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Public Speaking in The King’s Speech: You’re a Good Man, King George VI

February 28, 2011

The King’s Speech has enjoyed quite the awards season, from seven BAFTAs to several Guild awards to last night’s Academy Award winnings in Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Original Screenplay.

I am happy to bestow one more award on The King’s Speech: The Silver Tongue Award. Not just because my twelve-year-old self fell madly for lead actor Colin Firth’s portrayal of Mr. Darcy. Not just because the film actually depicts the struggle toward speaking with a silver tongue (or even a fluent tongue). But because the film questions what public speaking is—and more importantly, what it should and can be.

At first, you might think that the movie perpetuates all the standard negative connotations of public speaking, the very idea that we at The Silver Tongue are trying to debunk. After all, the pre-king Bertie and his speech therapist have the following exchange:

Lionel Logue: How do you feel?
King George VI: Full of hot air.
Lionel Logue: Isn’t that what public speaking is all about?

Did I laugh? Yes, of course, because often that’s what public speaking is. (Crazy political metaphors about Wisconsin, anyone?) And this pointed snippet has many echoes elsewhere in the film. King George V finds the annual Christmas radio broadcast distasteful, albeit necessary, and he grumps about the need to reach out to his subjects through such technology. The newly crowned King George VI and his family watch a newsreel of Hitler giving a speech, leading daughter Lilibet to ask, “What’s he saying?” and her father to answer, “I don’t know, but he seems to be saying it rather well.” The film quickly forms a spectrum of only negative opinions about public speaking, with a speaker’s awful purpose at one end and another speaker’s grimacing at the other.

And public speaking isn’t just a general evil. It’s a personal evil for Bertie because of his stammer. In fact, we see the advantage of not being a public speaker. Helena Bonham Carter’s Queen Elizabeth saw her husband’s stammer as potential protection:

You know, I refused your first two marriage proposals, not because I didn’t love you, but because I couldn’t bear the royal cage. Couldn’t bear the idea of a life of tours and public duties, a life that no longer was really to be my own. But then I thought, he stammers so beautifully, they’ll leave us alone.

But really, with Bertie’s successful speech at the end of the movie, can public speaking be such an evil? Is it only hot air? After all, Bertie does regret that he couldn’t even give his subjects a Christmas broadcast, as his father used to. According to Bertie’s standards, then, to be an orator is to be a good person as well as a fluent speaker.

This notion of an orator as a good person goes back to Quintilian, a Roman rhetorician and author of Institutio Oratoria, a twelve-volume textbook on rhetoric written a few years before his death around 100 A.D. Quintilian writes in the preface to Institutio Oratoria:

My aim, then, is the education of the perfect orator. The first essential for such an one is that he should be a good man, and consequently we demand of him not merely the possession of exceptional gifts of speech, but of all the excellences of character as well.

As Bertie becomes both king and successful orator, public speaking takes on positive associations. It’s simultaneously a manifestation of the king’s heroism and his humanity—essentially, every accolade that’s been heaped on Colin Firth’s performance. King George VI does point out several things that he can’t do even though he’s king, like declaring war or levying taxes. Yet he comes to embrace what he can do for others after he finds he can do for himself: “Yet I am the seat of all authority because they think that when I speak, I speak for them.”

Now, did King George VI’s public speaking win World War II? The film might lead you to think so. But at the very least, did King George VI finally get to kick the rhetorical equivalent of Charlie Brown’s football? Yes. But it’s for the realization that public speaking can be a force for good, and its speakers moral, that I give The King’s Speech one more award.


If you want to know more:

  • Want the official scoop on The King’s Speech? Go to the film’s web site.
  • Read Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria to your heart’s content. It’s the early twentieth-century H.E. Butler translation that was published as part of the Loeb Classical Library.
  • For a (then-)contemporary analysis of Hitler’s rhetoric, with implications for a speaker’s moral character and effective speech, I recommend Kenneth Burke’s “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’” in The Southern Review in 1939.
  • Watch Charlie Brown (try to) kick the football in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.
  • You can look at The 40 Hottest Photos of Colin Firth on Earth. I don’t agree with all of their choices. But still: you’re welcome.
2 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Hostetler permalink
    March 2, 2011 2:14 pm

    Not only does The King’s Speech open a window on various perceptions of public speaking, it also says something about the state of rhetoric as an academic discipline in the 1930’s. Mr. Darcy is a speech pathologist, actor, and rhetoric coach/professor all rolled into one. And no degree in anything! Up until just a couple of years ago we had a Mr. Darcy department here at St. John’s (Queens): Speech, Communication Sciences, and Theatre were all together. Rhetoric and theatre are now finally separated from the pathologists, but still together.
    Does it matter? Yes. The Ivy League approach to rhetoric, for the most part, is still in the 1930’s. Public speaking is sort of knack like cooking (where have I heard that before?) or a pleasant avocation like taking music lessons. It is surely not a serious academic discipline. Damn you Ramus!!
    So I’m not sure the portrayal of the discipline in the person of Mr. Darcy is all that good for rhetoric.


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