Voices: The Shakespearean tragedy of King Charles and his warring sons

As the ITV journalist Tom Bradby put it to Prince Harry – in what was the most candidly painful royal interview since Diana spoke to Martin Bashir about having three people in her marriage – there is a certain Shakespearean quality to the tragedy of the ”spare” son.

His very name, fashioned up Henry V-style from his formal title of Henry of Wales, carries an antique air, as if, out in Helmand province, his commanding officer intoned, “Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’” afore unleashing the helicopter dogs of war ’pon the Taliban. That sort of thing.

The flaws in his personality, some (no doubt) brought on by what he calls a “post-traumatic stress injury” after the death of his mother, are real enough. So was the tragedy of Diana herself. In the stunning words of her brother Charles, Earl Spencer, in his eulogy at Westminster Abbey, “of all the ironies about Diana, perhaps the greatest was this – a girl given the name of the ancient goddess of hunting was, in the end, the most hunted person of the modern age”.

All that, though essential to the tragedy, is prologue. Harry joked to Bradby that he didn’t know much Shakespeare, but his dad did – and you have to wonder whether Charles has had some intimation of the Lear-like quality of what has engulfed him and his still-young reign. Like King Lear, based on an elderly mythical king of Britain, and his three daughters Goneril, Regan and the pure Cordelia, Charles sought from his offspring their love, loyalty and respect.

In the play, as in real life, there was to be disappointment. At the funeral of Prince Philip – late liege, man of life and limb to Elizabeth (another bit of romantic imperial whimsy) – a 72-year-old Charles stood between his two sons, markedly taller and more vigorous than him, looked up at the “flushed faces” and pleaded with them not to “make my final years a misery”. Harry has taken little heed of that. As Lear remarks, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!”

We know all too well the story of what was to follow. There is a symmetry in the modern tale, though, as a playwright might engineer into the structure of a drama. Thus, the betrayals by Charles of their mother and of the boys in their earlier years has been followed by the mutual betrayal of Harry against Charles and William – and by William’s treachery in finally siding with Charles and Camilla against the memory of Diana (now reincarnated as Meghan Markle, at least in Harry’s tortured imagination).

So there’s a bit of good old Shakespearean nemesis at work. Or payback, as we might say today.

Charles’s own example of what some would call “selfishness” against his first wife has finally come to rebound upon him now that his sons are strong enough, and one of them determined enough to secure what Harry calls “accountability” – a polite word for revenge. Charles might well, in Shakespeare’s famous formulation, consider himself “a man more sinned against than sinning”; but, like Lear, we know our monarch also has a bit of a temper. Indeed, that quickness to turn to violence of word (Harry) and deed (William) seems to be another Shakespearean Lear theme in the not-so-modern ways of the Windsors. Betrayal begets betrayal.

In the Tudor world, their rivalries would have been settled through force of arms. To use their Shakespearean titles, Harry, Duke of Sussex, sees himself as betrayed by his father, formerly Duke of Cornwall (who is, oddly enough, Regan’s husband in Lear) and his brother, Duke of Cambridge. As one wag on Twitter suggested: perhaps Harry should have gathered an army in Sussex and set off to do battle with his brother, leading his forces from Cambridge and its shire, upon the edge of the A406 North Circular.

There’s plenty of sorrow and bitterness in the story of the precipitated decline of the House of Windsor after the deaths of the Queen and her consort. It wasn’t expected, but even this relatively short distance from the end of the reign of Elizabeth II we can now see just how critical she was to the integrity of the institution of monarchy, and how diminished it has become.

The crown is not about to fall, but there are intimations of mortality all about, as well as divisions and culture wars. “Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide; in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked ’twixt son and father.”