s Nicolae Ceaușescu and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
But what of the younger royals? As Tom Sykes in the Daily Beast recently wrote:
Understandably, many fear that Harry and William may not feel particularly enthusiastic about extending the hand of friendship to a man who, not long after their mother’s death in 1997, told radio host Howard Stern he could have “nailed” Diana if he really wanted to and would have slept with her, “without hesitation.”
Royal biographer Penny Junor, the author of an authoritative series of best-selling Royal biographies on Charles, William, and Harry told The Daily Beast: “I wouldn’t think they had any idea about it until recently. My guess it was an idle boast but, boast or not, William would take a dim view. He and his brother are, not surprisingly, very touchy about their mother.”
No kidding. Charles, too, might not be too keen, whether it’s the man’s gauche hyperbole about his late ex-wife or his political views, which we can safely assess based on recent statements differ…to say the least. Sykes argues that William, Harry and Kate, on whom Trump blamed the 2012 long lens shots of Kate sunbathing topless on private property, need to step up and essentially “do their duty.”
Sure, maybe, but it’s not really their duty. Frankly, when it comes to William and co. I don’t see the point. The investment of awkwardness and ridiculous headlines doesn’t net out to nearly enough gain – a picture of William grimly shaking hands with a man that has grossly insulted his wife and mother? For what purpose? The only meeting that matters is the one with the Queen. The rest of it is just fanfare and, not for nothing, there’s something to be said for keeping this as no-frills as possible out of respect for the 1.8 million people that asked that this visit be downgraded. The vast, vast majority of Americans really aren’t going to be able to tell the difference. Our “special relationship” is going to be just fine.
Charles is a bit of a trickier situation, because he is obviously more senior than his sons and he’s taking on greater responsibility on behalf of his mother. A meeting with him does mean something and I could see this playing out either way. But I also still don’t think it matters much. I’ve no doubt Charles has the ability to get through a visit, and I’ve also no doubt that if he’s not there for whatever reason it’s not going to upend diplomatic relations. This starts and ends with the Queen and she’s withstood worse.
Which brings us to what our younger royals actually are doing on behalf of their government: soft diplomacy. ICYMI, Brexit. Last Friday it was announced that William and Kate will be undertaking an official visit to Germany and Poland in July, while a short mini-tour of Paris is scheduled for next week. These are unique, in that unlike the longer tours William and Kate have taken, these are obviously not to Commonwealth countries. Instead, this trip to Paris is going to be more akin to the short visit that the couple took to New York City in December 2014. Now, Paris is one city whereas Germany and Poland are two entire countries (obviously), so it remains to be seen what length of time they will be over there.
But the government is also pulling out the big[ger] guns: Charles and Camilla. Yesterday it was announced that the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall will be undertaking a trip between March 29 and April 6 to Romania, Italy, the Holy See and Austria. (The length of this trip indicates that William and Kate’s will be similarly truncated given how many countries they’re visiting in the span of a week.)
What’s interesting is how the government is using the Royal Family as a bit of soft diplomacy to further goodwill and “extend the hand of friendship.” I would wager that we’ll be seeing several more of these over the course of the year as Britain navigates the logistics of untangling itself from the European Union.