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
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.