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By Shannon Stockwell
Explore how Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III echoes Shakespeare in this three-part series.
In their experiences of King Charles III, audiences and critics alike found striking similarities between Bartlett’s characters and Shakespeare’s—but Bartlett did not actually intend most of these likenesses. For example, he did not anticipate that people would compare his Kate to Lady Macbeth. And yet the parallels are remarkable. In Macbeth, the titular character receives a prophecy that he will become king. For him to take the throne, however, the current king must die. Lady Macbeth, whom Shakespeare scholar Marjorie Garber calls “the strongest character in the play,” knows that her husband doesn’t have the courage to kill the king, so she pushes him to carry out the murder and then helps him hide the evidence.
Macbeth is largely a rumination on the effects of guilt, but in the beginning of the play, Garber says that we see in Lady Macbeth “rigidity, resolution, and the rejection of a restricted notion of a woman’s place.” Garber gleans this from lines such as “Come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, / And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full / Of direst cruelty” and “Come to my woman’s breasts, / And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers.”
Lady Macbeth’s rejection of femininity casts a fascinating light on Kate’s soliloquy in King Charles III:
But I know nothing, just a plastic doll,
Designed, I’m told, to stand embodying
A male-created bland and standard wife
Whose only job is prettying the prince, and then,
If possible, get pregnant with the royal
And noble bump, to there produce an heir
Or two. And oft I’m told I don’t have thought
Or brains to comprehend my strange position.
But being underestimated so
Does give me what these men could never have.
Since no one asks me what I think, I can
Observe and plan and learn the way to rule.
Kate recognizes that her femininity dehumanizes her: she is a “plastic doll,” created by the male gaze, whose only purpose is to produce an heir to the British throne. But despite the effect her femininity has on the way she is perceived by the public, she ultimately embraces it. Because no one cares what she thinks, she realizes she can spend her time observing and learning how to be an effective queen. That way, when it comes time for her to take action, she will know exactly what to do and will “be a queen unlike the ones before.” Instead of calling upon masculinity to make her strong, as Lady Macbeth does, Kate accepts the position in which her femininity places her.
This article by Shannon Stockwell first appeared in American Conservatory Theater’s performance guide series, Words on Plays, in 2016. For more information about Words on Plays, visit www.act-sf.org/wordsonplays.