What makes a history play? A fusion of past, present and the prince’s future in ‘King Charles III’
“What is politics but family writ large?”
—Bill Cain (“Equivocation,” Act II, scene three)
This season, in addition to its lineup of plays by the Bard, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival will present the award-winning play “King Charles III,” a tale set in the near future for the modern royal family, the Windsors. Tradition and progress spectacularly collide on stage for a production you won’t soon forget.
Written in 2014, playwright Mike Bartlett’s imagined future features the-now-King Charles butting heads with Parliament on a bill to restrict the freedom of the press, Prince Harry’s scandalous relationship with a “commoner,” and William and Kate navigating their roles amidst a newfound shift of power. The Windsors must grapple with it all in order to determine the future of their reign in the wake of Queen Elizabeth II’s death.
Though the future Bartlett is depicting does not altogether “match” what audience members know about the royal family as we perceive them today, this self-described future history play is a strikingly relevant and resonant production that honors its Shakespearean roots, raises imperative questions about what makes a good leader in the modern politiscape and contends with that alternative future. Not to mention that the drama of Prince Harry’s relationship woes and ongoing family troubles make for a potent backdrop.
The history behind the histories
In order to break down what makes “King Charles III” a “future history play” and its inherent value, it is important to understand what characterizes a Shakespearean history play in the first place and the elements that playwright Mike Bartlett drew inspiration from. “The histories are about English history, and they’re written mostly in verse,” explains Heidi Schmidt, CSF outreach coordinator and production dramaturg.
These general “rules” showcase why “Julius Caesar” and “Macbeth” are both classified as tragedies rather than histories. Going beyond just the two basic factors, however, Schmidt explains that the heart of these plays digs into matters of succession and leadership: “Who gets to be king, how do they become king, and what kind of king are they once they get the crown? A good history play raises questions of what makes a good king, what makes a bad king and what makes an exceptionally bad king.” Histories are also traditionally named for the play’s reigning monarch, even if they are not the central character. Despite this, and the plays’ focus on the royals, most history plays heavily feature members of all social classes.
“King Charles III” is titled after the reigning king, written in blank verse, concerns English history and grapples with the succession following Elizabeth II’s passing and good leadership, just like any other Shakespearean history.
An Elizabeth then and an Elizabeth now
The similarities between Shakespeare and Bartlett’s plays do not end there, however. A surprising number of parallels between the context of Shakespeare’s time versus the modern age, as well as British culture and American culture, make “King Charles III” that much more immediate. Elizabeth I ascended the throne in 1558 and held her position for 44 years before her passing. At the time Shakespeare was writing, Schmidt says, “Succession is on the mind of a lot of people. What happens when Elizabeth dies? They’ve been having this generations-long period of peace, mostly, which they hadn’t had in a long time. Things are stable. However, there is no heir.”
Similarly, at age 93, Elizabeth II’s continuing reign is certainly top of mind in the present day. Questions naturally arise about a potential transition of power from Elizabeth II to Charles and perhaps some apprehension at his own age and competence if he is to ascend.
Beyond shared Elizabethan reigns, the issues Charles faces in the play universally resonate with an American audience, despite being British-centered. “These questions about privacy and freedom of the press feel like such American values,” Schmidt notes. “It’s a very British play that translates really nicely to an American stage.”
The Meghan Markle factor
Contextual parallels certainly help inform playwrights as they craft their stories. However, it is equally important to understand that Shakespeare’s history plays are also just that: stories. In order to tell a story efficiently and with the right impact, it was necessary for him, as a storyteller, to compress timelines, reorganize events and transform multiple characters into one composite. Shakespeare took great liberties with historical events, and Bartlett’s fictionalized future for the Windsors certainly reflects a similar poetic license.
In “King Charles III,” Prince Harry is embroiled in a relationship with commoner Jess Edwards, who just so happens to be an anti-monarchist—not surprisingly, a point of contention in the play. However, as most Americans well know, real-life Prince Harry’s recent marriage to Meghan Markle and the birth of their son earlier this year means Bartlett’s imagined future no longer exactly matches the historical record.
Even though the details have been altered, the themes surrounding Harry’s love interest resonate. The audience may feel that they know the Windsors from seeing their faces splashed across their screens nearly every day in some capacity. The celebrity fascination they hold makes the casual observer feel like they have an intimate window into the lives of the royal family.
Moments of character interaction in this play reflect this almost voyeuristic interest. Obviously, the tone of private conversations between William and Kate or Charles’ demeanor in meetings with important government officials are not public knowledge, and these moments are gripping and intriguing for that very reason. However, Bartlett has had to fill in some of these characterization gaps, like Shakespeare did with many of his characters.
Given the audience’s understanding of the Windsors, Schmidt believes that this feeling translates to how audiences of Shakespeare’s time would have had an intimate knowledge of their kings and queens (or so they thought). “This contemporary play helps me understand Shakespeare’s history plays, as much as the history plays help me understand this play,” says Schmidt.
What happens when that future is shifting in real time and personal relationships are changing day by day? Is the play still as relevant as it was in 2014?
“We realized that, if we’re going to do this play, we need to do it now. It might be a play with a shelf life. The future that the play is toying with and the present tense of the current royals have diverged a bit, but the characterization still stands. Now is definitely the time to do it,” Schmidt says. “The play is 100% relevant because the themes, the issues and the questions it’s asking are very present tense, even though some of the personal details of their lives have changed.”
High-end fan-fiction or relevant social commentary?
Though exploring a future timeline, “King Charles III” raises questions for the real people it characterizes. Can public opinion be influenced by this play? What does it say about leadership and who is the right fit for the job? How does this translate to the leaders seeking power today?
There might be predictive value in analyzing the answers to these questions as the play outlines them for the audience. “I won’t say this play can predict actual events, but I will say that literature has a way of identifying and speaking to ideas, trends and concerns of its audience,” says Schmidt. “There are a lot of conversations happening in England right now about whether Charles has aged out, about whether he should be skipped in the line of succession and if the crown should go directly to William and Kate.”
Regardless of the political intrigue that will continue to be relevant in the changing landscape of modern global leaders, much of the intrigue of “King Charles III” lies with its familial roots. Schmidt notes that the political turmoil in the play is magnified by the fact that many of the key characters are family by blood. The stakes couldn’t be higher for the Windsors.
Charles’ decision about signing a bill that could alter the course of Britain forever is inextricably entwined with securing the family legacy. William and Kate’s motivations will be tested—should they support Charles as loyal family members? Or should they respond to popular backlash as politicians? Harry’s troubled relationship with Jess thinly veils the nature of his relationship with his family, his royal title and the politics of his country.
Their family bond cannot be erased, so what does this mean for the consequences of politically divisive decisions? Will King Charles be the greatest king England has ever seen?
Find out when “King Charles III” opens on July 20th. Tickets start at $17.