“Trippingly on the tongue”

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I saw ‘The King’s Speech’ at the cinema this week, and was struck by its Shakespearian qualities.  Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised to find Shakespeare’s words taking centre stage in a film that explores the theme of kingship – Shakespeare was, afterall, rather interested in kings called Richard and Henry (and John).

While lines from Hamlet, Richard III, The Tempest, and Othello actually found their way into the script, Shakespeare’s shadow seemed ever present in the filmmakers’ treatment of King George VI’s struggle to overcome his debilitating stammer. Though neither “all the world’s a stage”, nor “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” were referenced during the film, I found myself thinking of both lines throughout. Geoffrey Rush’s character, the amateur actor-turned-speech therapist Lionel Logue, who coaches Prince Albert in the art of public speaking, shares Shakespeare’s acute awareness of the fact that we are all actors (some better than others), and that in reality many people turn in Oscar worthy performances on a daily basis – as friends (“all friendship is feigning” As You Like It), as lovers (“but since my lord/ Is Antony again, I will be Cleopatra” Antony and Cleopatra) and as leaders (“This new and gorgeous garment, majesty, / sits not so easy on me as you think ” 2 Henry IV).

Shakespeare’s King Richard II and Henry V speak with great eloquence about the roles in which they have found themselves cast.  As Colin Firth’s Prince Albert spoke of his sense of enforced isolation, I was reminded of Richard II’s lines, “I live with bread like you, feel want, /Taste grief, need friends”. At other moments in the film, as Prince Albert struggled to return the friendship he was offered by Lionel Logue, I thought of Henry V’s attempts to connect with his soldiers when walking about his camp at night in disguise:

“I think the king is but a man, as I
am: the violet smells to him as it doth to me: the
element shows to him as it doth to me; all his
senses have but human conditions: his ceremonies
laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man; and
though his affections are higher mounted than ours,
yet, when they stoop, they stoop with the like
wing.”

In his attempt to help Prince Albert conquer his performance anxiety Lionel Logue points out helpfully that – a throne is but a chair – a crown is just a headpiece – and a king, is but a man.  As in the theatre, it is the audience that attributes significance to any given object:  “how easy is a bush supposed a bear” (MND).

I really enjoyed “The King’s Speech”, because like so many of Shakespeare’s works the film explored what it is like to live with the saddle of expectation. Like Prince Albert, Prince Hamlet and Prince Hal also wonder whether they are fit for the roles in which they have been cast. Geoffrey Rush’s fine Lionel Logue, provides Colin Firth’s Prince Albert with both a Horatio and Falstaff figure to play against – two for the price of one – excellent value.

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Author:Nick Walton

Nick Walton is a Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
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  • Anonymous

    Thanks AJ – saw it again yesterday – and it was well worth a second viewing.

  • Anonymous

    You’re absolutely right Ty – I agree. The sense of “noises off” brings an important dimension to both Shakespeare’s works and this film too. Fortinbras’s army is on the march as Hamlet stops to ponder questions of life and death, and we are reminded of public happenings, whilst lost in private meditations – lest we forget (to use Coriolanus’s words) “there is a world elsewhere”.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for your kind words Richard. Much appreciated. Nick

  • http://ajleon.me ajleon

    Nick, I watched the film a couple of weeks ago and loved it as well. Love your insight into the Shakespearean undertone. :)

  • Ty Unglebower

    And don’t forget the ominous atmosphere of coming war, also often present in the best of Shakespearean moments. Almost like a crucible for the characters in both Shakespeare as well as the film.

    Great post. I loved the film as well.

  • Richard Baldwin Cook

    What an excellent set of comments and connections made between the film and W S. Thanks.

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