King Juan Carlos of Spain’s Shakespearean Downfall Packs Madrid Stage

Pedro Nunes/Reuters
Pedro Nunes/Reuters

As an exiled king who shot dead his younger brother in an accident as a young man, faced down coup plotters, and is rumored to have slept with more than 1,500 women, the life of King Juan Carlos of Spain is not exactly short of drama.

Throw in eye-watering allegations of financial impropriety, an ill-advised spot of elephant hunting, and a multimillion-dollar gift to his former lover, and it is perhaps not hard to see why a satirical play based on the larger-than-life former king is filling the house night after night at a theater in Madrid this spring.

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Indeed, the author of the play, called The King Who Was, has compared Juan Carlos to one of the great figures of Shakespearean tragedy. Albert Boadella, founder of the Els Joglars company, told El Pais that the bard “would have been delirious” at the prospect of telling his story.

The London Times reports that the play is set onboard a yacht where Juan Carlos is vacationing, along with “his mistress, an illegitimate son and an uptight Englishman,” and features a scene based on King Lear on the heath, one of the most famous in British dramatic history.

The Times says one of Juan Carlos’ zinger lines includes describing European royal families as “all shit—and the worst of them the English.”

Juan Carlos was regarded as a hero by many older Spaniards for his role in transitioning Spain to democracy after the death of the dictator Francisco Franco and resisting a 1985 coup attempt. But the king abdicated in 2014 over corruption allegations that surfaced after he broke his hip while elephant hunting, and went into exile in 2020.

His former lover, Princess Corinna zu ­Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn, alleged in court that the Spanish intelligence services harassed her and her children, broke into her home, and left on her coffee table a book that claimed Princess Diana was murdered. She said she was harassed by Juan Carlos because, after he gave her $68.2 million as a gift, he then asked for access to the money, a request she denied.

Summing up why he wrote his play, Boadella said: “If Shakespeare had lived in our time, he would have done Juan Carlos I before Hamlet or Macbeth. His life is absolutely Shakespearean, a great classical tragedy. The military coup, his economic and sexual revelry. And finally, exile. Don’t tell me that this is not a story with all the elements of a Shakespearean tragedy.”

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