This essay examines the intersections of class, technology, and disability manifest within The King's Speech. It argues that the film obfuscates modern scientific and critical understanding of communication disorders by rendering stuttering as a moral failure rather than by attempting to understand it as a socially constructed condition contingent upon established societal and temporal norms. The essay identifies the social codes enforcing correct and eloquent speech that create a political and social climate for "compulsory fluency"—the socially imperative verbal facility promoted as necessary to participate in public life. Crucially and somewhat ironically, with its emphasis on the nobility of the title character, the film sublimates an inherent tension between media technology and the lingering social stigma surrounding disability. The King's Speech thus situates compulsory fluency as an essential component of modern kingship. By reading the film's strategic deployment of radio technology alongside its troubled representation of class and his fraught invocation of Shakespeare's Hamlet, the essay reads attitudes towards vocal disability within the context of royalty, patriarchy, and national identity. Ultimately, the essay locates The King's Speech as a film whose image of modern kingship grounds itself upon a notion of imperial authority as technologically constructed but ultimately disabled by a national fantasy of historical wholeness in the fabricated kinship between a monarch and his people.

Soon after the 2010 release of director Tom Hooper's Oscar-winning film, The King's Speech, The Stuttering Foundation, a non-profit advocacy group, initiated a print ad campaign endorsing the film. 1 One advertisement, which appeared in high profile periodicals such as Time, featured a black and white photograph of the real King George VI, the British monarch played onscreen by Colin Firth. In the foundation's ad, the monarch appears regal in military dress standing behind a large microphone. Above the photo appears the tagline, "Stuttering Gets the Royal Treatment." 2 Such a rendering of the king, much like the film's, invites both sympathy and admiration for a disabled figure. The appearance of The King's Speech proved serendipitous for The Stuttering Foundation: its enthusiastic endorsement of the film reflects a decades-long crusade to increase understanding of a condition that affects nearly 68 million people worldwide, and, in turn, the film's critical acclaim and global appeal did much to raise public awareness of stuttering as well as The Stuttering Foundation's mission. 3

Print ad titled 'Stuttering Gets the Royal Treatment' featuring a photo of King George IV. More description below.

Figure 1. King George IV (in military dress) stands behind a large microphone with a throne directly behind him. (Courtesy of The Stuttering Foundation)

I would suggest, however, that the Foundation's ad campaign celebrates George VI more for his function as king than as a model for disability rights. For example, here the visible markers of his royalty (his uniform, his rich surroundings) are heightened by the ad's stark monochromatic presentation. Note also that despite the king's positioning behind the microphone, the image presents him in a non-verbal moment: the photo captures the king with a closed mouth rather than in the act of speaking (or stuttering). In this way the silence of the print medium fails to express the singularity of his individual speaking voice (fluent or otherwise), just as it does little to demonstrate the "gentle[ness]," verbal "courage," and "inspiration" touted by the photo's accompanying text. To be clear, I am not claiming that the king lacked these personal qualities (though by portraying a disabled figure as simultaneously pitiable and inspirational the film joins a long and troubled history of disability representation in cinema). 4 What I want to emphasize in the reading of this ad is how the limits of print would seem to complicate and even counteract The Stuttering Foundation's purported goals. By presenting the king in this way, the ad privileges the visual over the verbal, the royal over the human, and if it does not explicitly deprive the monarch of his voice, the ad nonetheless diminishes the importance of the king's speech.

Moreover, by foregrounding the slogan, "Stuttering Gets the Royal Treatment," the Foundation's ad campaign underscores how class identity has too-often served as a dominant frame for popular conceptions of disability in the modern era. This emphasis on social rank and public positionality is not surprising given that Hooper and his screenwriter David Seidler project their cinematic narrative of George VI's vocal struggles entirely through the lens of his royalty, beginning, of course, with their title. For if The King's Speech is a work that focuses meaningfully on the topic of disability, then it is decidedly, as the title announces, about a king with a disability. Furthermore, such emphasis on the protagonist's royal status transforms what might otherwise be seen as a private relationship for patient and therapist into an anxious test of wills between a reluctant monarch and his strident colonial subject within the maelstrom of a volatile geopolitical landscape. 5 For, as Peter S. Donaldson has suggested, "The King's Speech is more centrally concerned with imperial ideology than might at first appear." 6 Consider that even before the title scene begins we are treated to a black screen intertitle that reminds us in 1925, "King George V reigns over a quarter of the world's people." Indeed, this film's focus on vocal disability at times seems a mere vehicle for Hooper to consider the shifting nature of kingship, that is, the struggles of three British rulers reconciling the meaning and function of monarchy in the modern age. The film presents a private man forced into the public sphere as a result of changing cultural imperatives driven by his class position. With its focus on the voice as emblem of British imperial authority, the film also reveals a key technological mechanism that emerged to facilitate the progress of Britain's empire into the twentieth century, namely wireless radio.

In order to explore the intersections of class, technology, and disability manifest within The King's Speech, it is first necessary to contextualize the work's culturally determined representation of stuttering in modern history. Over the past thirty years writers such as Benson Bobrick and Marc Shell have offered useful overviews of how stuttering and speech pathology have figured in the historical imagination as evidence either of moral deviance or medical abnormality. 7 However, their work, while essential to an understanding of cultural attitudes towards non-normative speech, engages only tangentially with the vibrant and diverse field we now call Critical Disability Studies. More recently, there have been vigorous calls to consider speech production specifically within the framework of disability theory across humanistic disciplines including history, rhetoric, film and media, literary criticism, and art history. 8 Joshua St. Pierre has noted that although "disabled speech" has begun to "gain some much-needed attention within disability studies, the lived experience of the disabled speaker remains underdeveloped and obscured." 9 His own rigorous analysis of "disabled speech" has been crucial in this regard, and his call to gather "stuttering from the fringes of disability theory" situates his work at the forefront of what some have called "Dysfluency Studies." 10

This essay engages work already underway not just by bringing more attention to the role of speech impediments in cinema or by arguing for the consideration of disfluency within disability theory more broadly, but also by interrogating the impact that those representations have had upon the stuttering community at large. I would suggest that even the global popularity, critical acclaim, and financial success of The King's Speech cannot mitigate the manner through which it does, at times, troublingly perpetuate misleading theories surrounding the genesis of vocal disfluency. For while the story at the heart of the film has appealed to millions of film-goers worldwide, The King's Speech nonetheless obfuscates modern scientific and critical understanding of communication disorders by rendering stuttering as a moral failure rather than by attempting to understand it as a socially-constructed condition contingent upon established societal and temporal norms.

To begin delineating these various critical strains I focus on the ways in which Hooper (as director) and Seidler (as screenwriter) construct the film's protagonist as simultaneously vocally disabled and royally entitled in a modern world clinging desperately to archaic cultural traditions even as it is being fundamentally changed by emergent media technologies. Hooper's attention to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and its wireless radio as national mechanisms for war and empire figure prominently in the human drama swirling around the personal struggle of one man reluctant to embrace his compulsory role in the established rituals of British royalty. By reading Hooper's strategic deployment of the wireless radio alongside Seidler's troubled representation of class and his fraught invocation of Shakespeare's Hamlet as the film's governing tropes, we may better understand current attitudes towards disability within the context of royalty, patriarchy, and national identity (the film's other major concerns). The King's Speech is a film whose image of modern kingship grounds itself upon a notion of imperial authority as technologically constructed but ultimately disabled (and I use that term deliberately) by a national fantasy of historical wholeness in the fabricated kinship between a monarch and his people.


One of the achievements of The King's Speech is the way in which the film manages to capture the anxiety and terror many stutterers experience when confronted with the prospect of public speaking. 11 Hooper uses a range of cinematic techniques in the opening sequence of the film to dramatize socially imperative verbal performance by rendering emotional tension through the media technology that emblematized Britain's modern imperial structure. Even before we meet Prince Albert, Duke of York, (the future King George VI who is known in the film as "Bertie"), the title sequence treats us to a nearly empty room with a single microphone (see figure 2). The camera then cuts to close-up shots of the mic from different angles. No human figures appear within the frame for several minutes, just shots of the wireless mic from various positions. When Hooper cuts away from the microphone, he focuses upon Bertie dressed in formalwear, a conspicuous paper (the king's speech!) in hand. A tight shot of the speech follows, and then Hooper cuts in close to focus upon Bertie's mouth before cutting to a BBC broadcaster preparing to introduce the Duke's first official radio broadcast. Miriam Burstein notes how in this sequence the "BBC announcer gargles, sprays, warms up his vocal chords, and calculates his distance from the microphone before launching into his introduction," concluding that such imagery demonstrates "that there is nothing natural about public speaking on the wireless." 12 Burstein is right to highlight the manner in which the film portrays (at least in these early scenes) human speech and public oratory in particular as profoundly unnatural. Though she does not connect the inorganic nature of speaking on the radio to Bertie's own vocal disability, one can see in the preparations of the BBC announcer that speech in modern imperial Britain has become a professional exercise. Ironically, the creation of "perfect" human speech, the product made possible through the technological innovation of wireless radio, masks the artifice it demands.

Still from title sequence of The King's Speech. More description below.

Figure 2. Hooper, The King's Speech (01:01), Anchor Bay Entertainment, 2011. The title sequence of the film displays an empty room with a chair, desk, and single large microphone.

All of the attention to radio technology and vocal craft in the title sequence offers a necessarily prescriptive lens to the audience's initial impressions of Bertie in the film's first scene as he readies himself to address a stadium full of British subjects (not to mention the millions listening to their radios at home and abroad throughout the Empire). As with the title sequence just before it, Hooper uses the camera to good effect here, anticipating Bertie's restricted vocalizations with a point of view shot taking us from the tight tunnels in the lower levels of Wembley Stadium up several narrow flights of stairs before emerging finally onto a viewing platform high in the stands with a panoramic shot of the arena's vast seating area and the pitch below (see figure 3).

Microphone at Wembly Stadium. More description below.

Figure 3. Hooper, The King's Speech (03:26), Anchor Bay Entertainment, 2011. The camera looks up out of the tunnels of Wembly Stadium at a single metal microphone on a vertical stand.

Cutting back and forth from Bertie's terrified face to those watching him from the stands, Hooper deploys a series of shots from Bertie's point of view, looking up from out of the stadium tunnels and then out towards the waiting crowd. In perhaps the defining shot of this sequence, Hooper positions the camera behind an enormous wireless mic, which Bertie confronts when he emerges from the cramped depths into the immense open air of the stadium. There he finds a large red light blinking ominously. When Hooper shifts camera position again, we are treated to another POV shot of the mic looming over us (see figure 5). Finally, the camera offers a corresponding shot of the mic covering Bertie's face, and in both cases the mic appears as an ominous and insurmountable object that serves to mock the stuttering subject (see figure 6). These initial shots are tight on Bertie's face, highlighting his anxiety, but they also seem to parallel the corporeal constriction of stuttered speech.

Close-up of a microphone and red light with a crowd of people visible in the background. More description below.

Figure 4. Hooper, The King's Speech (03:51), Anchor Bay Entertainment, 2011. The camera displays Bertie's perspective looking down upon a large metal microphone and red light.

Close-up of a microphone with a crowd of people visible in the background. More description below.

Figure 5. Hooper, The King's Speech (03:50), Anchor Bay Entertainment, 2011. The camera displays Bertie's perspective looking down at the Wembly crowd through the microphone.

Bertie behind a microphone. More description below.

Figure 6. Hooper, The King's Speech (04:32), Anchor Bay Entertainment, 2011. A close-up shot of Bertie's contorted face with his mouth framed by the microphone.

Here we have one of the chief technological advances of the last century – the wireless radio – employed as a symbol of media power and royal authority. In fact, the opening scene of The King's Speech merely introduces the motif, as large microphones figure prominently throughout the film. Shooting from a variety of angles and heights, Hooper exaggerates and thereby exploits the size of the mic relative to the king's body, and in doing so creates tension between the technological and the human. Symbolically, the mic seems to emblematize Bertie's vocal "failures," even as it fulfills its technical purpose by amplifying his voice. But this opening scene also highlights the way in which stutterers, and by extension all disabled bodies, function as a spectacle, particularly when those bodies are required to appear and perform in public. 13 Note, for example, how Hooper cuts back and forth between shots of Bertie's mouth during verbal blockages and shots of various audience members staring at him and reacting to his stammered speech with discomfort, anxiety, and even embarrassment. The stutterer is always aware of these reactions, painfully so; watching people watching them, in a kind of paralysis, time shifts out of joint. As St. Pierre has convincingly argued, stuttering is not merely a result of the binary relationship between a normate hearer and a disabled speaker, but rather "in a dialogical process the hearer and speaker are bound together in the act of communication and thus 'broken' speech is constructed from both the speaker and the hearer." 14

Indeed, while Hooper's cinematic techniques (POV shots, looming shots, and sophisticated cuts) in the opening scenes necessarily structure vocal disfluency from a spatial perspective, they can also be read as way as to understand stuttering as a temporal phenomenon. At odds with the precision of wireless radio broadcasting and the terrifying amplification of his vocal failure, Bertie must wait, painfully, for his moment to speak. When he does emerge from the tunnels of Wembley, his spatial position is out of sync with the social expectation his body's presence behind the mic would seem to signal; rather than speak fluently on cue, he begins to stutter. Each blockage in turn swells and heightens the waiting presence of the listening crowd. Hooper's deployment of radio technology thus intensifies the manner in which verbal hesitation renders a subject as disabled in relation to social standards of temporality rather than through biological or medical determination. That is to say, Bertie's supposed inability to perform vocally locates him outside social acceptance with regard to time.

In order to understand stuttering as a temporal phenomenon it is helpful to turn to the work of Pierre Bourdieu and his conception of habitus, which he has described as "a system of structure, structuring dispositions […] which is constituted in practice and is always oriented towards practical functions." 15 For Bourdieu, speech, and with it language, may be seen as one of the key structural systems focused upon utility in a modern society that animates and governs human interaction. Elizabeth Freeman expands this notion of habitus in terms that relate directly to my reading of vocal disability by explaining that

subjectivity emerges in part through mastering the cultural norms of withholding, delay, surprise, pause, and knowing when to stop – through mastery over certain forms of time. In temporal manipulations that go beyond pure repetition, his work suggests, institutionally and culturally enforced rhythms, or timings, shape flesh into legible, acceptable embodiment. 16

Being unable to control their speech in such a way that conforms to institutionally and culturally enforced temporal modalities, stutterers are, to put it simply, disempowered by a system that demands fluent speech. Hence the advent of medicalized speech-language pathology in the modern era and its dominant therapeutic programs, which seek to shape disfluent speech into the kinds of acceptable temporal embodiments Freeman describes. The explicit goal of speech therapist Lionel Logue (portrayed in the film by Geoffrey Rush) is to (en)force Bertie's speech into culturally accepted (and culturally determined) rhythms that appear "normal" according to established British social ritual. What Freeman calls "chrononormativity" seems a useful concept here, which she identifies as "the use of time to organize individual human bodies in the service of maximum productivity." 17 Within the context of The King's Speech, the definition of productivity for royal figures with regard to speech imagines verbal performance as a perfunctory display of monarchical authority. Fluent speech, the film reiterates, is a necessary component of royal performance.

Even beyond its specific desire for chononormativity, The King's Speech is a film obsessed with temporality in general. In its opening scene, for example, a BBC agent tells Bertie before his first public speech, "Just take your time." As the phrase normative speakers most commonly hurl at stutterers, "Just take your time" is also uttered to Bertie in the film's second scene by a royal physician who has been tasked with "curing" him. The phrase is voiced yet again in a crucial flashback wherein Bertie's father, King George V (Michael Gambon) exhorts him to "take [his] time" even while displaying clear impatience over his son's hesitated speech. Continually required to regulate his body in relation to others' temporal expectations, Bertie cannot help but be reminded of his inability to do so. As he later responds to Logue's humorous query about whether he knows any jokes, Bertie replies, "Timing isn't my strong suit." Bertie's ironic quip, while offering a bit of comic relief in an awkward moment between patient and therapist, nonetheless acknowledges the central role that temporality plays with regard to communication disorders (and disability more broadly). Indeed, time is precisely the stutterer's problem. 18


In a 2010 review of The King's Speech, critic Robert Ebert described the film as one that centers around "a man compelled to speak with a stammer." 19 Ebert's use of the word "compelled" resonates significantly here, for Bertie's compulsion to speak is both internally and externally derived. Framing this notion within the context of Bourdieu's habitus and Freeman's chrononormativity, we can see that it is not simply his own individual will to speak that compels Bertie, but also external forces that seek to elicit his vocalizations. Some of these forces are familial demands, such as when Bertie's father orders his son to recite the Christmas speech he himself has just delivered to the nation: "Get it out, boy!" (one might also consider this command to be that of a king upon a subject in addition to a father's order to his son). The film also highlights the weight of the era's presiding scientific theories as it makes medical demands upon a patient, such as those from Bertie's speech therapists. In one early scene, for example, a royal physician, Sir Blandine-Bentham, has asked Bertie to place glass beads in his mouth and speak, an echo of the "classic approach that cured" Demosthenes' famous stammer. 20 As the prince struggles merely to close his mouth and breathe, the doctor demands he read aloud, exhorting him to "Fight against those marbles … E-nun-ci-ate!" Forced to speak (and to speak fluently) by his king, his royal handlers, his family, his doctors, and ultimately by the British people, Bertie cannot escape demands for verbal fluency.

Such demands exist at the heart of a vast system of social norms that marginalize and construct disabled subjectivity. In Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability, Robert McRuer argues that it is a "system of compulsory able-bodiedness, which in a sense, produces disability." 21 McRuer reads the disabled body in terms of corporeal presence and queerness by building upon Adrienne Rich's notion of "compulsory heterosexuality," which defines heterosexuality as "normal" and thus any behavior or identity outside that realm as necessarily "abnormal" or "deviant." McRuer's formulation, in turn, locates able-bodiedness (in its "normalcy") as compulsory within a system that privileges certain physical standards and assumes that those within the system agree upon able-bodiedness as the ideal, even essential form of human embodiment. 22 Like compulsory heterosexuality, the social codes enforcing correct and eloquent speech create a political and social climate for what I have called "compulsory fluency"—the socially imperative verbal facility promoted as necessary to participate in public life. 23

By presenting Bertie's speechlessness not just as a crisis of personal tragedy but one of class failure, The King's Speech thus situates compulsory fluency as an essential component of modern kingship. The Duchess of York (Helena Bonham Carter) tells Logue in their first meeting that, "My husband is required to speak publicly." (emphasis mine) Lionel replies wittily: "Perhaps he should change jobs," to which she replies, "He can't." Note the passive construction of the Duchess's claim here, that Bertie "is required to speak," a syntactic formation that reflects external coercion. What the exchange demonstrates is the way in which much of Bertie's compulsion to speak emanates from his class position, and more specifically from his role as a member of the royal family and the directives of his father the king.

Of course, a British prince is required to speak publicly and in doing so must say specific words. As Mark Logue (Lionel's grandson) and Peter Conradi note in their book, The King's Speech: How One Man Saved the British Monarchy, young Bertie had a particularly difficult time articulating certain sounds, most significantly s, f, and k, the last of which must have been especially tortuous given that in his role as prince he would have been required on occasion to toast the king (his father). Though Logue helped him learn to substitute certain terms (e.g. "government" for "ourselves" and "call" in place of "summon") in his prepared speeches, there were, nonetheless, specific terms in certain rituals, toasts, and addresses that could not be replaced. 24

In the film, Hooper and Seidler depict Bertie changing words throughout his speeches to avoid verbal blocks. Such substitutions, while facilitating fluency, nonetheless alter intended meaning. One could read these moments of verbal negotiation as a kind of non-normative adaptation – Seidler and Hooper depict Bertie as living with his disability rather than embracing the narrative of overcoming that often frames Hollywood renderings of disabled characters. 25 But ultimately by making such verbal compromises he remains confined by the limits of his stammer within the externally-imposed boundaries of social expectation regarding speech. In this way, compulsory fluency becomes a powerful mechanism for a British royal identity predicated on a model of disability that casts individual non-normative speakers unable to adapt as constitutionally unsound, socially deviant, and politically irrelevant.

And, of course, what amplifies this verbal compulsion in the film is the prominence of radio technology. As I note above, the microphone functions as both a central visual and key dramatic motif in The King's Speech, but historically speaking Hooper and Seidler are merely responding to the technological realities of the era. Founded in 1922, the BBC became an essential institutional mechanism for the projection of the British monarchy's modern image and the preservation of its cultural authority. Certainly Hooper, with his visual emphasis on the microphone, recognized it as such: at least one of the posters used to promote the film features just the lower half of Colin Firth's face confronting a suspended microphone, suggesting that these figures share equal importance in the film (see figure 7).

Movie poster for The King's Speech. More description below.

Figure 7. Promotional poster for The King's Speech displays the black and white image of the bottom half of a man's face with closed mouth emerging from the upper left corner of the frame with a large microphone on the right side over a yellow background.

The film, like the poster, illustrates the relationship between technology and humanity to be deeply ambivalent especially with regard to disability. Recalling the first scene, we find the BBC's chief engineer whispering to Bertie: "Let the microphone do the work, sir." The implication here is that technology may lessen or eliminate the stutterer's struggle for fluency. Yet rather than facilitate fluent speech, the presence of the microphone serves as an additional barrier for Bertie. We witness this antagonistic relationship again in the key scene where Bertie is forced to practice his father's Christmas speech, which as written begins with praise for wireless technology ("Through the marvels of modern science, I am enabled … ."). With his father glaring down at him, Bertie sits in front of the microphone and blocks on nearly each word in the opening line of the address. Ironically, the mic does anything but enable Bertie to speak – it cannot cure his stutter, and rather than mask his disfluency it serves only to amplify it.

As with the promotional poster, Hooper often uses the camera visually to cast the mic as a threatening presence for Bertie. During his first visit to Logue's office, for example, the therapist asks the prince to recite lines from Hamlet into a microphone while he wears headphones playing loud classical music. In this shot, Hooper again positions the lens in such a way that once the prince begins speaking the mic obscures Bertie's mouth – the audience knows he is reciting lines, but we can neither hear his voice (the loud music dominates the soundtrack) nor can we see his lips moving (see figure 8). After a short interval, the prince grows frustrated, removes the earphones, and calls off the exercise. Technology, it seems, has won this encounter between man and microphone. Maria Stuart has commented on the narrative strangeness of the relatively early positioning of this moment in the film. Rather than highlight technology here as a viable cure for Bertie's vocal struggles, the film suggests rather that "successful treatment involves more arduous and sustained personal investment than is represented by the seemingly quick fix of assistive technology." 26 Much of the film, in fact, dramatizes Bertie's struggles against technology (and radio in particular), which are further intensified by his father's insistence upon mastering this new communication format. In the Christmastime flashback, King George V pressures his son to understand "the wireless" as a fundamental component of modern empire. As he explains to Bertie, "This devilish device will change everything if you won't." It is a lesson the older king had taken to heart. Hajkowski notes that while "George V and his ministers were slow to exploit the new medium of radio," they eventually came to deploy it in such a way that made its use mandatory for the monarchy. 27 Thus the film posits technological mastery alongside compulsory fluency as yet another enforced condition of modern British public life.

Lionel holds a microphone up to Bertie's face. More description below.

Figure 8. Hooper, The King's Speech (27:38), Anchor Bay Entertainment, 2011. In front of an open window Lionel holds a microphone up to Bertie's face, obscuring the latter's mouth.

And indeed, George VI was compelled to embrace this technology to a degree not required of any British monarch before him. After all, his coronation was the first in Britain to be broadcast over the radio. Hooper and Seidler reflect this cultural milestone with historical accuracy by centering one of the film's key scenes around the regnal event's preparations in Westminster Abbey. Scaffolding, wires, speakers, and microphones appear in shot after shot where Hopper highlights the amount of technological consideration needed to stage the event for an international listening audience. Hajkowski explains that George VI's coronation

was carried on all of the BBC's radio services, and the Empire Service. It was also relayed to fourteen other countries…. Fifty-eight microphones were used for the coronation broadcast, including thirty-two in the Abbey, concealed beneath chairs or in chandeliers and lecterns. Along with microphones, the BBC placed commentators all along the route from Buckingham Palace to the Abbey, all connected to the main control room by nearly five hundred miles of wire. 28

In the film, Bertie arrives at the Abbey to tour the site with the Archbishop and to practice for his coronation. With the camera initially at ground level, the new king notices one particular microphone, and the sequence cuts to a high angle from above the mic looking down upon Bertie, his image literally contained within the visual frame of the microphone. His attention is entirely absorbed by it as it appears prominent in the foreground of the shot. (see figure 9) Hooper stages the camera in such a way as to diminish Bertie through the positioning of the mic, another visualization of his weakened authority as a king whose communication disorder threatens to limit his monarchical power from the start of his reign.

Bertie, obscured by a microphone in the forefront of the shot, stands beside the Archbishop. More description below.

Figure 9. Hooper, The King's Speech (1:22:02), Anchor Bay Entertainment, 2011. Bertie and the Archbishop look up towards the camera with Bertie's face circumscribed and partly obscured by a suspended microphone.

This scene exemplifies the manner in which the film broadly equates political power with the performance of fluent speech, from George V's exhortations of radio's imperial importance in the modern era to Bertie's grudging admiration for Adolf Hitler's spirited public speeches on film ("I don't know [what he's saying], but he seems to be saying it rather well"). Midway through the film, Bertie and Logue spar over the former's reluctance to embrace his royal duties. Bertie lashes out, lamenting the lack of royal authority wielded by a British monarch in the twentieth century and, in turn, the outsized role of the king's speech. He understands the king's speech to be not merely the reflection of royal authority, but the very agent of that authority: "If I am to be King … where is my power? May I form a Government, levy a tax or declare a war? No! Yet I am the seat of all authority. Why? Because the Nation believes when I speak, I speak for them. Yet I cannot speak!" A vocally disabled king unable to "speak for" the nation, he suggests, is a king wholly without power.

In this sense it is crucial to understand how the film exploits the trope of the microphone to illustrate Bertie as a disabled man, but more urgently as a disabled and disempowered king. For, as a technological mechanism, wireless radio centers sensory perception chiefly upon sound. Such focus distills the human presence—in this case the royal presence—down to the voice. In 1936, radio technology allowed for a mass projection of the king's presence into the minds of British subjects listening to the BBC's wireless broadcast. Hajkowski notes how the relationship between the King and his subjects was nurtured by this modern technology and the institution wielding it: "By the end of the [World War II], the King had achieved a closer bond with the British people than any previous monarch, and he remained a symbol of British and imperial unity. The BBC played a vital role in this." 29 Though not present visually, the monarch may materialize aurally throughout the kingdom and the empire through the mechanism of radio.


Does such wireless projection of monarchical authority engender a kind of intimacy in the relationship between king and subject? The omnipresence of the king's disembodied voice coupled with the closeness of an audio connection to every British home made possible by wireless radio technology would seem to diminish the physical and social distance between the monarch and his subjects. Yet while radio collapses this distance, the disembodied, unilateral wireless projection of the king's speech via the BBC nonetheless reiterates the singular authority and privilege of his position. That is, class status essentially determines the nature and experience of disability in cultural representation, and The King's Speech offers a compelling case for examination as such. Burstein's reading of the film typifies much of the critical attention in this regard, highlighting the class disparity between what she calls "the transgressive commoner" (the Australian Logue) and the British king. 30 While disability remains the central focus of the film, class status and its impact upon disability subjectivity frame the relationship between the two lead characters. At the beginning of their first therapy session, for example, Logue asks Bertie how he should address his new patient. Bertie replies by rehearsing protocol, "Your Royal Highness, then Sir after that." In the end, Logue ignores decorum and declares that, "In here, it's better if we're equals." As therapist he re-structures the social order in spatial terms to defy the rules of class status, wherein the therapist's rooms ("here") level social distinction in the service of a "cure," while outside ("there") rank will be re-inscribed. While he does not erase social rituals entirely, Logue manages to diminish some of those related to decorum, rank, and etiquette. Rather than single out the non-normative body as a spectacle of disability (as the film does in its opening scenes), here Logue attempts to normalize the disabled subject as an "equal": Hooper shoots the scene from an angle that places both figures on the same level, and they occupy the same amount of space on screen suggesting a temporary balance of power (see figure 10). While such spatial focus on the disabled body in Logue's statement appears democratizing, it is the patient who resists what he sees as a medicalized fantasy of the therapist's room as socially fluid wherein a prince is not a prince. Indeed, as in his initial response to Logue's question regarding address, Bertie's reply to his new therapist's comment about social equality "in here" remains remarkably attuned and resistant to the rigid reality of British class structure: whereas Bertie sees disability as inescapable, likewise so is rank: "If we were equal I wouldn't be here. I'd be home with my wife, and no-one would give a damn."

Bertie and Lionel sitting across from each other. More description below.

Figure 10. Hooper, The King's Speech (20:26), Anchor Bay Entertainment, 2011. Bertie and Lionel sit across from one another in a high-ceilinged room.

By framing his reply in terms of class hierarchy, Bertie suggests that he would not be desperate to seek a cure for his stammer were he not a member of the royal family required to speak as a part of his class position – in this case he openly laments the social and professional imperatives of his rank. While clearly his stammer bothers him, he also suggests that his royal position requires not just him but others to focus upon his vocal performance. Indeed, if he was not a prince, no one "would give a damn" that he stammers – not even, I think it might be argued, moviegoers.

Which brings me to a crucial point: while this film highlights the struggles of a single man who stammers, much of the plot's tension emerges from Bertie's elevated position and his prominent role in global history. That is to say, the fact that the stutterer is a king – not a valet, not a butcher, not a day laborer— is ultimately what makes the story compelling cinema. If the protagonist were a mere butcher, it seems unlikely Hollywood would have made a film with such star power behind it. The stakes would be far too low to create the dramatic tension that made the film Oscar-worthy, and in fact the "royal crisis" has become something of a Hollywood trope in recent years. 31 Herein lies the tragedy of films taking up disability as a dramatic device: many stutterers and their daily struggle to exist in an ableist culture are misunderstood or simply ignored precisely because they lack sufficient social status. Moreover, their economic circumstances do not and will not allow them access to potential therapies – unlike Bertie, their stuttering does not get "the Royal Treatment." A prince has all the resources he might need should he wish it. He does not worry about whether his speech impediment will prevent him from providing for his family let alone prevent him from raising his economic status. The film argues that Bertie needs to speak to be the king, but as a royal he does not need to speak to live. In this sense the film's rendering of a stammerer must be understood as unique, not as representative and not, as some reviews have argued, inspirational. 32 While an audience might sympathize with a stutterer struggling against culturally-imposed limitations, in the end Bertie remains in a better position medically, socially, and financially than just about everyone else in the British Empire. Bertie's identity as a disabled man is thus necessarily complicated by his class status, but his class status also complicates and, as he points out, amplifies the very disability that threatens his royal prerogative.


Given the film's emphasis on Bertie's nobility, it is not surprising that Seidler fills The King's Speech with figurative and material references to royal identity and succession. Both his and Hooper's abiding interest in the culture of monarchy and the problem of regnal heredity is perhaps second only to the depiction of Bertie as a disabled prince and king. In Bertie's speech at Wembley, for example, the BBC announcer introduces him as following both his father (King George V) and brother (David, Prince of Wales): "now the Duke of York will give his inaugural broadcast to the nation and to the world." Here his first vocal block of the film occurs when he attempts to say the word "king," simultaneously portending his potential political failure and symbolizing the strained relationship with his father. When Bertie and Lionel strike a wager in their initial meeting, for example, they bet a "bob" – slang for the British shilling coin. In 1934, the British shilling bore the head of King George V, Bertie's father. Leaning on the double meaning of the coin as both cultural currency and the weight of filial duty, Seidler does not allow Bertie to escape the presence of his father, materially or psychologically. Thus, the verbal banter between Logue and Bertie over the "bob" later in the film provides an opportunity for the therapist to make a clever point about how a prince may unweight himself of the burden of his father, the king ("You don't have to carry him around in your pocket").

More subtle than Seidler's deployment of the coin as monarchical symbol is the prominence in the film of another British cultural institution. As Donaldson has shown, The King's Speech draws heavily on the works of William Shakespeare; direct quotation of and allusion to plays such as Othello, Richard III, The Tempest, and Henry V appear throughout the script. Taking a broad view of these invocations as emblems of Logue's elocutionary commitment to the English dramatic tradition, Donaldson suggests that such "moments give cultural resonance to the king's courage in dealing with his disability despite his doubts." 33 Taking another approach, Jay Timothy Dolmage shrewdly observes that while such Shakespearean allusions would seem to be an "appeal to an anglophile fantasy of language mastery," such references point rather to what is "disabled, tripping, and crip within [the Shakespearean] canon." 34 Dolmage alerts us to way in which Shakespeare has been used to create and codify a standardized English language, but also to the manner in which his works have simultaneously featured a range of non-normative characters, a tension that haunts the presence of disability in English culture over the last four centuries. 35

For his part, Donaldson sees strong thematic parallels between The King's Speech and Henry V, both which highlight the story of a prince initially "unfit for kingship who struggles with his father's legacy." 36 However, I see Bertie has having more in common with another of Shakespeare's reluctant royals. If one were to seek an apt precursor to Bertie's battle with his stutter and the weight of a father's legacy, one need look no further than Hamlet, which Seidler invokes several times throughout the film. Indeed, though much of the critical writing on the character of Hamlet has tended to focus upon his reluctance to act or on his madness, some scholars have recognized him as a stutterer. 37 But I suggest there is more than just a speech impediment and difficult filial relationship that links these two princes. For example, when Logue tells his wife that Bertie "could really be something great," he suggests that the prince needs to seize the moment and embrace his leadership role. Yet Logue's comment also intimates that the future king's greatness is contingent on his achievement of fluent speech. If we think about this tension from the perspective of Hamlet, what prevents Bertie from greatness, according to Logue's logic, is hesitation. Hesitation, deliberate or involuntary (they often seem equivalent in the film), is constructed as incommensurate with good leadership. Political strength requires resolve, and within the moral model of disability hesitation may be cast as weakness of character – a moral failing that, like disfluent speech, ultimately undermines the authority of the king.

Such hesitation, then, defines the stammer through its auditory disruption as a temporal state in the act of speaking. But in doing so it also emblematizes Bertie's psychological condition as it is constructed by Seidler and Hooper. That is to say, while the film initially points to stammering as Bertie's central "problem," the stammer becomes in turn a complex narrative metaphor for his (and the film's) ultimate concern: the prince's hesitation. In this sense, David's (King Edward VIII) abdication as framed by the filmmakers becomes more than a monarchical crisis for Great Britain – it becomes a personal calamity for Bertie as he struggles to embrace his role as heir. Re-centering itself upon this inability or refusal to act at the moment of crisis, the film heightens Bertie's urgency for a cure amidst the gathering clouds of war in the story's background. Indeed, David's relative lack of concern over Hitler as a growing geopolitical threat now contrasts even more sharply with Bertie's personal anxiety. Both royals, it seems, hesitate.

By engaging with Hamlet's classic trope of hesitation, the film pointedly meditates on the uneasy relationship between monarchical succession and personal will. It does so by invoking the deep historical and dense scholarship surrounding the question of Hamlet's delay. As Margreta De Grazia notes, the fact of Hamlet's inability to act, his failure to kill his usurping uncle Claudius when he has the chance (and despite the vocalized desire to enact revenge), has consumed Shakespeare scholarship for over two hundred years. 38 With this critical history in mind, we must consider the manner in which cultural notions of hesitation – verbal, psychological, and political—unite the discourse of disability with debates over monarchical legitimacy and authority. Note, for example, that the term "hesitate" appears relatively early in the English lexicon as a key synonym for stammered vocalization. 39 Thus in its own way, The King's Speech enters the long critical debate over Hamlet's delay by positing (royal) hesitation as a function of stuttered speech.

Moreover, Bertie's seeming inability to fulfill his duties as king by speaking fluently renders vocal hesitation as the very embodiment of incomplete thought. As in Shakespeare's play, the film manifests the tension between thought and action at several points. When Lionel questions Bertie about his stutter in their therapy sessions, for example, he asks if the prince stutters when he talks to himself, inquiring, "Do you hesitate when you think?" Bertie dismisses the question as ridiculous, but Lionel attempts to show him that despite Bertie's vocal disruptions he maintains mental fluency. Bertie may not stutter when he thinks, but in The King's Speech thought does not constitute a demonstrable act. Nonetheless, as we have seen, the film spends a great deal of time attempting to prove that speech, and a king's speech in particular, functions not just as the manifestation of personal will but as a royal duty. With its prominent invocations of Hamlet, then, the film leans heavily on the play's critical reception as "a tragedy of thought," "tragedy of reflection," or "tragedy of consciousness." 40 Placing the problem specifically within the discourse of disability, we find another critical approach in one of the eighteenth century's most powerful readings of Hamlet: A.W. Schlegel argued that Hamlet illustrates a crisis of the mind's effect over the body, that thought "must cripple the power of acting." 41 The emphasis here on the verb "cripple" is telling: for Schlegel, Hamlet's mind disables his body — action is thus "crippled," rendered powerless by a disordered mind.

Just as it does for Shakespeare's Hamlet, the question of royal madness plagues Bertie throughout The King's Speech. When Logue and Bertie meet inside Westminster Abbey for the Coronation rehearsal, Bertie's anxiety over his ability to speak fluently reaches a fever pitch: "It'll be like mad King George the Third, there'll be Mad King George the Stammerer, who let his people down so badly in their hour of need!" Bertie's historical allusion to George III reveals his own public speaking fears to be both medical and political in nature: public concern over George III's first bout of madness in 1788 had resulted in a monarchical crisis lasting several months. Though he would regain control of his mental faculties, the king's authority was severely diminished for the remainder of his reign (he would eventually succumb to mental frailty again in 1811, allowing his son, the Prince of Wales, to rule as regent until the elder monarch's death in 1820). Bertie's invocation of his ancestor unites the history of royal madness with the history of disability, for in addition to his stretches of mental instability, George III was also a stutterer. And stammering had a long history in Europe as being symptomatic of madness. 42 Indeed, as Hooper himself notes in the DVD commentary on the film,

The underlying fear [George VI had … ] was actually one of mental instability; was actually of madness, because this anxiety about control—if you can't control the way you speak if you can't stop stammering then are you really in control of your own brain? And I feel that underneath everything is the fear of madness, the fear of mental instability. 43

Again, read within the film's Shakespearean context, Bertie's fears of mental instability acquire political urgency. For Hamlet, too, troubles over the connection between his incapacity to act and the relative stability of his mind. As he tells his mother, Gertrude, "I essentially am not in madness, / But mad in craft." (III.iv.187-88). Whether or not one who has gone mad or merely pretends to have done so, the prince who cannot control his actions may appear frightening both to himself and to those subject to his royal authority.

In this way Hooper and Seidler use Hamlet's psychological crisis to project Bertie's anxiety over his own hesitated speech onto fears of madness that compound uncertainty over his very identity and sense of self. The King's Speech takes up this question where Hamlet leaves off when Lionel asks Bertie to recite the play's most famous soliloquy ("To be, or not to be"). Here we find a moment of meta-poesis wherein a modern prince recites the literary prince's speech (vs. "the King's speech"). In this way, Hamlet provides us with a kind of urtext for Seidler's tale of a modern hesitating prince. When Lionel has Bertie read from the play in his office, the scene necessarily reimagines the film's opening speech in Wembley Stadium by substituting visual concealment for aural—in the opening scene the microphone obscures Bertie's mouth (nearly his whole head), but now it is Bertie's voice that is eclipsed (by loud classical music). Using vocal recording technology and delayed audio feedback, Logue insists that while Bertie will not be able to hear his own voice, he will still be able to speak. "Surely," he intones, "a prince's mind knows what his body is doing." Here, The King's Speech essentially turns Hamlet's problem back upon itself by recasting speech and thought as potentially discrete actions. Yet when unified, speech becomes the realization of thought, an action with social and, in the case of a prince or king, political power. Bertie's ability to recite the Hamlet soliloquy in the same sense reverses the inaction emblematized by the play's monologue. Later in the film, he finally listens to the recording of his voice, and Hooper begins the sequence with Bertie's face initially concealed by a large Victrola. Eventually the camera pans around just as the audience and Bertie himself hear his recorded voice recite the speech flawlessly. Again, the tension between speech and modern technology highlights the problem of vocal disability and its relationship to identity: Bertie listens and hears himself, yet the disembodied voice emanates not from his own mouth but from a machine. 44


The alienation of Bertie's voice from his own body emblematizes the crisis of authority inherent in disabled subjectivity; audio recording and wireless technology in this sense merely compound his inability to solidify his identity through speech when confronted by such fragmentation. Moreover, as it does with visual motifs and cultural allusions, The King's Speech uses narrative technique to underscore its thematization of vocal disability as a socially and historically disruptive force. Formally speaking, the film itself both highlights and collapses temporal hesitation, jumping back and forth through time with multiple flashbacks. Such temporal regressions and disruptions reflect Bertie's reluctance to embrace his socially imposed identity (first as prince, then as heir apparent, and finally as king), which in turn suggests a larger cultural anxiety about the unbroken line of kingship that consumes the British government during the abdication crisis (fomented by his brother's affair with the twice-divorced American socialite, Wallis Simpson).

Indeed, his first encounter with Logue illustrates Bertie's fraught subjectivity when he recites his full name: "Prince Albert … Frederick … Arthur … George." His stuttered delivery amplifies the discontinuity of these various familial monikers. Moreover, the litany of names serves as much a marker for his fragmented social identity as it functions as a reminder of his place in the royal succession. Later in the film, just before David's abdication, Winston Churchill (Timothy Spall) asks Bertie what he will call himself as king—Bertie stammers upon reply (common for stammerers asked to introduce themselves). That he appears unable to name himself upon command invokes the problem of compulsory fluency once more, and here the stakes are heightened by the urgency to take up his royal identity. His verbal hesitation reminds us that Bertie's non-normative body is asynchronous with the world around him. Dismissing the use of "Albert" ("too Germanic!"), Churchill suggests that Bertie might call himself "George," both to honor his father and for the sense of "continuity." Such regnal continuity, however comforting for the nation, ultimately threatens Bertie's desire for self-definition and personal agency.

The inability to use his own first name as king stands as one of many instances wherein Bertie appears consumed with what is and what is not his own. And it is his voice that ranks first among contested aspects of his identity. When Lionel asks him in their first meeting when "the defect first" began, Bertie demurs, replying that he has always been "this way." Lionel expresses doubt, and Bertie becomes enraged, insisting, "Don't … TELL me. It's my stammer." The language of possession Bertie deploys here is significant; that he claims ownership of his stammer rather than of his speech or of his voice suggests the degree to which his disability has defined him. Broadly speaking, the statement serves as an emblem for the ways in which internalized ableism manifests in self-representation. Thus, there is more than a little irony in one of the film's promotional taglines: "Find your voice." Anticipating The Stuttering Foundation's endorsement of the film I noted in my introduction, the tagline's aspirational message exhorted audiences to find their own voices. Yet within the context of the film's dramatic argument the phrase suggests, of course, that it is Bertie's voice that is missing. Focusing as it does upon what the subject lacks, the ableist tenor of the phrase has troubling social and political implications for those with communication disorders. So, too, does Logue's formulation of his job as a speech therapist: "My job" he tells Bertie about his early career, "was to give [patients] faith in their own voice, and to let them know someone was listening."

Indeed, at times the film seems less invested in the subject finding his own voice than with elevating the therapist's role in giving it to him. Bertie suggests as much when he confronts Logue in Westminster Abbey after learning his speech therapist has no official medical credentials. Here Bertie accuses Logue of "saddl[ing] this nation with a voiceless king." Again, we see Bertie adopting the language of lack that has defined the disabled body throughout history. 45 As their argument escalates, the film solidifies its rendering of the voice as nexus of identity and authority:

Bertie: "Listen to me! Listen to me!"

Logue [interrupting]: "Listen to you, by what right?"

Bertie: "By divine right, if you must. I am your king!"

Logue: "No you're not, you told me so yourself. You said you didn't want it. Why should I waste my time listening?"

Bertie: [interrupting] "Because I have a RIGHT. I HAVE A VOICE!"

It is a moving cinematic moment, one seemingly orchestrated by Logue to elicit the self-confidence that has thus far eluded Bertie. Now, finally beginning to recognize his own power, he willingly exerts royal prerogative, even pushing back against Archbishop Lang (Derek Jacobi), who tries to expel Logue from the abbey. Lang tells the King, "My concern, your majesty, is for the head on whom I must place the crown." Bertie reminds him, "But it's my head." The line echoes the possessive language he once anxiously applied to his stutter, and more crucially it reorients the focus of his authority upon the corporeal form from which the king's speech emanates. Consequently, the film presents Logue as the catalyst for Bertie's ontological revelation, allowing him to find his voice and move beyond his moment of Shakespearean hesitation as the film shifts into its final act.

By the last sequence of the film, Bertie has fully embraced his stutter as a marker of identity, just as he has accepted his role as monarch; after delivering his first wartime speech (announcing Britain's intent to declare war on Germany), Bertie responds to Logue's comment that he "still stammered on the 'w'" by saying "well, I had to throw in a few, so they knew it was me." Again, such emphasis on elocutionary style as a marker of identity is crucial. As Dolmage notes regarding the film's rhetorical practice,

Not only is Bertie his stutter—the king's speech stands in as synecdoche for the king himself, he passes from subject to object—but the audience may also feel that the stutter, or any disability, must be traced back to some other perceived negative, be it a weakness of character, a trauma, or a closeted aspect of one's personality. 46

Dolmage goes on to argue that the film grants the audience (through Logue) the psychoanalytic authority to diagnose the king's disability. I suggest that his reading offers a crucial point of caution in praising the film too highly as an inspirational rendering of a disabled character – for while Bertie seems to gain confidence through Logue's therapeutic methods, the emphasis on psychoanalytic diagnosis threatens to overwhelm and overdetermine the nature of disability by re-inscribing it as rooted in parental neglect and personal failure.

To be sure, Seidler's use of the Hamlet trope in this manner posits the notion that Bertie's domineering father, a tyrannical nanny, forced right-handedness, and general childhood psychological trauma have, if not created the prince's stammer certainly exacerbated it. It is the weight of this trauma, Seidler and Hooper suggest, that seems to be the true impediment for Bertie, for Logue brazenly diagnoses the future king's stammer (and his hesitation to embrace his role as successor to the throne) as merely a symptom of many childhood psychological traumas. "You needn't be governed by fear," he tells Bertie, just before Bertie dismisses him in anger. (Later Logue tells his wife about Bertie, "He's scared. He's afraid of his own shadow.") That is to say, the film links Bertie's angry outbursts, his speech impediment, and his professional reluctance directly to the traumas of his youth.

From a historical perspective, the film's Oedipal subtext is deeply problematic for the way in which it perpetuates the pseudo-scientific notion that stuttering is evidence of a psychological condition rather than what we now identify as the physiological manifestation of a neurological disorder with a discernible genetic origin. 47 Even if we accept that a psychoanalytical approach to stammering held favor in the 1930s, the film troublingly becomes complicit in advancing this notion by validating Logue's self-described "successful" talk therapies grounded in early trauma theory (he admits to beginning his therapeutic career working with "shell-shocked" soldiers rendered speechless by their experiences in World War I). Nonetheless, I do not mean to suggest that the experience of stuttering does not in itself often result in trauma as some recent psychological research suggests. 48 In fact, as I have argued, the film does manage to convey with some sensitivity the degree to which Bertie's stammer, or rather the social reaction to it, has disabled him in the professional and public realms. And one positive aspect of the film as disability narrative is that it finally shows Bertie living with his stammer rather than overcoming it.

Ultimately, The King's Speech seeks dramatic resolution by uniting Bertie's acceptance of his non-normative speech with his understanding of wireless technology as an instrument vital to modern imperial governance. When he tells Logue in the final radio address scene that he "had to throw in a few [stuttered words] so they'd know it was me," he has embraced his identity as both stutterer and king, but more crucially he projects this identity though the technological mechanism that terrifies him in the film's opening: the microphone. Hooper and Seidler's staging of the film's ending scene, in fact, reverses entirely the construction of the work's opening sequence: whereas we began moving through tunnels from the tight inner sanctum of Wembley to ascend up into the open air of the stadium, here we find Bertie (with Logue and the queen behind him), progressing from the large, bright, outer rooms of Buckingham Palace (filled with staff and dignitaries milling about) into a small room with just a single suspended microphone at the center (see figure 11). The room has been transformed into a remarkably intimate space, insulated with thick draperies that make it appear even smaller ("I've made it cozy," Logue says). All spectators from the opening scene have been removed (including the queen), though the camera's focus remains upon Bertie and the microphone. As Bertie prepares to deliver his speech, the camera settles on a frontal shot of his face with the mic obscuring all but his eyes (see figure 12). We can hear him practicing sounds, but as in the early recitation scene we cannot see his mouth. The camera briefly shifts to Logue and then cuts to Bertie again, still shot through the microphone but now, significantly, revealing Bertie's mouth. As he delivers his speech, the microphone, which had obscured Bertie's mouth in early scenes, now appears either beside the king or disappears entirely (see figure 13). Without a physical audience present, most of Bertie's body dissolves as Hooper's camera focuses upon the monarch's face with special emphasis on his mouth. Such visual attention, film theorist Michel Chion reminds us, codifies the mouth as "the symbolic place of vocal production." 49 He notes that the mouth necessarily figures symbolically in cinema, because "otherwise vocal production—phonation—involves many other parts of the body: the lungs, muscles involved in breathing, the larynx, the brain, and so on." 50 As visual icon, the mouth stands in for the many parts of the body that produce speech for the subject, an outward corporeal symbol on which the camera may focus. Such focus on the speaking mouth compounds exponentially for the stutterer, and with the rest of his body obscured, Bertie effectively becomes his mouth, or rather, he becomes his voice.

Logue, Bertie, and the queen in a room covered with tapestries. More description below.

Figure 11. Hooper, The King's Speech (1:41:21), Anchor Bay Entertainment, 2011. In a secluded room covered with tapestries, Logue and Bertie stand facing each other on opposite sides of a suspended microphone with the queen in the background.

Close-up of Bertie with his face partially obstructed by a microphone. More description below.

Figure 12. Hooper, The King's Speech (1:41:02), Anchor Bay Entertainment, 2011. A close-up shot of Bertie with all but his eyes obscured by the microphone in the foreground.

Close-up shot of Bertie speaking. More description below.

Figure 13. Hooper, The King's Speech (1:45:40), Anchor Bay Entertainment, 2011. A tight shot of Bertie with open mouth no microphone obscuring his face.

When Bertie readies himself to begin the speech, Logue softly tells him to "forget everything else, and just say it to me. Say it to me as a friend." Sequestered in this private space, Logue minimizes, even erases, the millions listening to the BBC broadcast. Hooper's rendering of the scene and Logue's dialogue frame this most public of speeches as a quiet personal exchange between friends. Even the speech itself advances this fiction of intimacy, one now extended to all those listening across the empire: "I send to every household of my peoples, both at home, — and overseas – this message. Spoken with the same depth for feeling for each one of you as if I were able to cross your threshold and speak to you myself." Here the imagined bond between monarch and subjects is strengthened as the king extends his voice into the homes of the empire.

But the manner of intimacy that radio appears to enable, that is, the notion of a king present in the home of a commoner, is an impressive technological deception deployed to solidify imperial hegemony. As I noted earlier, radio seemingly levels social difference by collapsing physical distance, yet the disembodied, unilateral projection of the monarch's voice nonetheless retains the extraordinary authority and privilege of his position. We remember that in the Christmas speech flashback with Bertie and his father, King George V informs his son that, in "the past all a king had to do was look respectable in uniform and not fall off his horse. Now we must invade people's homes and ingratiate ourselves with them." (emphasis mine) Crucially, the elder king's diction reveals how the wireless has become a vital mechanism of imperial control: in George V's formulation, radio serves as a tool for a kind of aggressive intimacy enforced upon a king's subjects.

Yet within the specific context of a disability narrative such as The King's Speech, radio functions not just as a technological marker of modernity, but rather becomes a kind of imperial prosthetic that transforms the stuttered voice into a powerful agent by which to wield monarchical authority. 51 If the voice, as I have been arguing, is indeed the agent of Bertie's royal power, then the microphone as an imperial prosthetic amplifies that power beyond normate expectations, beyond physical boundaries, beyond even temporal limitations. That is, the film positions the microphone as a unique prosthetic device that, in the words of Katherine Ott, "enhance[s] such capabilities as mobility and agility, sensory apprehension, communication, and cognitive action." 52 While the mic does not compensate for Bertie's disability (his stuttered speech), it nonetheless functions as a technology used to augment his physical capability, and, more crucially, his effectiveness as an agent of Britain's imperial presence. I should note that my use of the term "imperial" follows Edward Said's definition as it relates to culture. He understands imperialism as "the practice, the theory, and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan center ruling a distant territory." 53 For my purposes, his emphasis on distance allows us to understand modern Britain's use of wireless technology as an essential component of imperial sovereignty.

What I am arguing, then, is that in The King's Speech, disability, and vocal disability in particular, functions on multiple intersecting levels: while the film considers the way in which compulsory fluency affects individual identity, it does so through a powerful triangulation of disability, class, and technology. But in a broader sense, disability here serves as a metaphor for historical rupture and the anxiety over broken succession, the threat of war, and geopolitical instability. Disruption in the temporal field is not merely personal in The King's Speech, not merely the disordering of Bertie's own vocalizations, for they symbolize the potential for political disruption in the very line of royal sovereignty. Taken together, this internal crisis of sovereignty alongside the external military challenge from Nazi Germany threatens to disrupt the forward progress and solidity of the British Empire.


The author would like to thank Jason Farr, Paul Kelleher, and Scott Krzych for their suggestions on early drafts of this essay. Equal gratitude is owed to Colin Carman for the invitation to present a shorter version of this work at Colorado Mesa University.

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  • Kalinowski, J., A. Stuart, S. Sark, and J. Armson. "Stuttering amelioration at various auditory feedback delays and speech rates," International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders, 31 (1996): 259-69. https://doi.org/10.3109/13682829609033157
  • Longmore, Paul K. Why I Burned my Book and Other Essays on Disability. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003.
  • Lynch, Jack. The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of "Proper" English, from Shakespeare to South Park. New York: Walker & Co., 2009.
  • McRuer, Robert. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability, New York: New York University Press, 2006.
  • Mitchell, David T. and Sharon L. Snyder, Narrative Prothesis: Disability and the Dependency of Discourse, Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Press, 2000.
  • Mugglestone, Lynda. Talking Proper: the Rise of Accent As Social Symbol. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Ott, Katherine. "Prosthetic," in Keywords for Disability Studies, eds. Rachel Adams, Benjamin Reiss, and David Serlin. New York and London: New York University Press, 2015.
  • du Plessix Gray, Francine. "The Paralysis of Stuttering," The New York Times Review of Books, April 26, 2012.
  • Phillips, Edward. The new World of Words; or, Universal English Dictionary, 6th ed., vol. 1, London, 1706.
  • Raza, M.H. Riazuddin, S. and Drayna, D., "Identification of an autosomal recessive stuttering locus on chromosome 3q13.2-3q12.33," Human Genetics, 128 (2010): 461-63. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00439-010-0871-y
  • Raza, H.M., Mattera, R. Morell, R., et al and Drayna, D., "Association between Rare Variants in AP4E1, a Component of Intracelluar Trafficking, and Persistent Stuttering," American Journal of Human Genetics 97 (2015): 715-25. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ajhg.2015.10.007
  • Riaz, N. Steinberg, S. Ahmad, J., Pluzhnikov, A., Riazuddin, S., Cox, N.J., and Drayna, D., "Genomewide significant linkage to stuttering on chromosome 12," American Journal of Human Genetics 76 (2005): 647-51. https://doi.org/10.1086/429226
  • Richman, Jared S. "The Other King's Speech: Elocution and the Politics of Disability in Georgian Britain," The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 59.3 (2018): 279-304. https://doi.org/10.1353/ecy.2018.0016
  • Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.
  • Shapiro, Joseph. No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Disability Rights. New York: Broadway Books, 1994.
  • Shell, Marc. Stutter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.
  • St. Pierre, Joshua. "Distending Straight-Masculine Time: A Phenomenology of the Disabled Speaking Body," Hypatia 30.1 (2015): 49-65. https://doi.org/10.1111/hypa.12128
  • ———., "Cripping Communication: Speech, Disability, And Exclusion, in the Liberal Humanist and Posthumanist Discourse," Communication Theory 25.3 (2015): 1-19. https://doi.org/10.1111/comt.12054
  • ———. "The Construction of the Disabled Speaker: Locating Stuttering in Disability Studies," in Talking Normal: Literature, Speech, Disorders, and Disability, 9-23. Ed. Chris Eagle. Routledge, 2014.
  • Siebers, Tobin. Disability Aesthetics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010. https://doi.org/10.3998/mpub.1134097
  • Starkweather, C.W. and Janet Givens-Ackerman, "Stuttering as variant of post-traumatic stress disorder: what we can learn," from "Experiential Therapy for Stutterers" (2004). Web: https://www.stuttering-specialist.com/post/stuttering-as-a-variant-of-post-traumatic-stress-disorder
  • Stuart, Maria. "'Easy Listening': Altered Auditory Feedback and dysfluent speech," Journal of Interdisciplinary Voice Studies, 4:1 (2019): 7-19. https://doi.org/10.1386/jivs.4.1.7_1
  • Williams, Katherine Schaap. "Enabling Richard: the Rhetoric of Disability in Richard III," Disability Studies Quarterly, 29.4 (2009). https://doi.org/10.18061/dsq.v29i4.997
  • Wills, David. Prosthesis. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.


  1. The King's Speech, directed by Tom Hooper, (2010; Beverly Hills, CA: Anchor Bay Entertainment, 2011) DVD, garnered a dozen Oscar nominations in 2011 and ultimately won four: Hooper, for Best Director, Seidler for Best Screenplay, Colin Firth for Best Actor, and Best Picture.
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  2. From the 2011 Stuttering Foundation promotional ad for The King's Speech, Time Magazine, Feb. 14, 2011.
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  3. After the film took home the Oscar for best picture, Jane Fraser, President of The Stuttering Foundation, declared, "It is an eloquently golden night for people who stutter" (as quoted by Gloria Goodale, "How 'the King's Speech' spoke eloquently for those who stutter," The Christian Science Monitor, Feb. 28, 2011).
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  4. See, for example, Joseph Shapiro, No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Disability Rights (New York: Broadway Books, 1994), 12-40; and Paul K. Longmore, Why I Burned my Book and Other Essays on Disability (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003), 133-40.
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  5. Strictly speaking, Logue was an elocutionist, and the film notes that he had no medical training or degree. However, for the purposes of this essay I shall refer to him as a speech therapist, which is the title by which he would be known today.
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  6. "The King's Speech: Shakespeare, Empire and Global Media," in The Shakespearean International Yearbook, eds. Alexa Huang and Tom Bishop, vol. 13 (2013), 184.
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  7. Benson Bobrick, Knotted Tongues: History and Treatment of a Mysterious Malady (Simon & Schuster, 1995); Marc Shell, Stutter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).
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  8. See, for example, Jay Timothy Dolmage, Disability Rhetoric (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2014); Joshua St. Pierre, "Cripping Communication: Speech, Disability, And Exclusion, in the Liberal Humanist and Posthumanist Discourse," Communication Theory (2015): 1-19; Jeremy Davies, "A Hundred Tongues: George Darley's Stammer," in Disabling Romanticism, ed. Michael Bradshaw (Palgrave, 2016), 191-210; Chris Eagle, ed. Talking Normal: Literature, Speech Disorders, and Disability (Routledge, 2014); and Dwight Codr and Jared S. Richman, "Speech: The Sound of Disability" in A Cultural History of Disability in the Long Eighteenth Century, Vol. 4, eds. D. Christopher Gabbard and Susannah B. Mintz (London: Bloomsbury, 2020), 105-19.
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  9. "Distending Straight-Masculine Time: A Phenomenology of the Disabled Speaking Body," Hypatia 30.1 (2015), 49.
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  10. St. Pierre, "The Construction of the Disabled Speaker: Locating Stuttering in Disability Studies," in Chris Eagle, ed. Talking Normal: Literature, Speech Disorders, and Disability (Routledge, 2014), 9. Chris Eagle has argued for the establishment of what he calls "Dysfluency Studies" (see "Introduction," in Talking Normal, 4). However, I consciously choose not to use "Dysfluency Studies" because as it has been thus applied the phrase seems to encompass a startlingly wide span of communication disorders that have a huge range of discrete pathologies, causes, and cultural histories (e.g. aphasia and lisping). These conditions demand nuanced consideration that may be diminished by grouping them together under the umbrella of a single phrase. Moreover, "dysfluency studies" separates stuttering and speech production from theoretical and critical studies of adjacent non-normative embodiments related to hearing and aurality. Finally, I use the Latin prefix "dis-" rather than the Greek "dys-" as a linguistic marker meant to situate stuttering squarely within Critical Disability Studies as a field.
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  11. While the term "stutterer" is controversial in the stuttering community (some prefer "people who stutter"), for the sake of brevity and historical accuracy I shall use the term here. Moreover, I shall use the terms "stutter" and "stammer" interchangeably in this essay to denote verbal disfluencies characterized by involuntary vocal repetition, hesitation, and blockages. These terms have been used interchangeably in England since the seventeenth century.
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  12. Miriam Elizabeth Burstein, "'I Have Remembered How to Seem': The Symbolic Monarchy after King George," Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 32:2 (2015): 173.
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  13. On the politics of disability and staring see Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Staring: How We Look (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 17-23.
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  14. St. Pierre, "Construction of the Disabled Speaker," 14.
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  15. Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), 54.
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  16. Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007), 4.
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  17. Freeman, 3.
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  18. See Alison Kafer's notion of "Crip-time" in Feminist, Queer, Crip (Bloomington & Indiana: University of Indiana Press, 2013), 34-36; see also St. Pierre, "Distending Straight-Masculine Time."
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  19. Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times, Dec. 15, 2010. Tragically, Ebert himself had recently lost the power of speech as a result of cancer in his jaw.
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  20. The Classical Greek statesman and orator Demosthenes become a key cultural touchstone in the history of vocal disability. Born with a severe stutter, Demosthenes is said to have invented his own therapeutic program that included running up hills with weights (to increase lung capacity), declaiming loudly to the waves, and speaking with pebbles under his tongue. The subsequent legend of how he overcame his speech impediment and rose to the heights oratorical renown cemented his fame well beyond the classical world. See Bobrick, 63-66. See also Shell, 31-32.
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  21. Robert McRuer, Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 2.
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  22. McRuer, 2.
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  23. On the concept of compulsory fluency see Jared S. Richman, "The Other King's Speech: Elocution and the Politics of Disability in Georgian Britain," The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 59.3 (2018): 279-304; and Camille Duque and Bonnie Lashewicz, "Reframing less conventional speech to disrupt conventions of 'compulsory fluency': a Conversation Analysis approach," Disability Studies Quarterly 38.2 (2018). Whereas my conception of compulsory fluency functions as a socio-cultural category framing stuttering and other communication disorders within the context of oral performance and representation in literature, film, and art (following McRuer), Duque and Lashewicz use it to articulate clinical and therapeutic approaches to what they identify broadly as "less conventional speech." Ultimately their specific use of the phrase figures within a narrow study of autistic subjects to assist medical practitioners and clinical researchers. My rendering is closer to the work of St. Pierre as expressed in his essay, "The Construction of the Disabled Speaker" (9-23). St. Pierre centers on the very public nature of stuttering as disability and suggests that, for example, in "failing to conform to expectations of expediency, the stutterer herself is constructed as the faulty instrument that is inefficient and less useful" (15).
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  24. See Francine du Plessix Gray, "The Paralysis of Stuttering," The New York Times Review of Books, April 26, 2012.
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  25. On such narratives of overcoming in film see Longmore, 133-40.
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  26. Maria Stuart, "'Easy Listening': Altered Auditory Feedback and dysfluent speech," Journal of Interdisciplinary Voice Studies, 4:1 (2019), 10.
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  27. Thomas Hajkowski, The BBC and National Identity in Britain, 1922-53 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010), 87.
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  28. Hajkowski, 88-89.
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  29. Hajkowski, 96.
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  30. Burstein, 163-64; 172-73.
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  31. Burstein looks at three films of this sort: The Madness of King George (1994), Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown (1997) and The King's Speech (2010). These she views as part of larger "cycle of films" dealing with representation of the British monarch in which "the monarch suffers from psychological trauma that makes it impossible for him of her to perform their symbolic public roles." (163) One could add to Burstein's list even more recent films such as Mary, Queen of Scots (2018) and The Favorite (2018), and perhaps even the Netflix series The Crown (2016-18), whose rendering of George VI highlights not just his stammer but his degenerative lung cancer and eventual death.
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  32. See for example, Matthew DeKinder, "REVIEW: 'The King's Speech' is incredible (but true) story," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 23 Dec., 2010; Gloria Goodale, "How 'The King's Speech" Spoke Eloquently for those who Stutter," The Christian Science Monitor, Feb. 28, 2011; Peter Bradshaw, "The King's Speech-review," The Guardian, Jan. 6, 2011; David Edelstein, "Hollywood Royalty," New York Magazine, Nov. 19, 2010.
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  33. Donaldson, 184.
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  34. Dolmage, 261. Dolmage's compelling reading of the film posits Bertie's stutter as a rhetorical problem. However, I agree with Elizabeth Brewer's critique of this reading: "while disability is a fundamental part of what it means to be human, this universal view of disability should not be used as a rationale to move sustained inquiry into disability as a lived experience." See Brewer, review of Jay Timothy Dolmage, Disability Rhetoric, in Disability Studies Quarterly 34.2 (2014): https://doi.org/10.18061/dsq.v34i2.4289 (accessed July 30, 2019).
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  35. On the standardization of English, see Jack Lynch, The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of "Proper" English, from Shakespeare to South Park (New York: Walker & Co., 2009) and Lynda Mugglestone, Talking Proper: the Rise of Accent As Social Symbol (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003); for foundational readings of Shakespeare and disability see David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder, Narrative Prothesis: Disability and the Dependency of Discourse (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Press, 2000), 95-115; and Katherine Schaap Williams, "Enabling Richard: the Rhetoric of Disability in Richard III," Disability Studies Quarterly, 29.4 (2009): https://doi.org/10.18061/dsq.v29i4.997 (accessed July 16, 2019).
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  36. Donaldson, 185.
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  37. For example, Marc Shell notes in Stutter that Gertrude refers to her son as "scant of breath," a phrase that he identifies as emblematic of his verbal hesitations (175). Shell links Hamlet to Claudius by reading them both as disabled royals, partially based on a childhood hunch that Shakespeare had based his Danish prince on Seutonius' rendering of the Roman Emperor. For an expanded and somewhat capacious reading of Hamlet as stutterer, see Shell, 169-200. Nonetheless, Hamlet's penchant for hesitation, which I shall discuss below, has been linked to the notion of the stutter.
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  38. "There is now a long tradition in which critics identify Hamlet's delay as the play's problem and propose a new disorder to account for it, often drawing on the latest theories in philosophy, psychology, and psychoanalysis, discrediting the proposals of their predecessors by showing how more or different aspects of Hamlet's behavior can be accounted for by their diagnosis of the problem," Margreta De Grazia, Hamlet without Hamlet (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 170. De Grazia goes on to detail the range and breath of these approaches in the work of Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Terry Eagleton, Steven Greenblatt, and Jonathan Goldberg, to name just a few of the most notable tackling the problem, the last of whom sees Hamlet's "delays and deferrals" as the "result of his identification ... with his father's command which leaves him in state of 'Being divided by non-being'" (as quoted by De Grazia, 171).
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  39. See, for example, Edward Phillips, The new World of Words; or, Universal English Dictionary, 6th ed., vol. 1 (London, 1706), which defines the term as such: "To Hesitate, to stammer or falter, to hum and haw" (336).
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  40. De Grazia, 163-65.
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  41. August Wilhelm von Schlegel, The Romantics on Shakespeare, ed. Jonathan Bate (London: Penguin, 1992), 308.
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  42. See Richman, "The Other King's Speech."
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  43. The King's Speech, DVD commentary 54:30.
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  44. This fluency "trick" would not be unfamiliar to many stutterers watching the film as it became common in speech language therapy during the twentieth century. See for example, J. Kalinowski, A. Stuart, S. Sark, and J. Armson, "Stuttering amelioration at various auditory feedback delays and speech rates," International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders, 31 (1996): 259-69. For excellent background on the history of Altered Auditory Feedback including a brief analysis of this scene see Stuart, pp. 7-13. Blocking a stutterer's auditory feedback often results in fluent speech, but it also operates metaphorically within the context of Hamlet's delay: as DeGrazia, Hamlet without Hamlet, avers, "Alienated from the world, [Hamlet] cannot take the final step of quitting contemplation for activity and thereby realize himself through the self-expressive and self-determined action that is the consummation of Hegelian history." (256)
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  45. On the notion of disability as defined by corporeal deficiency, see, for example, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 6-9; and Tobin Siebers, Disability Aesthetics (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010), 2-4.
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  46. Dolmage, 258.
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  47. See, for example, Felsenfeld, S., and Plomin, R., "Epidemiological and offspring analyses of developmental speech disorders using data from the Colorado Adoption Project, Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research, 40 (1997): 778-91; Riaz, N. Steinberg, S. Ahmad, J., Pluzhnikov, A., Riazuddin, S., Cox, N.J., and Drayna, D., "Genomewide significant linkage to stuttering on chromosome 12," American Journal of Human Genetics 76 (2005): 647-51; Dworzynski, K. Remington, A., Rijsdijk, F. Howell, P., and Plomin, R.,"Genetic etiology in cases of recovered and persistent stuttering in an unselected, longitudinal sample of young twins," American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 16 (2007): 169-178; Raza, M.H. Riazuddin, S. and Drayna, D., "Identification of an autosomal recessive stuttering locus on chromosome 3q13.2-3q12.33," Human Genetics, 128 (2010): 461-63; Raza, H.M., Mattera, R. Morell, R., et al and Drayna, D., "Association between Rare Variants in AP4E1, a Component of Intracelluar Trafficking, and Persistent Stuttering," American Journal of Human Genetics 97 (2015): 715-25.
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  48. See C.W. Starkweather and Janet Givens-Ackerman, "Stuttering as variant of post-traumatic stress disorder: what we can learn," from "Experiential Therapy for Stutterers" (2004). After conducting case-studies, Starkweather and Givens-Ackerman align stuttering with disassociation common in those experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. They conclude "that stuttering is a very specific form of PTSD, in which small repeated social traumas, resulting from disfluent speech, cause social embarrassment, frustration, and fear." Web: https://www.stuttering-specialist.com/post/stuttering-as-a-variant-of-post-traumatic-stress-disorder (accessed July 31, 2019). See also James Thomas Haley, "Stuttering, emotional expression, and masculinity: fighting out words, fighting back tears." PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) thesis, University of Iowa, 2009.
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  49. Michel Chion, The Voice in Cinema, trans. Claudia Gorman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 127.
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  50. Chion, 127.
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  51. On the notion of prosthetic as narrative device see Mitchell and Snyder, "The Language of Prosthesis," 124-27; see also David Wills, Prosthesis (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995).
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  52. Katherine Ott, "Prosthetic," in Keywords for Disability Studies, eds. Rachel Adams, Benjamin Reiss, and David Serlin (New York and London: New York University Press, 2015), 140.
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  53. Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 9.
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