Exhibition reveals how Shakespeare’s Hal has excused royal heirs for centuries

From Frederick in the early 18th century to Charles in our own, a series of princes of Wales have associated themselves with Shakespeare’s Prince Hal as a way to excuse youthful excesses and promise strong future leadership, according to a new exhibition exploring the relationship between Shakespeare’s works and the royal family.

Prince Hal is the boon companion of the dissolute Falstaff in Shakespeare’s plays Henry IV Parts I and II, but goes on to win military victory in Henry V. His own profligate behaviour, Hal reveals, was a trick to make his eventual character reveal more dramatic: “Herein will I imitate the sun, / Who doth permit the base contagious clouds / To smother up his beauty from the world, / That, when he please again to be himself, / Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at.”

The new digital exhibition, Making History: Shakespeare and the Royal Family, draws on paintings, books, drawings, prints, letters, essays, furniture and photographs from the Royal Collection and Royal Archives to explore how real-life princes of Wales – the title given to the heir apparent – have actively sought comparison to Hal.

Charles, the exhibition points out, instructed those questioning his behaviour in 2018 to “look at Shakespeare plays, Henry V or Henry IV Parts I and II, to see the change that can take place”. Charles also played Hal in a scene from Henry IV Part I in a 1990s audiobook.

An 18th-century painting from the Royal Collection shows Frederick, prince of Wales, putting his head around a door and into a group portrait of the “Henry V club”. “The club’s name invites the comparison with the raffish Prince Hal, though the promise of a corresponding transformation to martial hero-king was aborted by Frederick’s early death,” the exhibition notes, adding that Frederick’s grandson, George (also a prince of Wales), hung the painting for many years at his London home, Carlton House.

“There is something very helpful about that narrative of being a tearaway who will ultimately become a great war hero, or celebrated leader, so we have got instances of princes of Wales seeming to invite that narrative,” said Dr Sally Barnden, one of the academics behind the exhibition. “In some cases, it’s also something that’s being imposed on to these princes by satirists. Frederick is the first we’ve found, then really all five of the longest-serving princes of Wales since then have all either strategically made some reference or had a reference made on their behalf.”

Items featured in the exhibition include an image of the carved oak cradle in which Prince Henry, later Henry V, was rocked, and which was purchased by Edward VII in 1908. “It was a comparatively unusual purchase for Edward VII, and one that may suggest a certain fellow feeling with ‘Prince Hal’ on the part of the man who, until his coronation in 1901, had been the longest serving prince of Wales in history,” notes the exhibition.

“It’s a very clear tradition, that princes of Wales make that association quite consciously in order to project the idea that, if anyone’s sniping at them when they are young, look what they’re going to be when they get a little older and do become king,” said principal investigator Professor Gordon McMullan of the London Shakespeare Centre at King’s College London. “When you read the play, Hal’s behaviour leaves the audience having to make its mind up, so it’s a risky model in some ways, but it’s clearly a model that has that has appealed again and again to princes of Wales.”

The exhibition, in eight sections, draws on new archival research to explore the connections between Shakespeare and the royal family through the centuries, from a Shakespeare Folio containing handwritten annotations made by Charles I shortly before his 1649 execution, to a painting by Thomas Gainsborough depicting the affair of the actress and poet Mary Robinson with George IV when prince of Wales. The prince noticed Robinson at a performance of The Winter’s Tale in 1779, when she was playing Perdita, and he signed many of his letters to her as Florizel, the name of Perdita’s lover.

It also explores how George III read King Lear in 1788-89, during his first bout of mental illness, and was disturbed by it – and looks at how his son George IV, while prince regent, had a print altered to minimise his father’s physical resemblance to a wild-haired, white-bearded Lear figure.

“The exhibition asks: ‘What has Shakespeare done for the royal family, and what has the royal family done for Shakespeare?’” said McMullan. “Shakespeare addresses royal history in his plays; his works have taught members of the royal family how to perform for a public audience, have helped shape royal ideology and have served as a crucial influence in the education of young members of the royal family.”

The free exhibition is part of a three-year Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project at the London Shakespeare Centre at King’s, in collaboration with Royal Collection Trust.

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