Before You Read the Play


This section is also helpful in preparing students who will not be reading the play prior to seeing it performed.

1. Approaching Iambic Pentameter 400 Years Later

When playwright Mike Bartlett imagined telling a story about Prince Charles ascending to the throne, he knew it had to be a Shakespearean-style drama. “An epic royal family drama, dealing with power and national constitution, was the content, and therefore the form surely had to be Shakespearean,” he explains in his piece, “How I Wrote King Charles III,” published in The Guardian, 2014. This meant that he’d had to take on a challenge he’d not yet approached before—writing in verse.

To understand Bartlett’s writing process for this play, read through his essay as a class. Now, try Bartlett’s process out for yourselves, to understand how it affects your own capacity to communicate in iambic pentameter. Begin by walking around the classroom, allowing your feet to follow the rhythm of iambic pentameter—“de-dum, de-dum, de-dum, de-dum, de-dum.” Once you’re walking in step to the rhythm, try out a few lines of Shakespeare, emphasizing the verse:

If music be the food of love, play on.

O wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?

My horse, my horse! My kingdom for a horse!

The more I hate, the more he follows me.

The course of true love never did run smooth.

Now, begin trying out some of your own lines. Don’t worry about creating beautiful language right now; the goal is simply to get the rhythm engrained into your speaking pattern. Try, “I went to buy a loaf of bread today.” What are some other lines you can think of that describe a typical day in your life? Create several lines through improvising that fit the iambic pentameter form. If you stumble over a line you’re trying to create, let it go and try something else.

Come back together as a class. Find two brave classmates willing to start an iambic battle—exchange line for line until someone misses the rhythm, and then someone else steps in to battle it out. Is there a secret Shakespeare—or Bartlett—in your midst?



2. Twenty-first Century Iambic Pentameter

Charles: “I trust she would, for planned it was by her” (page 12). The Prime Minister has just asked Charles if his mother would have liked her funeral service, and Charles responds with a line of perfect iambic pentameter: 5 feet of ten beats, with the second beat of each foot being stressed.


But what if he weren’t bound by iambic pentameter at all (and, in fact, the Prime Minister’s question is not in verse at all)? Paraphrase the line in your own words. Compare the word Bartlett’s line ends in with the final word in your line. Like Shakespeare, Bartlett plays with the syntax of his line, so that the stressed beats fall on precisely the words one would stress in speaking quite naturally—and so that the final word in the line is both stressed and important to the meaning. If you are reading the play, watch for those lines of perfect iambic pentameter and how—and when—Bartlett chooses to use them.



3. Camilla and Charles: First Impressions

An author pays particular attention to the first lines he or she gives to a character—and often those first words communicate vast worlds about the character’s history, present, and nature. Playwright Mike Bartlett gives Camilla five lines, followed by Charles’s four. Taking just those first nine lines of King Charles III, discuss in small groups what you can glean from them. Creating four columns on a sheet of paper, list everything that:

  • we learn about the world of the play
  • we learn about Camilla (and does it “fit” the picture we have of her through the press?)
  • we learn about Charles (and does it “fit” the picture we have of her through the press?)
  • we learn about their relationship

If you were now to predict who these two characters are in Bartlett’s play and what role each will play in the story, what do you imagine—and in what specific parts of the text do you find your evidence?



4. The Role of a Modern Monarch

Echoing Shakespeare’s history plays, Bartlett has chosen a king as the subject of his story. However, there is one key difference between Bartlett’s main character and the kings of Shakespeare’s stories—King Charles III, unlike the monarchs dramatized by Shakespeare, is a constitutional monarch and no longer the head of government. Theater critic Dominic Cavendish explains that in this play, “Charles III is forced to confront the possibility that his position as guardian of the nation is an illusion.” (The Telegraph, 2014)

Modern British monarchs are expected to have complete political neutrality. Queen Elizabeth II acts as head of state, while the Prime Minister acts as head of government. “As Head of State, The Monarch undertakes constitutional and representational duties which have developed over one thousand years of history. In addition to these State duties, The Monarch has a less formal role as 'Head of Nation'. The Sovereign acts as a focus for national identity, unity and pride; gives a sense of stability and continuity; officially recognises [sic] success and excellence; and supports the ideal of voluntary service.” ( Queen Elizabeth II fulfills these duties without controversy.

There’s speculation that when Prince Charles take the throne, his style might strike a more interventionist tone, as evidenced by the huge network of charitable foundations he’s developed and his prolific letter-writing to influential people and government officials—dubbed the “bBack Spider Memos” due to his scrawling handwriting. In 2004-05, he sent twenty-seven such letters to ministers in seven UK government departments, espousing his views on matters ranging from defense cuts, farming, herbal medicines and environmental issues. After a ten-year battle by The Guardian to release this set of Black Spider Memos, they were made public with “provisional redactions.” Release was initially vetoed by former attorney general Dominic Grieve in 2012, stating that the public could reach conclusions that Charles had been “disagreeing with public policy,” which “would be seriously damaging to his role as future monarch because, if he forfeits his position of political neutrality as heir to the throne, he cannot easily recover it when he is king.”

Before studying Bartlett’s play, deepen your understanding of this play’s context by conducting a research project on the roles and responsibilities of the monarchy, and speculations on a future King Charles. You may want to begin your research by reading the article, “What kind of King will Charles III be?,” published in The Guardian, 2014, as well as the following resources on the roles and responsibilities of the monarchy:



5. The Uncommon Reader

[To the teacher: Alan Bennett (British playwright of The Madness of George III and The History Boys fame) wrote the 120-page, fast-read novella, The Uncommon Reader,  imagining a Queen Elizabeth whose life is changed by one day stumbling upon a mobile library and all its contents. And while The Uncommon Reader is, at its core, an elegy to the world within our reach through the books in our lives, it is also a brilliant political satire, touching upon the same period of uncertain transition in the British monarchy as Queen Elizabeth II nears the end of her long, long reign. Bennett’s novella offers a rich companion piece to King Charles III. Here are some possible avenues (among many) of intersection…]

Both Bennett and Michael Bartlett, the author of King Charles III, portray a Royal Family at a moment of transition. Imagine that the “Uncommon Reader,” Bennett’s Queen Elizabeth II and Bartlett’s new King Charles III, each write a personal letter to one another. What would be the Queen’s advice to her son—and what books might she quote to support her argument? What would the newly crowned King Charles III wish to write in a letter to his mother, as they both struggle with newfound perspectives?

Think about the books that you’ve read so far—whether they are in literature, drama, history, science, biography. If you were Norman, the aide in charge of recommending new books to the Queen, which three would you choose as must-reads—and why?




6. Alone with Charles

At the end of the play’s first scene, the new king claims his status by staging his first public appearance alone rather than flanked on either side by the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition party.


Such equal billing was a joy when Prince.
To share the stage did spread attention out.
But now I’ll rise to how things have to be
The queen is dead, long live the King. That’s me.

In small groups, explore different ways that these lines (page 13) might be played. If at the moment the new king is power-hungry? If he is petulant? If he is confused and overwhelmed? What else might these lines suggest about the man’s character and circumstances? When you come to see King Charles III, think about the delivery of these lines and how you feel at that moment about the new king.



7. Inside Out


I hoped that once in place, an instinct here,
That had been dormant up till now would thrive,
And override my indecisive mind
But now I’m majesty, and feel the same.
A weakling shadow of what went before—

Charles, of course, is king now—and in that sense, completely UNlike any of us in his experience. And yet, hearing his most private thoughts and doubts (page 24), it is quite likely that many of us have felt something quite similar at a time in our lives when the external circumstances changed—but we felt ourselves, with disappointment, to be the same person as before. Write about a time in your own life when something external in your world changed and, though you hoped it would also change you in the process, it (at least at first) did not and you were left feeling exactly the same person as you were before. What had you hoped for? How did you judge yourself? Were you later changed, over time, by your new circumstances?


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