The Daily Telegraph
Brush up your Shakespeare: the King’s secret to sincere speeches
King Charles knows he can say things by quoting Shakespeare that would be too elevated or embarrassing to say on his own account. So in his first broadcast to the nation he ended by addressing his “Mama”, Queen Elizabeth II, the day after her death, saying “May ‘flights of angels sing thee to thy rest’.”
Many viewers liked the quotation but might not have recognised it as coming from Hamlet, where the prince’s friend Horatio speaks over his newly dead body. The circumstances of the drama were not strictly applicable; the important thing was that it was Shakespeare.
The King did something similar on Monday in his address in Westminster Hall to members of both Houses of Parliament. “As Shakespeare said of the earlier Queen Elizabeth, she was a pattern to all princes living,” he declared.
As Shakespeare it felt all the more convincing, though surely few could have recognised it as a line from that neglected play Henry VIII. The words were put on the lips of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (author of the words of the Book of Common Prayer, also dear to the new King). In the play, as he praises the infant princess who would grow up to be Queen Elizabeth I, he says: “The words I utter / Let none think flattery, for they’ll find ’em truth.” It is certainly the case that quoted words applied to the late Queen would have to be believable, and in claiming her as “a pattern to all princes living”, they were.
In fact those words might not be by Shakespeare at all, for he wrote Henry VIII with John Fletcher, reckoned to have been the author of this scene with Cranmer.
It was not the first time that the King had quoted the passage, for in celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and the 90th birthday of his mother, he delivered them by heart for the cameras in 2016:
In her days every man shall eat in safety,
Under his own vine, what he plants; and sing
The merry songs of peace to all his neighbours:
God shall be truly known; and those about her From her shall read the perfect ways of honour, And by those claim their greatness, not by blood.
The curious thing is that the late Queen seemed to reject for herself any Shakespearean ideal of a New Elizabethan Age. In her first Christmas broadcast after the Coronation, made in New Zealand, she said: “Frankly I do not myself feel at all like my great Tudor forebear, who was blessed with neither husband nor children, who ruled as a despot and was never able to leave her native shores.”
Those were not remarks that Shakespeare would have been able to make about the Virgin Queen.
King Charles does, though, know Shakespeare as more than a repository of quotations. He played the murderous Macbeth in 1965 (during his unhappy schooldays at Gordonstoun). But he is quite conscious of the value of harnessing Britain’s greatest author to deliver solemn thoughts.
As Prince of Wales, a couple of years ago, he recited for National Poetry Day not exactly a poem but a piece by the great journalist Bernard Levin which was a catena of Shakespeare quotations. “If you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger; if your wish is father to the thought; if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare .... ” And if you want to say something sincere, don’t use your own words, quote Shakespeare.