Back to IndieWire

‘King Charles III’: When the Queen Dies, It’s Not Just Sad; It’s a Shakespearean Tragedy

The late Tim Pigott-Smith and writer Mike Bartlett on imagining Charles’ first days as King, Harry’s royal scandal, and Kate Middleton killing a soliloquy — all in blank verse.

"King Charles III"

“King Charles III”

Robert Viglasky/Drama Republic for BBC and MASTERPIECE

Queen Elizabeth II has outlived them all.

As the longest-reigning monarch in British history, and the oldest living monarch in the world, the Queen has seen many presidents and popes come and go. In PBS’ “King Charles III,” adapted from the critically acclaimed play of the same name, the Queen will finally pass away, allowing for her eldest (and elderly) son Charles to ascend the throne.

READ MORE: ‘Feud’ Season 2 Dream Cast: 12 Actors We Need to Play Charles, Diana, the Queen and More

The late Tim Pigott-Smith stars as the ascending monarch Charles III, alongside Oliver Chris as William, Richard Goulding as Harry, Charlotte Riley as Kate nee Middleton, and Margot Leicester as Camilla. Pigott-Smith, who reprised his Tony-nominated Broadway role for the movie, spoke to IndieWire in January about the Queen and the realities of “King Charles III.”

“One of the things you miss over here [in the United States] is, of course, the context of being England now,” he said. “At Christmas, the Queen was very ill. She didn’t go to church, she didn’t do a Christmas message. And the country goes into a weird kind of [speculation]. ‘What’s going to happen?’ So this play deals with that moment in time.”

The movie begins where the Queen ends, at her funeral. Prince Charles (Tim Pigott-Smith) has been waiting in the wings for his chance to rule seemingly forever, which leads to this tragicomic exchange:

Kate: “I never thought I’d see her pass away.”
Charles: “I felt the same.” *silent rimshot*

Such grim humor is fitting for writer Mike Bartlett’s ingenious concept: to create the story of King Charles III as a king, but in the form of a Shakespearean play, complete with Charles as the tragic hero. Naturally, he gets a few soliloquies to unburden his soul:

“King Charles III” takes place during a period when the nation is in limbo. Coronation Day isn’t for three months, but Charles must go straight to work as monarch.

One of his first duties is to sign a bill that has already passed the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The signature indicating royal assent is required for a bill to become a law. Charles, however, comes across a bill that limits the freedom of the press, and he hesitates. Charles understandably should dislike the press for invading his family’s privacy over the decades, and most notably during his marriage and breakup with first wife Diana and her subsequent tragic death.

“One would expect Charles to want the press to be limited. Out of self-interest, he should want to limit them,” writer Mike Bartlett said in an interview with IndieWire. “In spite of that being the bill, you realize he’s not acting out of self-interest. He’s acting out of what he feels is the good for the country. I think that makes us warm to him. He’s doing his job. He’s trying to do what he thinks is the job as the king is to protect the country from itself.”

Opposing Parliament, however, is not healthy for the nation’s unity, nor does it bode well as Charles’ first official act as monarch. He’s pushed even further to question his judgment when his son Harry starts on his own tragic hero’s journey, which has had to evolve from the earlier versions of the play to now.

"King Charles III"

“King Charles III”


“When we did the play, I wrote him sort of late 20s, still going to clubs, still living that sort of life,” Bartlett said. “Now we’re three, four years later, and he’s grown a beard. He’s a bit more in his 30s and being much more open about his dissatisfactions and his frustrations. For the film, that’s our starting point with Harry as a man [for whom] it used to be fine for him to go to a club, but he’s at that age now where if he goes clubbing now, it might look a bit sad. He’s aware of that, so what does he do now? I think that’s been really interesting, because it’s actually made him more poignant.”

Continue for Harry’s romance, Kate’s Lady Macbeth moment and more

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Television and tagged

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox