When the news of Prince Harry’s engagement to American actress Meghan Markle exploded across the internet, I found myself … oddly interested.
Any news about the royal family in Britain leads me to ask, “Really, this again?” Being opposed to a government structure that involves monarchy, I have to keep some sort of emotional distance from the festivities of the House of Windsor, but as a student of history with a keen interest in the Sceptred Isle, I’m curious about what they are up to over there.
While scanning the headlines about the most recent royal engagement—which certainly will add a degree of intrigue to the annual milestone observances of the apparently invincible queen and her king-consort husband next year—I read something that allowed me to indulge my interest in it without feeling like a celebrity tabloid patron: Markle is related to Shakespeare.
On the surface, this seems unremarkable. (How many millions of people can trace their lineage back to him anyway?) But when I thought further, I wasn’t worried about Markle’s connection to the Bard in blood, but in her character. Would Shakespeare find her a personality worthy of immortalizing in one of his plays? If he had had the opportunity, what would he have made of her?
Imagining what Shakespeare might have done is just as speculative an exercise as wondering what he thought about such and such subjects. But, for god’s sake, let us sit upon our desk chairs and tell happy stories of the marriage of princes to American celebrities!
For starters, Shakespeare would have loved being a contemporary of Meghan Markle, as long as he somehow existed in the 21st century. Anybody can say whatever they want about the monarchy (within reason) now, but back in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, he might have been hanged or worse before the ink could even dry on his parchment if he wrote the wrong thing about a current or potential member of the royal family.
Judging from his impressive list of historical plays, however, it’s safe to say he possessed a keen interest in the goings-on of the English government. Elizabeth II, quite an enthusiastic patron, even saw the image of herself in King Richard II.
But distance was the key word for the Bard’s ability to stage the monarchy. The closest to a contemporary ruler Shakespeare was able to write about was Henry VIII, and only as a sort of public relations stunt in collaboration with his successor in the King’s Men company, John Fletcher. The alternative title “All Is True” hints at the tone Shakespeare was forced to take when producing plays for the monarchy and about their not-so-distant kin.
If Shakespeare had been commissioned to write about Harry and Meghan, we might expect to see a play called The Perfect Couple even if he might have preferred The Tragedy of the American Princess.
But say the Bard was given free rein to write as he pleased about the situation. What choices would he have made?
Certainly, it wouldn’t have appeared like a faithful biopic. He often changed facts here and there, even the ones he knew to be true, to enhance the drama of his stories. For instance, Markle might not be slightly older than Harry in “The Tragedy of the American Princess.” He would probably have made her young and naive in order to highlight an American stereotype.
Because of frequent self-aware moments that highlight acting, we could expect a play within the play: Perhaps using Cinderella as a plot device.
How would her in-laws treat her? As terribly as the cruel stepsisters in that Disney film. Although Liz II, Grandpa Phillip, Papa Charlie, and brother Bill might be the kindest and most welcoming family in real life, in the play that wouldn’t do. They’d ridicule her for having had a profession, for her American sensibilities, for her previous marriage, and certainly for the fact that she is not of noble birth.
Shakespeare makes clear time and time again that royalty is for the royals. King Phillip of France in King John, for instance, uses the term as a necessary condition of marriage, even a metaphorical one:
This royal hand and mine are newly knit,
And the conjunction of our inward souls
Married in league, coupled and linked together
With all religious strength of sacred vows;
The latest breath that gave the sound of words
Was deep-sworn faith, peace, amity, true love
Between our kingdoms and our royal selves,
And even before this truce, but new before,
No longer than we well could wash our hands
To clap this royal bargain up of peace …
Shakespeare didn’t say much about America as it was hardly even a blip on the colonial radar in his time. But if it had already blossomed into a place of distinction, into the revolutionary hotbed that it was by its independence and beyond, then I’m sure he would have portrayed its inhabitants with the type of comic derision that he reserved for his grossly stylistic, idiotic caricatures of the French. And Markle, as an American, would not have benefited from his biases unless for some reason he found Americans more endearing than he did the French.
Shakespeare loved placing characters where they shouldn’t be, and loved endowing them with desires that defied the customs of his time. And even with the progress of ages that have passed since he died, an American in the royal family is a curiosity worth reflecting upon. The Tragedy of the American Princess would rank among his most full, most beloved plays. But, alas, someone else will have to write it for him.
Let’s hope the Windsors treat Markle better than Shakespeare would have.