The Madness of George III

by Alan Bennett

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 530

A historical play that ends where it begins seems to violate common expectations of plot and character development. That the play succeeds nonetheless is because the audience quickly develops a sympathy for George III that transcends the political reality that the king stands for a long-rejected primacy of monarch over Parliament. What is most important to the audience is that the king embodies basic values of sincerity, kindness, domestic felicity, and fondness for the masses much more than do the elected representatives who appear onstage.

Asked to choose between the father and the son, the audience immediately chooses King George, when, assaulted in the first scene by the crazed petitioner Margaret Nicholson, he commands that she not be hurt. The Prince of Wales, on the other hand, seems more disturbed by her tearing the king’s waistcoat than by any potential harm to his father. In the following conversation with his son, the king asks whether he knows why the people call their ruler “Farmer George.” The prince answers that they are impertinent, but the king corrects him, explaining that it is out of love and admiration. Historically, the appellation also reflects the king’s great interest in agriculture.

The audience knows that a return to normality for the king will be a return to his commitment to his wife, to his country, and to his people. This sense of devotion is contrasted throughout with the Prince of Wales, who is self-absorbed, interested only in the superficial (“To me style is the thing,” he says), repeatedly derided as fat (another sign of his self-indulgence), and impatient to shove his father aside.

As sincere as the king is, he also understands the importance of playing a role. The theme of performance is an important element in the play, as the king must play himself in order to reassure his nation. During his illness, however, he loses his identity. He informs Dr. Willis during his treatment that “I am the King. I tell. I am not told. I am the verb, sir. I am not the object.” Unfortunately, he is describing who he was.

Edward Thurlow, who plays both sides to retain his position as lord chancellor regardless of which party triumphs, visits the king at Windsor and immediately is pulled into a dramatic reading of William Shakespeare’s King Lear. Thurlow assures the king that he seems more himself, and he is. Playing a role that parallels his own life is both therapy and sign. The king has learned how to control his speech and behavior; he has learned how to play the king again. “I have remembered how to seem,” he replies to his visitor.

Appearing with his wife and sons near the end of the play, George III reminds them that they “must be a model family for the nation to look to.” The appearance may truly be the reality, or at least it may appear to be the reality. Either one works for the good of the nation, the play appears to assert, but the audience knows that the king is rather than merely seems, and that is why the audience is content with the way things were.

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