‘The King’s Speech’ | Rhetoric, rules & rulers

By Limor Shiponi

Such a precise movie – I’ve watched it five times by now and my opinion hasn’t changed. It is indeed a work of art crafted with great skill and attentiveness. Why do I choose to write about it? Because there is a lot to learn here about rhetoric and storytelling combined which is where rhetoric moves from skill to art. I think it’s an important lesson.


Source: WikiMedia

In rhetoric there are three approaches: Logos – is what we see all around way too often. It is important but when speaking to humans, and rhetoric was born in the speaking world and culture, it is not enough. Pathos – is a new ‘revelation’ to many, especially in marketing. “Talk to their emotions” you’ll be told again and again. Important too but it cannot stand alone or else you will get something rather pathetic. Ethos – is powerful. It can change talk into weapon or spirit. Which of those two it will turn to depends on the intention and circumstances.

There are also five skills to consider: Invention – you might want to have something to say, Art – crafting what you have to say, Style – is about the way you say it, Memory – tap into it and consider people’s capacity to remember, Delivery skills – mainly technique and deliverability which includes the way you work with the listener.

There are also three dimensions to rhetoric: Kairos – the context of things and how they are part of a larger picture including the delivery event, Decorum – the right words matched to an idea, and the listener or witness – the speaker’s partner together with the utterance; the most important differentiator of storytelling and what makes a really good speaker stand apart.

Duke of York>George VI

Go through the previous paragraphs and put him to the test. He has it all except for one thing – he lacks delivery skills. The hero has a single question or problem to solve and we are going to keep our eyes on that detail through the entire plot. We will want to know if and how this issue will be solved. What makes it even more powerful is that this specific detail is not only about a speaking impediment that can be a burden to its owner but it is also about the drama in several other layers of the story; As the duke mentions, his people look up to him as he who speaks for them and in their name. Not only can it be frustrating for a nation not to have a voice; that nation is in war with another nation whose ruler can “say it rather well”.

All in all, the duke is well aware of the rules and strives to live according to them, knowing their true value. He feels almost safe enough to decide when to break or bend them, knowing that there comes a time when it is necessary both in personal, domestic, public and political circumstances.

My castle, my rules

This phrase is spoken by a commoner, not royalty, someone who is not enough “regal”. Yet Lionel Logue the speech therapist knows exactly what he is saying. He too recognizes the importance of rules, a frame of reference and a place which is the proper place. If you’ll put him to the rhetoric test you will find he too has it all except for one thing – apparently he is part of no ethos. He is a commoner, an Australian in Britain and eventually we find out he has no ‘credentials’ (which is even worse than being an Australian in Britain…). Logue lacks legitimacy he might know is not important for his ability to help others but is a frustrating disposition if you take the rules seriously.

Rules & Rulers

Rules are there for a reason, the way they are used is something else. The secondary ruler characters in the story (in real life they were in no way secondary) spread along an interesting line that divides them rule-wise into three main categories (right to left):

#1 Those who know the rules, understand them deeply, live within them but also know when it is right to bend or break them. They act naturally, with thought, heart and confidence.
#2 Those who know the rules and live by them for what seems to be the sake of the rules. They will let go of those rules only if they have no other choice or only in very private.
#3 Those who know the rules, understand very well how they work but apply them in a way that makes one suspect they themselves are ruled by some other force – which does not diminish the responsibility they carry for their choices.

‘With God’s help we shall prevail’

The above phrase is placed at the peak of the drama and leaning on the understanding that every word in this movie was chosen whether consciously or un-consciously through a deep understanding of the rules of rhetoric, it demonstrates superb decorum. Copywriters pray for the moment they will be able to come up with such a brilliant phrase. Not because it is full of tricks since there is no trick, but with the power to echo the utmost desires wanting to be solved through all the plots and sub-plots of the rhetoric event, presenting real desires in the real world from the deep back-story to the private and personal.

This also meets a dramatic peak that during the time the real events took place was yet to be unraveled, but watching the movie sixty and so years later, knowing how it turned out, can still send shivers down one’s spine. Look at the coat of arms of the two entities (I dare not call the Third Reich a monarch) the message is there, in the differences.

The King's Speech_the deep story

Supporting narrative – music

The makers of The King’s Speech are about rhetoric as art and they connected every detail to its wagon full of marvels to reveal and keep you engaged with. The music by Alexandre Desplat is beautiful and noble is his choice to step aside at the dramatic peak and clear the space in Beethoven’s favor (samples on Amazon.com):

The speech is accompanied by the 2nd movement from Beethoven’s 7th. It is well known but even if you’ve never heard it before it grabs you with the power to push forward. Based on an ostinato (stubborn) it meets the stubbornness, resilience and determination of the king perfectly, yet it is compassionate and optimistic.

In a very clever way, the speech is shorter than the original and there is a timing game going on: the person who brings the speech to the king says it is timed to exactly 9 min. (which makes you think to yourself ‘oh my’), the speech takes half the time (which makes you think ‘oh, that wasn’t too long’) when the original was a minute longer (which might be too long for a dramatic peak). What was cut out was the obvious for people who live in 2010 – we already know what happened during WWII.

When the royal family walks out to the crowd the music changes into the 2nd movement from Beethoven’s 5th piano concerto, known as the “Emperor”. Logue, standing in the same room, takes a small step that brings him to stand in front of the window far behind. When the crowd cheers he can enjoy a slight air of great legitimacy, he can as if feel what it feels like to be regal – something he tried to achieve through acting royal characters at the theatre. Eventually he is highly rewarded by the king and wins all the legitimacy which is needed in order to settle with the rules. He is the one who has brought the emperor to be able to perform his duty to the nation.

Supporting narrative – visuals

Many of us were squashed to the fences of Buckingham Palace but how many of us actually visited inside? The movie is packed with visual narrative details – some of them familiar some of them we were always curious about and some totally surprising. Memory is an important skill in rhetoric – tapping into it and enriching it a step further. Another interesting part of the visual narrative to notice are the movie posters in different places over the globe – the Chinese poster for instance shines in yellow – a color that symbolizes the emperor in the Chinese culture, again, tapping into the relevant part of memory and symbolism.

The Academy Awards

Comparing the awards given to “Inception” (four awards) “The Social Network” (three awards) and “The King’s Speech” (four awards) the awards given to the latter all have to do with the ability to unravel a story and it unravels as an experience in a dense and tight manner – starting with the original screenplay, through the actor in a leading role, directing and best picture – the entire production. In this case, the deep rules have won.

Something about Storytelling

If you know my opinions, you know I will never say a movie is storytelling. Nevertheless, there are three issues connected to storytelling worth noticing here. One is authenticity of communication; Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush demonstrate a great deal of authenticity in their co-existence as actors who have to work and search together for the ways to express their roles who in many ways are interdependent. It’s not only in the dialogue – it’s also in the way they live together through this creation.
Second is adhering to the deep patterns of the spoken culture and especially respecting the role of the witness (audience) – there is not a single moment in this movie where I could feel its creators got into the mood of a “private gig” – which I find as respectful, something for other film creators to learn from.

Third is stage-fright. This fear sends many to find a solution that will help them block it. By doing so you might win some confidence but loose a great deal of authenticity in communicating. Logue didn’t choose to mask the king’s fear – he helped him work through it, keeping the feelings of connectivity in place.

There is much more I could say about this movie but enough for now. If you haven’t seen it yet please accept a warm recommendation. It’s brilliant.

(This text is part of a talk I gave some time ago before a public screening of ‘The King’s Speech’)

3 thoughts on “‘The King’s Speech’ | Rhetoric, rules & rulers”

  1. Wonderful review of The King’s Speech. I too thoroughly enjoyed the film and saw it twice in one week.. I am in complete agreement with you on the music and the choice of the Allegretto from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and the Adagio from the Emperor Concerto were superb. One of the best alignments of classical music, or any music for that matter, with a dramatic film that I’ve heard in years.
    Charles R. Hale

  2. Pingback: What is the best blog on storytelling and rhetoric? - Quora

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