King may have sought to bring ‘poetic shape’ to emotions by quoting Shakespeare

Charles III referenced lines from Henry VIII and Hamlet during two of his first major speeches as head of state.

Naomi Clarke
Monday 12 September 2022 16:48 BST
King Charles III at Westminster Hall, London (Henry Nicholls/PA)
King Charles III at Westminster Hall, London (Henry Nicholls/PA)

The King may have sought to bring “poetic shape” to emotions which otherwise could have seemed “a bit inarticulate” by quoting Shakespeare, a professor of the Bard has said.

In his speech to MPs and peers on Monday, Charles referenced lines from Henry VIII to describe his mother as “a pattern to all princes living”, and during his first public broadcast as the head of state on Friday he borrowed from Hamlet.

At the end of the historic speech, he said “May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest”, which is also said by Horatio as he pays tribute to his dying friend Hamlet in the tragedy.

Emma Smith, professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of Oxford, told the PA news agency: “I think this is obviously poetry, this is obviously writing which means a lot to him.

“And I think lots of people for many centuries have turned to the beautiful phrases of poets, perhaps especially Shakespeare to speak of something that is sort of beyond everyday speech.

“We’re not speaking about these kinds of issues normally so our everyday language is a little bit banal perhaps for it.

“So it’s one way to sort of slightly distance but to give a poetic shape to emotions which otherwise could seem perhaps a bit inarticulate.”

Emma Smith

Reflecting on Charles’ use of the Henry VIII quote, professor Smith noted that in the play it is spoken by Archbishop Cranmer about the then-princess Elizabeth, who was to become Queen Elizabeth I.

The professor explained the play, which follows the ups and downs of Henry VIII’s reign as he attempts to gain an heir, was actually written at the end of Shakespeare’s career during the Jacobean period and so was published after the death of Queen Elizabeth I.

“In terms of the play, it’s a prophecy about what she will be when she is Queen. But in terms of the audience watching the play, of course, it’s a retrospective because we know she has been Queen and she has died perhaps about a decade previously,” she said.

“So it’s often thought to be an early part of the kind of mythologising of Queen Elizabeth I as this great English queen.”

As Prince of Wales, the King was the president of the Royal Shakespeare Company and has a long association with the playwright’s work, including playing the lead in a production of Macbeth at the age of 17.

Charles played Macbeth in Gordonstoun School’s production of Shakespeare’s play when he was 17 (PA)

In 1995, he also edited and published a book called The Prince’s Choice which included a personal selection of speeches from Shakespeare.

Professor Smith said that in this book he “unsurprisingly” focuses on the Henry IV plays about Henry, Prince of Wales which she feels “obviously spoke to him in some interesting ways”.

She added that she feels the works of Shakespeare have been a “really important aspect” of Charles’ life and “the way he understands the world”.

The professor explained that this tradition of looking to Shakespeare dates further back, saying: “Shakespeare drew on his own understanding of monarchy but… the monarchy has drawn on Shakespeare for its understanding of itself.”

She said another notable occasion would have been when Edward VIII abdicated the throne in order to marry Wallis Simpson, which propelled Queen Elizabeth II into the direct line of succession.

“There is almost no sort of constitutional text to understand how you do that, it’s such an unthinkable thing that there isn’t a form of words for it”, she said.

“And it’s very interesting that at that point, probably Churchill, but probably other members of the political establishment turned to Richard II, Shakespeare’s play about a king who abdicates to find a sort of an eloquent form of words to make that happen.”

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