The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Madness of George III opens in the autumn of 1788, approximately seven years after Great Britain’s loss of the American colonies, a loss that continues to weigh heavily on the fragile mind of King George III. Surrounding the king are those who would supplant him and his Tory government, including his eldest son, the Prince of Wales, and the Whig leaders Fox, Sheridan, and Burke, who conspire to overturn the Tory government led by Prime Minister William Pitt.

It is not long before the king falls ill with what the playwright depicts, following a future diagnosis, as porphyria, a metabolic disorder, rather than the play’s contemporary diagnosis of “madness.” The king is unable to control his language, yielding to incessant and nonsensical talking as well as insulting and obscene statements. He falsely concludes that his wife is having incestuous sexual relations with the prince, and he himself becomes obsessed with Lady Pembroke, the queen’s Mistress of the Robes.

The continuing illness prevents the king from providing the leadership that England requires, bringing the government to a virtual standstill. During the approximately six months of his illness, several political maneuverings are deployed simultaneously. Pitt attempts to keep the seriousness of the king’s illness from members of Parliament, thus maintaining the Tory government in place while awaiting the hoped-for recovery. Charles Fox, a former prime minister,...

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The Madness of George III Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

In his goal to make restoration of the status quo the ultimate triumph of the play, Alan Bennett uses a variety of dramatic devices to highlight the king’s changing health and his return to normality.

The opening scene includes two important uses of foreshadowing. When Margaret Nicholson strikes the king with a dessert knife, the king responds, “The poor creature’s mad. Do not hurt her, she’s not hurt me.” Later in the play, the king, now a patient, makes similar pleas when he is subjected to such medical treatments as blistering and being strapped into a restraining chair. Also in the first scene, with his arms outstretched to assist with removal of his coat, the king describes the torture that a French citizen would undergo for an assault on the French king. Both the king’s physical appearance and his words foretell the torture that he will later endure during his illness.

Throughout the play, word usage is a sign of the king’s health status. Initially, he ends statements with such phrases as “Hey, hey” and “What, what,” phrases that, however odd, are quite normal for him. As his illness strikes with full force, he speaks long rambling clusters of nonsense, including considerable punning along with insults and obscene allegations. His resumption of “What, what’s” in the second part of the play signals his return to his original condition.

Bennett uses considerable irony in statements and visual images, including transitions from scene to scene, to invite comparisons between father and son. For example, Sheridan informs the Prince of Wales that Parliament will attempt to impose restraints on his rule as regent, while at nearly the same time the king is struggling against the physical restraints of the restraining chair. That scene with Sheridan and the prince opens...

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The Madness of George III Bibliography

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Bennett, Alan. Introduction to The Madness of George III. Rev. ed. London: Faber and Faber, 1995.

Bennett, Alan. Writing Home. New York: Random House, 1995.

Lyons, Donald. “Theater: On the Superiority of European Methods.” New Criterion (September 11, 1992): 59-63.

Schiff, Stephen. “Cultural Pursuits: The Poet of Embarrassment.” The New Yorker (September 6, 1993): 92-101.

Turner, D. E. Alan Bennett: In a Manner of Speaking. London: Faber and Faber, 1997.

Wolfe, Peter. Understanding Alan Bennett. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.