Sophie Okonedo’s West End turn as Medea, the mythological witch-princess who kills her children in response to divorce, is one of the performances of the year. But listening to the opening lines of Euripides’ Greek drama, filtered here through Robinson Jeffers’s 1943 translation, I couldn’t help but think about Prince Harry.
“It’s a bad thing to be born of a high race and brought up wilful and powerful in a great house, unruled,” an old nurse warns, speaking of Medea’s inability to handle betrayal. “For then if misfortune comes, it is unendurable. It drives you mad.”
Since Euripides in 431 BC – and for centuries before – we’ve loved to gawp at the tragedies of golden children brought low. The implosion of our own Royal Family’s familial bonds is the latest example of this schadenfreude-cum-soap-opera. With Prince Harry turning over his cache of secrets into the public domain, we’ve never had more excuses to mock the tears of the ultra–privileged.
(My favourite line from his memoir Spare: within two pages of Harry’s notorious complaint about getting the smaller bedroom when visiting one of his family’s lesser castles, there’s a description of childhood TV dinners supervised by nanny, in which two small boys are served by footmen “carrying trays with plates, each topped with a silver dome”.)
But is there not also, amid calmer commentary about constitutional implications or empathetic analyses of Harry’s trauma, a massive dollop of envy in the way we’ve all crowed at a wealthy young man whose life seems to have gone off the rails?
Euripides understood this too. If there was anyone “wilful and powerful in a great house” in recent years, it was Prince Harry: insulting journalists as they endured long-haul flights to publicise his projects and still able to get Barack Obama on the phone through sheer accident of birth. How fun to see him floundering, suddenly, in his first attempt “to become financially independent”. How thrilling to lap up stories, if we can get them, about his own brother refusing to speak to him.
It is comforting too, with the Greeks, to tell ourselves that our relative inferiority of birth is in fact a safety net. We’ve learned how to handle adversity, we tell ourselves. Misfortune is not “unendurable” to us. Unlike Medea – or Harry – we aren’t fazed if we’re not in control of our destinies.
Yet unlike royal media narratives, Greek tragedy works best when it shows us the downfall of a hero. Medea’s nurse may recognise that she’s ill-equipped to handle adversity, but she’s also showing respect for a natural aristocrat who has previously led her people across oceans without a hitch.
Harry’s fans cite to his credit his military service and his work on the Invictus Games. (Although other soldiers who have earned the rank of Captain on their own merits don’t also try to style themselves as a Commodore-in-Chief.) But as Harry is himself the first to assert, writ-large on every page of Spare, before he launched his cataclysmic escape neither his interior life nor his public achievements had ever escaped the shadow of his high-pressure family.
The unbearable way in which he lost his mother and the trauma of a childhood stalked by paparazzi go some way to explaining why. (We hear about the silver platters because they feature on the night of 30 August 1997.) Like his father’s before him, Harry’s early years were crushed by the pressure of living up to the successful matriarch who set the blueprint for the family business.
In this, Harry has more in common with Kendall Roy than with Medea. Kendall, the broken, drug-addict son of a media tycoon is the saddest figure in Jesse Armstrong’s hit TV show Succession, which returns for a final series later this month. We love Succession, in part, for the same reasons we love The White Lotus and the Greeks loved Medea. Who doesn’t want to see rich people suffer? (In Medea, someone is literally killed because they put on a golden crown; Jennifer Coolidge’s death-by-yacht on White Lotus is nothing to it.) But it speaks perhaps to our culture of contempt that few of the privileged characters who so fascinate us – fictional or real-but-royal, which is almost the same thing – start their enthralling descent from a position of nobility.
If there’s a figure in Succession with the scorned dignity of Medea, it’s not perma-failure Kendall but his sister Siobhan – the one character who at the show’s start has built a proper career outside the family business. (Like Medea, her independence requires a political betrayal of her own father.) Kendall, like Coolidge’s character Tanya in White Lotus, is drug-addled and emotionally scarred by a parent from the get-go.
If these are our new Greek tragedies, they show us not falls from the apex but merely hapless tumbles. In that sense, Prince Harry is perhaps a hero for our age. We no longer want to watch aristocrats destroy themselves. We yearn to see their parents wreck them at birth.