LONDON » To follow Britain’s royal family on its Twitter accounts is to enter a universe that Shakespeare, with his battle-scarred kings and anguished princes, would not recognize.
In this more genteel world, the Duke of Edinburgh visits two youth clubs and Queen Elizabeth II meets representatives of the Youth Hostel Association in East Sussex; the Earl of Wessex, an honorary liveryman in the Worshipful Company of Haberdashers, attends a meeting in the Haberdashers’ Hall in the Smithfield district.
No Elsinores here.
But there is a point to it. In her six decades on the throne, the queen has navigated a subtle and sometimes stormy course between sanitized glimpses of her regal persona, and the privacy that preserves the mystique of royalty.
And, in a way, social media offers the perfect extension of those well-practiced ways, compressing the flow of approved disclosure into 140-character bursts, suggesting an endless loop of commitment to the family’s subjects, be they youth hostelers or haberdashers or, as on Tuesday, members of the Ebony Horse Club in Brixton, where disadvantaged children get to enjoy the same equestrian pursuits as the royal family does.
When it comes to reinvention, in other words, the House of Windsor is no laggard, even if its rumpuses do not always shoehorn so easily into Twitter’s brief confines.
Prince William, second in line to the throne and elder son of Diana, Princess of Wales, seems bent on ring-fencing his family’s privacy in a way his mother’s was not. His younger brother, Prince Harry, by contrast, has strayed often into the harsh glare of tabloid headlines, despite efforts by royal spin doctors to divert attention to his charity work for veterans and his combat role in Afghanistan.
But none has seemed so difficult to pigeonhole as their father, Prince Charles, the first in line to the throne, approaching his 65th birthday on Nov. 14 as an enigmatic heir with an agenda that sometimes seems to set him apart – and a doughty, 87-year-old mother who has shown no evident desire to give up royalty’s top job beyond a modest slowing of her public engagements.
In recent times, Charles has seemed to step forward in a variety of ways, chiding pension funds over the flaws of "quarterly capitalism," riling lawmakers with his perceived readiness to ignore constitutional restraints on political interference and parrying legislators’ questions about his annual $28 million income from a property empire valued at more than $1.2 billion.
Most recently, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine after giving a journalist access to him and his aides.
"Far from itching to assume the crown," the journalist Catherine Mayer concluded, "he is already feeling its weight and worrying about its impact on the job he has long been doing" as the patron of many charities.
By evoking the succession, the article also inspired some musing on the prince’s public visage. As an activist, he took up ecological issues long before they became a global orthodoxy. As a husband, he harvested much of the opprobrium that flowed from his breakup with Diana and his subsequent marriage to Camilla Parker-Bowles.
Although he has championed the children of the poor through his charitable Prince’s Trust, he stands – along with the rest of the senior royal family – as an exemplar of inherited privilege and enormous wealth. In matters of religion, he has said he would eschew the title "defender of the faith" – meaning the Anglican Communion – in favor of the more inclusive "defender of faith." His potential subjects of all shadings remain undecided about whether he should cede the succession to William.
"Is it because we have come to regard him as a figure of pathos and sympathy, a lifelong Nearly Man, an apprentice who never got the job?" one newspaper, The Independent, asked in a profile.
In the era of social media, moreover, the royals face other contenders for public regard. True, their subjects number tens of millions. But in the Tweetocracy, two royal accounts total around 1 million followers between them. The figure for Wayne Rooney, a soccer player, is nearly 7.5 million.