Like Hamlet, the Duke of Sussex is the epitome of the ‘tortured prince’. But as long as he remains an active royal, he can never dodge the media spotlight.
To be or not to be an active royal, that is the question raised last week on behalf of Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex.
It was aired by a concerned media after Harry used the media – his friend Tom Bradby’s ITV documentary Harry & Meghan: An African Journey – to discuss his bitter feelings about the media.
That circular progression forms the perimeter of the hole in which the 35-year-old prince finds himself trapped.
He feels surrounded by the same intrusive lenses he blames for his mother’s death and, like Diana, Princess of Wales, he has tried to break free from them with an emotional appearance on primetime television.
Are his complaints legitimate or a case study in the kind of spoilt privilege that is normally filed under the phrase “first-world problems”?
Certainly the dubious optics of discussing his own struggles against the distressing backdrop of African deprivation did not go unnoticed by his critics.
Nevertheless, what seems beyond doubt is that Harry is a genuinely troubled soul, a 21st-century tortured prince.
For many years he was known as the fun-loving brother, a walking-talking-drinking threat to stately protocol.
If you were looking for one of the Queen’s grandchildren to be photographed playing naked billiards with a woman in Las Vegas or wearing a swastika armband at a fancy-dress party, then Harry was your man.
He was Prince Hal, the riotous royal without a role, a wayward but essentially likable young bloke who seemed to react to his weighty birthright with an irrepressible instinct for rebellion.
But more recently, his anguished ruminations have suggested another Shakespearean hero – Hamlet, the tormented prince who wants to avenge the death of a parent.
To hear him speak in Bradby’s film, and indeed to watch his body language, was to see a man who, at least by his own lights, was taking up arms against a sea of troubles.
“Part of this job,” he told Bradby, “and part of any job, like everybody, is putting on a brave face and turning a cheek to a lot of the stuff, but again, for me and again for my wife, of course there is a lot of stuff that hurts, especially when the majority of it is untrue.
But all we need to do is focus on being real, and focus on being the people that we are, and studying up for what we believe in.”
It may not have been a soaring soliloquy with an innate understanding of poetic metre, and you sense Harry has spent more time reading self-help books than the Bard, but it was clearly heartfelt and it expressed perhaps the only good advice given by Polonius, the chief counsellor in Hamlet: to thine own self be true.
But who is Harry? One of the things that the man who is sixth in line to the throne has always found difficult to accept is that millions of strangers, people he’s never met, feel as if they know who he is and are therefore in a position to pass judgment on him.
When he was 21 and a cadet at Sandhurst, he gave an interview in which he said: “I’m never going to … convince the general public of who I am or what I want them to think I am, because my image is always being portrayed as something else.
I don’t want to change. I am who I am. I’m not going to change because I’m being criticised in the press.”
Though he is older and wiser, the conviction that he is routinely and deliberately misrepresented remains unchanged. This sense of being made a caricature is an issue, he has said, that also aggrieved his father – in Prince Charles’s case as a hapless and ineffectual busybody.
It’s not hard to imagine that Charles’s obvious resentment of the media has helped inform his youngest son’s suspicions.
The problem is that the media are vital to the monarchy’s survival, like a parasite on which the host comes to depend.
If their visits, births and weddings ceased to be the subject of media attention, they would sink into irrelevance. Royalty – the idea of a superior bloodline – is a dying anachronism, but celebrity is alive and flourishing.
The Queen will very likely prove to be the last monarch to retain a regal distance from the outside world.
She is the embodiment of Walter Bagehot’s famous maxim about not letting in “daylight upon magic”. But that era has passed, even if the Queen lives on. Harry’s parents both appeared on television in separate discussions of their adultery.
His uncle, a friend of a convicted paedophile, has been accused of sleeping with a trafficked teenager, accusations that have been strongly denied. The royal curtains have been irreversibly opened.
Diana was said to have been a “modernising” influence on the starchy ways of the Windsors. The “people’s princess” brought a populist touch to the dutiful business of photo opportunities.
She was a democratising force, even if her approach was not always appreciated by the royal household.
Harry told Bradby that he wouldn’t be “bullied into playing the game that killed my mum”. It’s an understandable sentiment.
His mother died in a car crash under pursuit from paparazzi when he was just 12. But it’s hard to think what other game is available to a royal who wants to maintain a high profile.
Harry’s wife, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, has experience of the Hollywood kind of celebrity, a system controlled by ferocious publicists producing stage-managed interviews.
According to a CNN report, based on “a source close to the Sussexes”, she seems to have believed she could play a role in reforming an antiquated institution to harness the “value” of a couple that has “single-handedly modernised the monarchy”.
That kind of controlled approach to image-maintenance may work with Vanity Fair but it’s not going to play in a tabloid world in which off-the-record briefings and forthright opinions are the lifeblood of royal coverage.
In that context, it’s impossible to suppress stories about tensions between Harry and his brother, or accusations of hypocrisy for campaigning on climate change while flying in private jets.
Yet Harry and his wife do have a large amount of public goodwill, regardless of their battle with the press that led Harry earlier this month to sue the Daily Mirror and News Group Newspapers, publisher of the Sun, and his wife to sue the Mail on Sunday.
As a mixed-race couple, they represent a refreshing break with the prejudices of the past.
Moreover Harry, like his mother, has a winning personal touch with ordinary people. An executive at the Children’s Society says that he recently did some work with the charity in which he charmed everyone he dealt with.
Dylan Jones, the editor of GQ, says he’s met the prince several times and always found him “approachable, funny, engaging and whip-smart”.
He recalls a photo session in which David Bailey was on confrontational form, but Harry managed to win the banter contest.
“He doesn’t suffer fools gladly,” says Jones, “but then why should he? He’s always come across as a leader.”
Perhaps his greatest strength, at this particular juncture in history, is his vulnerability. By coming forward a couple of years ago to discuss his mental health problems, he chimed with a younger generation eager to normalise the issue of mental illness.
He spoke of how he shut down his emotions for 20 years after his mother died, and how he consulted a therapist.
As someone who not only lost his mother at a tender age but also, according to his own testament, killed enemy fighters in Afghanistan, he has a lot of haunting experiences to resolve.
It doesn’t help, of course, to be doing it under attack from a hostile media. Harry strongly implied to Bradby that his dark days had returned.
If that is the case, he has two options. The first is to develop a zen-like indifference to the speculation and criticism that his life as a leading royal generates. To suffer, in other words, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
The other is to help revive “the Firm” by cutting back on its numbers. He could take the large fortune he has, withdraw from public life, and devote himself to the good causes of his choice.
That way he and his wife can live rather than, as she puts it, “exist”. To be or to thrive: that is the royal question the celebrity prince must face.