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A King’s Speech

Learning the language of Richard and Reagan.

Feb 7, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 20 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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Just where, apart from his unfailing intuition, Shakespeare gathered that Richard’s late-14th-century reign marked the decisive transition to English is unknowable, but he sets the thematic mark of that transition on Mowbray’s lips. And here, Geoffrey Chaucer reenters the picture. The father of English poetry was, from boyhood, a courtier and royal friend and servant. A famous 15th-century manuscript at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, shows Chaucer reading his epic masterpiece Troilus and Criseyde at Richard’s court. It is no very difficult conjecture to imagine the boy-king listening intently to a story of the cruel fickleness of Fortune in that love story, and applying it to himself. It was a favorite Chaucerian theme, and we know that Chaucer, the king’s senior, was a royal favorite. Within a few months of reaching his majority in 1389, Richard appointed the poet (and mentor, we presume) Chief Clerk of the King’s Works; but the 1390s were the last decade of Chaucer’s life and work, and he soon resigned the post.

From this exiguous evidence, taking some poetic license, we can imagine the historic Richard II acquiring from Chaucer’s tutelage the magnificent poetry he speaks as the most poetic of Shakespeare’s imagined kings. We know that he was the first English monarch to take his oath in English (though some say it was Henry IV who did so).

All this is, of course, afterthought​​—​​what the French call l’esprit de l’escalier, “staircase wit,” the smart retort that springs to mind after the opportunity to speak has passed. I am sure, however, that Mr. Reagan would have listened patiently, had I thus elaborated my response about the origins of English on that long-ago August day in 1981.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is the author, most recently, of Vacancy: A Judicial Misadventure.

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