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Theatre / King Charles III

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The Queen is dead.
Long live the king?

"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."
King Charles, to Parliament, right before dissolving Parliament

King Charles III is a play by Mike Bartlett. Premiering in 2014, the dialogue is notable for being written entirely in blank verse iambic pentameter, leaning on the tradition of Shakespeare's history plays (it's even billed as a "future history"). The narrative follows the royal family through the three months between the death of Queen Elizabeth II and the coronation of the next in line for the throne: her son, King Charles III.

Eager to exercise his royal duties, Charles clashes almost immediately with Prime Minister Evans over a new bill for the statutory regulation of the press - the Prime Minister is for it, while the King wants the Parliament to reconsider what effects the bill will have on freedom of speech. Charles' refusal to sign the bill into law creates a schism between the elected officials of the government and the hereditary rule of the royal family which threatens to tear even the United Kingdom apart. Complicating matters are Prince Harry's budding relationship with an opinionated Republican and Prince William's bid to rehabilitate the House of Windsor's reputation at any cost.

Throughout the show the characters of Charles, Prince William, his wife Kate, and Prince Harry make asides to the audience about their roles in the royal family, the institution of monarchy, the legacy they'll be leaving for future generations, and the nature of government. All must choose how they wish to see the traditions of the monarchy continued in the British Isles, and then convince the others that their course of action is the best.

Note, the real-life Elizabeth II was alive and well at the age of 88 when the play premiered in 2014, and lived a further 8 years until her death in 2022. Due to Time Marches On, the play has become somewhat Outdated by Canon.

King Charles III provides examples of:

  • Abdicate the Throne: The second half of the play sees various forces trying to get Charles to abdicate before his official coronation. He does, when faced with the combined prospect of his sons publicly disavowing him and cutting off all contact with his grandchildren, and with Parliament stripping away the minuscule sliver of executive power left to the monarchy.
  • Awesome Moment of Crowning: Subverted when Charles hijacks the coronation by snatching the crown from the Bishop's hands. He ultimately places it on Prince William's head, but not before some scathing commentary.
  • Balcony Speech: Attempted by King Charles when the crowd of protesters surround Buckingham Palace. He even has a megaphone, but no one can hear him over the noise generated by the angry dissenters.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: Done periodically by Charles, Prince William, Kate, and Prince Harry. They address the audience with their thoughts on the nature of government, the institution of monarchy, their role in the royal family, and the kind of legacy the'll be leaving for their children and future rulers.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Prince William does this to King Charles when he strongly suggests that Charles abdicate, confronting Charles over the damage he's caused to the institution of British monarchy on both the political and popular fronts.
  • Cool Crown: Subverted during the coronation when Charles grabs it out of the Bishop's hands. He remarks on how heavy it is, before turning it over and revealing the empty interior, claiming it is "nothing."
  • Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life: The characterization of Prince Harry in the work leans into this trope. Disillusioned with his role in the royal family and upset by the turmoil surrounding his father's confrontation with the government and the press, he finds solace in his relationship with the opinionated and headstrong Jess. Harry comes to believe that he'll be happy if he puts the royal life behind him, even planning to give up his title and settle down with Jess. By the end of the show he's done a 180, having broken up with Jess and unhappily committed himself to supporting William in upholding the institution of the monarchy.
  • Divine Right of Kings: Charles argues that he was born and raised to rule the country — that monarchy and authority are an intrinsic part of his being. He claims that as the king he is answerable to all citizens of the United Kingdom (as opposed to the members of the Parliament, who are answerable only to their constituents).
  • Ermine Cape Effect: Used on multiple occasions (it's a play about royalty, what did you expect):
    • Attempted by King Charles when he moves to dismiss the members of Parliament - he's wearing a very large ermine cape, combined with crown & scepter.
    • And again at the coronation - the capes used are several meters long, and require an attendant to carry them into the church.
  • Hollywood Law: When Charles refuses to grant assent to the Media Regulation Bill, the Prime Minister retaliates by proposing a bill to strip the Crown of its power to grant assent to any bill, which in normal constitutional circumstances can't make much progress in Parliament without King's Consent since it affects the Royal prerogative.
  • I Just Want to Be Normal: Prince Harry, after dating Jess for a while. Towards the middle of the second act Harry asks Prince Charles to remove his titles and demote him to the status of a commoner. He changes his mind after Prince Charles is forced to abdicate and William is to be crowned instead.
  • Lady Macbeth: Kate Middleton's character in the play is clearly inspired by the trope namer; appealing to her husband's ambition to have him supplant the current monarch.
  • Meaningful Name: The title — Charles's regnal name — clearly calls back to the reigns of Charles I and Charles II, both of whom historically clashed with Parliament over who got to rule between the authority of elected officials versus the divine right of kings. Charles I lost his head over the issue, Charles II arguably prevailed in the short term but merely delayed the inevitable in the long term, and Charles III falls somewhere in between, being forced to abdicate. Prior to 2022, some royal observers speculated that Prince Charles would adopt a different regnal name (he had the choice of "Charles," "Philip," "Arthur," or "George") precisely to avoid these problematic aspects — but as this is fiction a certain amount of artistic license holds. .
  • Pen-Pushing President: Prime Minister Evans flat out tells Charles that his duty as a monarch is to sign bills into law whether he agrees with them or not.
  • Plot-Triggering Death: Queen Elizabeth II's death is the catalyst for a power struggle between a scheming Opposition Leader and the members of the grieving royal family.
  • Posthumous Character: Zig-Zagged — the specter of Princess Diana appears to both King Charles and Prince William, promising each that he will become "the greatest king of all". It is left ambiguous as to whether this is actually the ghost of Diana, or if the pressure of upholding the royal family's image and maintaining their sliver of political power has driven one or both men to hallucinate the apparition and Diana and the woman's approval to soothe their conscience.
  • Real-Person Fic: It's a play about the current (at least as of 2014) British royal family, so...
    • The roster of characters includes: King Charles III, Prince William the Duke of Cambridge, Prince Henry "Harry" of Wales, Catherine "Kate" the Duchess of Cambridge, and Camilla the Duchess of Cornwall.
    • Also included: the ghost of Diana, Princess of Wales and mentions of both Queen Elizabeth II (posthumously) and Prince George.
  • Rebel Prince: Prince Harry, who begins dating an opinionated republican (i.e. anti-monarchist) commoner to the dismay of his conservative royal (and very monarchist) family — he even considers giving up his royal title to live as a commoner, but doesn't go through with it.
  • Reluctant Retiree: Towards the end, William and Harry corner Charles and threaten to effectively disown him, cutting off all contact with him (and taking his grandchildren with them) if he does not abdicate and put William on the throne. Charles reluctantly agrees, not wanting to be alone in life. That doesn't mean he likes doing it though. Quite the contrary, he openly weeps and his hand trembles as he signs the abdication document. He had waited to be King for literally decades, and his "rule" had only just started when it is taken from him by the people he loves the most.
  • Requisite Royal Regalia: Includes Cool Crown, Pimped-Out Cape, and a Scepter. See the Ermine Cape Effect trope above.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: The big political schism being around the issue of media regulation is a nod to the fallout of the News International phone hacking scandal.
  • Royal Decree: Charles' refusal to sign the bill could be seen as this - he even puts his royal stamp on the refusal and has his underbutler personally deliver it to Downing St.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: Following the death of Elizabeth II, King Charles wants the monarchy to take a more active role in government. The government wants him to be a Pen-Pushing President and stay out of their affairs.
  • Sleazy Politician: Stevens, the Leader of the Opposition. He says one thing to Charles in private meetings and another in Parliament. Also mentioned to be personally acquainted with members of the press who would be affected by the passage of the media regulation bill.
  • Starts with Their Funeral: The play begins with the royal family gathering shortly after the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II.
  • Time Marches On: The play premiered in 2014, and made use of the real people who were part of the royal family at that time. Since 2014, the following events have altered the royal family:
    • In 2016, Prince Harry began dating American actress Meghan Markle. The two would go on to marry in 2018 and have two children, Archie (b. 2019) and Lilibet (b. 2021).
    • Prince William and Kate went on to have more children after the birth of Prince George (who does not make an appearance in the show, but who is mentioned as a factor in William and Kate's popularity). Their daughter, Princess Charlotte, was born in 2015. Their second son, Prince Louis, was born in 2018.
    • Queen Elizabeth II lived a further 8 years after the play's premiere, dying at the age of 96 in 2022.
    • Charles' coronation was held without issue or abdication, per the play in 2023.
  • Universally Beloved Leader: Prince William and Kate argue that their nigh-universal popularity makes them better suited to monarchy than Charles, and indeed the only members of the royal family who can undo the damage Charles has caused to their reputation and royal brand.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist:
    • King Charles will do everything in his power to preserve what he views as democracy (and especially freedom of the press), up to and including the dissolution of Parliament after they pass a bill for the statutory regulation of the press. He sees it as his royal duty and god-given responsibility to course-correct when (in his opinion) the House of Lords and House of Commons overextends their authority, even if it means using the power of a monarch to throw out the entire democratically elected government.
    • It's also made clear that William and Kate are taking extreme measures to salvage the institution of monarchy, at the cost of forcing Charles to abdicate and signing off on the press regulation bill. They're setting the precedent of the monarchy as a powerless figurehead instead of an active participant in the governing process.