“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” Shakespeare wrote in “Henry IV, Part II.”
That timeless bit of wisdom was hatched back when monarchs were routinely toppled and murdered. King Charles I, for instance, actually had his noggin lobbed off in 1649.
In modern times, however, the head that doesn’t wear the crown has it just as bad, if not worse.
Britain’s Prince Philip, who died Friday at age 99, exemplified the cage of quiet dignity that royal spouses reside in. He did not enjoy the worldwide reverence of a king, he was not especially glamorous, he didn’t openly share opinions, he never spilled tea to Oprah Winfrey.
The Duke of Edinburgh, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II, conditioned himself over seven decades to stand confidently beside her spotlight — not within it. You can’t help but admire the man for his dedication right to the end.
There is a Season 3 episode of “The Crown” on Netflix that captures Philip’s complicated spirit perfectly. It’s called “Moondust,” and it’s hardly a fan favorite. Most of the hour has Philip parked in front of the TV obsessively watching coverage of the 1969 moon landing. There are no abdications, extramarital affairs or terrorist bombings — only a middle-aged man’s muted midlife crisis.
When Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins visit the palace for a private audience with Philip, he makes an emotional admission to the famous strangers.
“There comes a time in life where one really starts to evaluate what one has accomplished,” the prince gently says. “And because of the position that I’ve ended up in here — who I’m married to — well, I’ve not been able to achieve the things I would’ve liked to as a man, as an adventurer.”
Enamored by Buckingham Palace’s opulence, the astronauts see the situation in reverse. It’s Philip who has done well in life.
“What is it like?!” they excitedly ask the disappointed prince.
His underwhelming heroes are more interested in him than landing on the moon. The trio comes off looking a tad dumb, but they drive home that Philip has done well at his job, such as it is.
“The Crown” gets dinged for historical accuracy here and there; Americans experience it like a history lesson rather than the juicy drama it is, much to the chagrin of Brits. But the show unquestionably succeeds in boiling down a person to their essence: a new queen getting her bearings on the world stage, a young Prince Charles more in love with his mistress than his future throne and, in Philip’s case, a dreamer whose dreams were never to be realized.
In passing up other opportunities — adventures as a pilot, some semblance of normalcy — to serve his queen and country, Philip came to represent his generation’s devotion to duty. Whatever he said or complained about in private, the man never whined or vilified his institution in public.
He certainly never went on international television and called it “the firm.”
Whether you’re a British royal or a middle-class American, Philip’s lifetime of dignity and grace should act as an example in our era of tawdry shamelessness.