King Charles III: Why are they speaking in blank verse?

Writer Mike Bartlett explains why he used Shakespearean language techniques in his play turned TV drama about the royal family

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This May sees the debut of theatre production turned BBC2 drama King Charles III, which imagines the events of Prince Charles’ ascent to the throne in a modern Shakespearean tragedy that evokes plays like Richard II and King Lear.

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But the play’s Shakespearean influences go far beyond the plot. Viewers may notice the actors in the drama speaking in an unusually mannered and emphasised way, and that’s because the script is written in blank verse – in other words, with a special use of syllables and rhythm common to many of Shakespeare’s plays.

“The verse was never written to be aesthetically wonderful and beautiful,” writer Mike Bartlett, who wrote the original play and this TV adaptation, explained at a recent screening.

“It was there to help the drama, to help the characters and help the different levels in the play. For the same reason that Shakespeare uses verse with his kings, it’s to find a voice that you can believe a King speaking in.”

Tim Pigott-Smith and Adam James speak blank verse in King Charles III

Blank verse, also known as unrhymed iambic pentameter, works by the careful structuring of stressed and unstressed syllables. An iambic foot (or iamb) refers to a pair of syllables in a line, one syllable expressed normally and one emphasised, while pentameter refers to the fact that these feet occur five times per line, totalling 10 syllables of alternating stresses.

In simpler terms, each line is delivered like this – da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM – as can be seen in the below excerpt from the TV version of King Charles III, with the stressed syllables in bold.

Charles:

Such equal billing was a joy when Prince

To share the stage did spread attention out.

But now I’ll rise to how things have to be.

The Queen is dead. Long live the King. That’s me.

Shakespeare composed the majority of his plays in blank verse, though also included other forms of poetry and prose depending on the project. Of course, iambic pentameter can also be used for rhyming verse – for example, all but one of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets utilise the technique – though in the case of King Charles III, as with the majority of lines in Shakespeare’s plays, rhymes are not used.

“The nature of the verse really elevates it,” actor Richard Goulding, who plays Prince Harry after playing the part in the original play, told RadioTimes.com on the set of King Charles III.

“The nature of the actual way we speak to each other, written in this blank verse form, heightens all the exchanges and it makes things much more operatic, much more dramatic, and everything much more significant.

“Just by the nature of the style of the the dialogue, the story takes on a greater significance than just a family discussing whether they should or shouldn’t do something, and that is a really significant thing. It’s all about the rhythms and the way the language is used.”

Charlotte Riley, Oliver Chris and Adam James speaking blank verse in King Charles III

“You can see it as something that could be set 300 years ago, or it could be set 300 years in the future,” Charlotte Riley, who plays Kate Middleton, added. “The language takes you to a different realm and takes it out of total reality just really cleverly.”

Of course, before filming began, Goulding, late star Tim Pigott-Smith and Oliver Chris (who plays Prince William) had an advantage over new cast mate Charlotte Riley, with the trio spending years honing their blank verse dialogue onstage while she had to come to the whole thing fresh.

“I’d not actually done any Shakespeare professionally, so I was a little bit nervous about it,” Riley revealed recently. “But just working with these guys, they just kind of shoved me in there, and off I went and it was fine. Particularly under [director Rupert Goold’s] guidance, it was great.

“It certainly makes learning lines a lot easier.”

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The cast of the TV version of King Charles III

“It’s got its own drive, rhythm, momentum hasn’t it?” Goulding agreed. “After years of doing it it sort of takes care of itself, but I think it’s true that there’s a rhythm of it, and the meat of it makes it easier to get in.”

“Some people came out of the play and didn’t realise it was in verse, and that was fine,” Bartlett concluded. “And I think it’s the same with this – if people know it’s in verse and they enjoy it, great.

“But if they come to the end and they don’t notice then that’s absolutely fine as well.”

We hope he’s wrong, and canny viewers see that verse on TV screens can work just fine.

But then again he might have hit a point. With royal feuds onscreen, who’ll note the words?

This article was originally published on 7 June 2017

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King Charles III airs on PBS Masterpiece on Sunday 24 March at 9/8c