When not using Shakespeare as a soothing hand on the brow, the Prince employs him as a spiritual bicycle pump, a supplier of inflated aspirations and fine language who will lift us above ourselves

Click to follow
"The Prince's choice is the Shakespearian equivalent of Classic FM," says Glyn Dearman, the producer of the audio-book version of the Prince's "personal selection from Shakespeare". I don't know about you but this sounds like faint praise to me, though I'm quite sure the remark is animated by respect and not sly disdain. Mr Dearman is absolutely right, though, whatever he means by the comparison - think of Shakespeare's Greatest Hits and you'll have a fairly good idea of the contents of this slim volume. You can almost imagine the concert version, with the audience waving cigarette lighters in the darkness and a great swell of rapturous recognition rising halfway through the first line of each number: "To be or not to be", "Now is the winter", "If music be the food of love", "Is this a dagger", "All the world's a stage", "The barge she sat on" - all these and many more.

But the legend on the front cover promises something more than a K-Tel Shakespeare. "A Personal Selection", it reads, which hints, at the very least, that the contents will reveal as much about the Prince as they do about the Bard. What glimpses, you wonder, will we be given into the private psychology of our future king? Which passages will speak to him, and thus whisper to us about his inner feelings? Shakespeare, writes Prince Charles in his introduction, "holds a mirror up to Nature for us to see ourselves". So what face stares back from the Prince's looking-glass?

One that is looking for sympathy, I think: "Each time I have seen or read [Henry V] it has been the humanity of the king that has moved me most," writes Prince Charles. Then he quotes: "We must bear all. O hard condition,/ Twin-born with greatness: subject to the breath/ Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel/ But his own wringing. What infinite heartsease/ Must kings neglect that private men enjoy?/ And what have kings that privates have not too,/ Save ceremony, save general ceremony." "Poor me," in other words. Indeed, the chapter called "Public Life and Leadership" is rather stronger on the hardships of royal birth than on its privileges or obligations. There is another moment of self-pity on the audiotape, when the Prince takes the part of Harry, banishing Falstaff. "Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world." "I do; I will," replies the Prince, with a weighty pause between the clauses. His reading delivers a genuine frisson, in fact, conveying a real sense of painful renunciation. But has Charles really turned away from his youthful companions? If Camilla is Falstaff, shouldn't that line sound more petulant? "I don't; I won't."

When not using Shakespeare as a soothing hand on the brow, the Prince seems to employ him as a kind of spiritual bicycle pump, a supplier of inflated aspirations and fine language who will lift us above ourselves. This perception has some odd effects on his reading. Citing a bit of existential gloom from Francis Bacon ("proclaimed by the media as the greatest English painter since Turner", he adds waspishly), the Prince asks us to contrast it with Hamlet's "What a piece of work is man" speech. "Which of those views of man is nearer the truth?" he asks, with a schoolmasterly complacency about the answer. It's as though he thinks Hamlet's lines are a prose equivalent of "Oh What a Beautiful Morning", and yet, later in the book, they feature in a section called "The Darker Side", where their sardonic undertow is unmistakable (given the book's air of Reader's Digest positivism, it wouldn't have been very surprising if he'd called this section "Into Each Life a Little Rain Must Fall").

There is a less comfortable, less literal Shakespeare than the one on offer here, and there are passages that might have touched the Prince's life more acutely, even if you can understand why they were left out. What about Leontes's bitter words in The Winter's Tale for example: "Should all despair/ That have revolted wives, the tenth of mankind/ Would hang themselves. Physic for't there is none;/ It is a bawdy planet, that will strike/ Where 'tis predominant."

There is another mirror in Shakespeare, too, and one less flattering to the Prince's wounded feelings. In The Rape of Lucrece, Lucrece herself pleads with her ravisher: "For princes are the glass, the school, the book/ Where subjects' eyes do learn, do read, do look/ And wilt thou be the school where lust shall learn?" Was there no quiver of recognition there, or did the Prince's adviser, Dr Eric Anderson, think it impolite to draw it to the Prince's attention?

The Prince can hardly be blamed for wanting his choice to cast a flattering light - which of us would want anything less? - but he should perhaps have remembered that readers have learnt to look at his countenance in far less forgiving glasses - the Daily Mirror and its competitors.