The setting was the dining room of the Washington Star, the time August 1981, the occasion a recent announcement that the Star would soon close after more than a century. Our guest, at his own gracious invitation, was none other than the president: It was Ronald Reagan’s first official outing after his recovery from the Hinckley shooting. He looked a bit pale but was otherwise in lively form.
At our table, one of three, the conversation turned to spaghetti westerns, a subject with which the president was much at home. James Thurber’s funny essay on the comic French subtitles of cowboy movies was mentioned. Taking up the thread, Mr. Reagan suddenly asked: “Where did we get the English language? Where did it come from?” There was an awkward silence. This was not the kind of question one often hears in political Washington. Yielding to a hereditary pedantic streak, I spoke up. English as we know it is, I said, a blend of Norman French and Anglo-Saxon that reached recognizable form in the age of Chaucer, the mid- to late-14th century.
The president thanked me, as if he’d asked a more mundane question; the discussion of movies resumed. I’ve often reflected on that unusual Q&A in the intervening decades, and for me the overriding reflection is that Reagan was willing to risk a question regarding common lore. Not that it is so common: One can easily imagine many self-important politicians, including others who have occupied the White House, who would never have ventured such a query.
Yet my spontaneous answer that day was inexact, for scholars date the advent of Middle English—one rich dialect of which Chaucer wrote—from as early as the mid-12th century. Had I yielded further to my pedantic streak, I might also have mentioned Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), which is in part about linguistic snobbery, and in which the hostility between English-speaking Saxons and their condescending French-speaking Norman overlords is sharp.
More recently, a rereading of Shakespeare’s King Richard II generated yet another reflection on that exchange with Ronald Reagan. Richard II is an immensely popular play and has been so, for various reasons, since it appeared late in the reign of Elizabeth I and went through four quarto editions in the Bard’s lifetime. Her Majesty Elizabeth I herself was very sensitive about it—especially after the Earl of Essex had it staged on the eve of his failed coup d’état against her. “Know ye not that I am Richard II?” she famously asked of one of her servitors. The reason for her anxiety is clear enough: The play is about the deposition of a royal personage, and her times were unstable, her grip on power fading, and no clear successor was yet in sight.
Richard II, who succeeded his warrior grandfather Edward III at the age of 10, had a troubled reign (1377-99) and was ultimately deposed by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, the Henry IV of Shakespeare’s succeeding history play. Apart from the boyishness of Richard’s image as he is pictured in the Wilton Diptych, that king, in Shakespeare’s rendering, appears as a neurotic, self-indulgent young man, but also a character of great poetic eloquence. “Fat in the arse and only interested in eating and drinking,” wrote his unflattering contemporary Froissart, quoting the Duke of Gloucester. Richard II, in Shakespeare’s portrait, moreover, has his own chapter in Ernst Kantorowicz’s treatise on “medieval political theology,” The King’s Two Bodies: an exposition of the doctrine (sometimes miscalled “divine right”) that the coronation ritual of anointment confers quasi-priestly powers on mortal rulers. In one of his eloquent moments, Richard declares, “Not all the water in the rough, rude sea can wash the balm off from an anointed king.” Nonetheless, in the face of his uncle’s rebellion, the balm was washed away by his own tears, and he fell and was murdered. Andrew Gurr, in the 2003 Cambridge edition of the play, rightly quotes Theodore Weiss saying that Richard is “Shakespeare’s most thoroughgoing study of the absorption in words and the perils such
Back now to my exchange with President Reagan. By necessary implication, the play is a study in the transition to the English vernacular. The telling thematic clue occurs in the first act, the anguished speech of Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, when Richard banishes him from England:
A heavy sentence, my most sovereign liege . . .
The language I have learn’d these forty years,
My native English, I must forgo. . .
Within my mouth you have engaol’d my tongue,
Doubly portcullis’d with my teeth and lips. . .
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.