William Shakespeare wrote plays that were tragedies, comedies
and histories, but perhaps his most enduring work was in his
tragedies. His insights in these seem to resound almost 500 years
later in our very different world. But changed as the world might
be, the Bard’s A Midummer Night’s Dream character, Puck, utters
his timeless allegation:
“O what fools these mortals be”
While Shakespeare located most of his comedies and histories in
his own England, past and contemporary, he told the stories of
other European royals and rulers, and placed some of his
most powerful tragedies in foreign lands he had not visited,
including Denmark, Greece, and Italy.
I think if Mr. Shakespeare were alive today, he might be tempted
to write a play about a recent king of Spain who has fallen into
In 1966-67 I attended the University of Madrid. Spain was still
ruled by an aging fascist dictator, Francisco Franco, who had been
allied with Nazi Germany during World War II, but who had kept
power in the post-war period. Because of student protests, classes
were on and off, but when they were on, and I went to them on
campus, I often noted rows of parked official cars. Later, I was
told they were the transportation entourage for the young
Spanish crown prince, Juan Carlos, who had been named by
Franco as his successor, and was being educated under the
Juan Carlos’ grandfather had been the last king of Spain before a
liberal coup established a republic in the early 1930’s. The king
and his heir went into exile in Portugal, but when a civil war
(1936-39) was won by a right-wing government eventually led by
Franco, the heir was not brought back as king, even though a
kingdom had technically been restored. Three decades later,
Franco decided to make the last king’s young grandson, Juan
Carlos, his heir and king on the condition he return to Spain from
Portugal to be educated (and presumably continue Franco’s
I did not ever meet my “classmate” Juan Carlos, but I heard a lot
about him, especially from a high-ranking Spanish army officer I
had met, and it was thought that when he did become king, he
would be a puppet of the military.
In the mid-1970s, Franco died, and Juan Carlos became a
constitutional monarch. The real power was in the elected
parliamentary government, and much to the fascists’
disappointment, the parliament and prime minister were much
more liberal than they were. In the early 1980’s, a right-wing
military faction staged a coup d’etat, took over the parliament
building, and demanded that the king surrender. In his royal
palace with his wife and children, King Juan Carlos surprised
everyone by bravely defending the young Spanish democracy, and
refused to give in --- quickly causing the coup to collapse --- and
established the young king as a popular national hero.
The king’s popularity lasted for many years, and was bolstered
by his sensational confrontation with a notorious South American
dictator, but rumors that the public Juan Carlos was not the same
as the private Juan Carlos, as well as scandals involving the royal
family, grew. Finally, Juan Carlos admitted to an extramarital
affair and other improprieties, apologized to the nation, and in
2014 he abdicated, the throne, at age 76, in favor of his son Felipe.
Still highly regarded by many older Spaniards who remembered
his historic courage in defending Spanish democracy, but with a
tarnished reputation, Juan Carlos retired to a lower public profile,
and continued to live in the family’s royal palace in Madrid.
Now, however, allegations have surfaced about his part in a
Saudi Arabian business deal, including the charge he received
$100 million from the Saudi king. No trial has occurred, but a
formal investigation has begun. Juan Carlos has not yet
commented publicly on the charges, but has just informed his
son King Felipe that he is leaving Spain to go into voluntary exile.
It is, in the end, a sad story of hubris. The legacy of a courageous
young modern king seems likely to be be overwhelmed by
accounts of greed and bad judgment --- another fallen
The Spanish William Shakespeare was its great writer Miguel de
Cervantes who wrote in the same time as Shakespeare did.
It might have been better if Juan Carlos were more like
Cervantes’ immortal character Don Quixote --- a hapless deluded
figure, yes, but whose public and private quest was about honor.
Copyright (c) 2020 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.