Boris Johnson & Shakespeare – The Biography

Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson

Publishers Hodden and Stoughton have just announced that they will be paying London mayor, Boris Johnson, a half a million pounds (about 750,000 US dollars) to write a biography of William Shakespeare.

That is more of a reflection of the greed and cynicism of publishers than of the surprise that someone not known as a scholar nor as having a background in Shakespeare should be paid so much. It is about sales figures and the (what some people think is misguided) popularity of Mr Johnson.

I don’t know how well Boris Johnson is known to our readers in the United States but on this side of the Atlantic just the use of his first name instantly identifies him. To say the name ‘Boris’ is like saying Groucho or Elvis: there can be no doubt as to whom one is referring to.

The publishers know that people will go out in droves to buy the book: the quality of its content won’t matter. But a man who, as mayor of London campaigns for building an international airport in one of the most valuable wild life sanctuaries in Europe and who buys water cannon vehicles regardless of how television images of their possible use in the world’s greatest and most liberal and advanced city would come across to the world, then sulks when a fairly reasonable government rejects the proposal, cannot be taken seriously on any matter. We have searched the internet for evidence of a Shakespearean history for Mr Johnson and all we can find is the half million pound advance. The publishers don’t care about whether he writes about Shakespeare, brain surgery, water cannons or nuclear physics: he’s Boris Johnson, and a goldmine. But Boris has been quite clever in selecting, rather than a nuclear physics or an astronomy genius, the most imagination-capturing English genius, William Shakespeare.

If one thinks about it it’s a kind of statistical choice of subject. Boris’ first blockbusting biography was Winston Churchill, and now it’s William Shakespeare. They are the two men who are always top of any list of ‘who is the greatest Englishman?’ We can expect his next biography to be either Darwin or Newton as he works his way merrily down the list.

But what will he say about Shakespeare’s life? James Shapiro, probably the world’s greatest expert on Shakespeare, has just produced a book, Contested Will, that demonstrates the eccentricity, surrealism and lunacy to be found in accounts of Shakespeare’s life. Apart from the authorship theories (one of which Boris may turn out to hold) there are biographies like the one in John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, in which Shakespeare’s father was a butcher. As a child, apparently, the Bard ‘exercised his father’s trade, but when he killed a calf he would do it in high style, and make a speech.’

In Shakespeare’s Works, 1709, Nicholas Rowe invents the story of the young playwright as a deer-poacher who escaped to the London theatre world to avoid prosecution. The nineteenth century scholar and forger, John Payne Collier, had Marlowe breaking his leg while acting on the stage of the Curtain theatre. Both those incidents came from nowhere other than their authors’ heads. In 1963 the Oxford historian A L Rowse solved the problem of the Dark Lady of the sonnets: according to him the Dark Lady was the poet Emilia Lanier. Rowse didn’t feel that he needed any evidence or any proper scholarship to make that assertion.

James Shapiro also points us to several outstanding Shakespeare biographies: Outlines of the Life of Shakespeare by James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps, 1887; William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems by E K Chambers, 1930; Shakespeare’s Lives by Samuel Schoenbaum, 1970; The Lodger: Shakespeare in Silver Street by Charles Nicholl, 2007, and  Peter Holland’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, May 4, 2011. There is also a biography by Stanley Wells, the scholar who knows more than anyone on the planet about Shakespeare, and others by reputable Renaissance scholars like Germaine Greer.

But where is Boris’ pedigree in Shakespeare scholarship? Can one even imagine him sitting quietly in a theatre for three hours with all the attention on someone other than himself? But on the other hand, perhaps he’s the most qualified person to write about Shakespeare as he is himself so strikingly a Shakespearean character.

The first one that comes to mind, of course, is that most popular of Shakespeare’s characters, and a Londoner too, the fat knight, Sir John Falstaff. Physically, certainly, they are uncannily similar. But there’s more to it: the highly intelligent Falstaff hides his huge ambition behind a facade of buffoonery while keeping his eye on the main chance. He also seeks to take credit for the work of others, such as the killing of Hotspur. It’s a bit like elbowing everyone out of the way to try and take credit for the success of the London 2012 Olympic Games, during which he made sure that it was he rather than anyone else who filled our television screens.

Or is Boris more like Macbeth, lusting after the top job and looking for a chance to overthrow his boss? It needs courage, though, and a wife who questions that courage to spur him on. Perhaps Johnson’s failure so far to go for it is because he doesn’t have a wife like Lady Macbeth and therefore his lack of courage is his downfall. When Cameron, the Duncan of the piece, was re-elected as Prime Minister of the U.K.  Boris’ courage failed and he was left squirming on the back benches instead of becoming the saviour of the nation. Like the cat who would eat fish but was afraid to get his feet wet.

Hamlet? The play is full of ‘will he or won’t he’ tension. Can he or can’t he avenge his father’s murder? Will he or won’t he? It’s a bit like will I or won’t I stand for parliament while I have a showcase as Mayor of London? If I go now I will be in place when the Conservatives lose the election, but they may win it and then where will I be? Let me do both jobs and have it both ways. There will have been plenty of ‘to be or not to be’ thinking going on in Boris.

And so we come to Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Bully Bottom cannot bear anyone else playing any available roles and wants to take them all on himself. He thinks he would be the best actor for each one. And he ends up being turned into a donkey. The four jobs that Boris currently holds, being, in his opinion, the best man for all of them, is  brilliantly Bottom, and like Bottom, he doesn’t realise that he’s nothing but an ass.

Or Iago perhaps? Pretending to be the general’s friend while plotting against him. Or Trinculo, the court jester in The Tempest, planning a coup and ending up being nothing more than he ever was, a buffoon?

But Boris won’t write about Shakespeare with such reference to himself. He will for the most part send his readers to sleep by churning out the things that other scholars have found to fill his book with content, and it will all be very tedious stuff that we already know, but I will bet you that there will be a gimmick somewhere in there that will get the attention of the media on to himself. I can guarantee it. That will be Boris: it will always be about him. And it will be something he’s invented and it will provoke quite a lot of controversy and his name will be emblazed everywhere in the Shakespeare community as genuine Shakespeare scholars are drawn in to dispute him. That is why he will not be prime minister and that is why he will never be hailed as a significant Shakespeare scholar – because whatever he does it’s always just about him, and eventually we will all see though it. I will also bet that no reputable Shakespeare scholar will offer him any solace: his book is destined to be ridiculed. But what the heck? It will be on the shelves of all Boris fans, probably not read by most, and he will be laughing all the way to the bank, as the famous non-Shakespearean sayings goes.

But hold on, folks: Nosweatshakespeare will review the book when it comes out, so that’s something to look forward to.

1 reply

    Many thanks for this savagely fair-minded and judicious appraisal of what we have so far seen of Johnson and what we can expect of his efforts on Shakespeare…expect the worst and hope for something better.

    If I can turn attention to myself for a second to make a wider point, I taught O,GCSE and A-level English Literature to Liverpool girls for many years and felt deeply privileged, often wondering how it was possible for one man to encompass so much on such a scale and so magnificently.

    I always thought of Hamlet, Lear and Romeo and Juliet (for its poetry and atmosphere) as being personal favourites, Othello probably least and the Tempest which I hated when I did my A-levels I have long seen as …

    And what now strikes me is my inadequacy to even contemplate any assessment of Shakespeare’s genius and the sense of shame I would feel in such a venture.

    Johnson might well recall Alexander Pope:

    You think this cruel? take it for a rule, No creature smarts so little as a fool. Let peals of laughter,Codrus! round thee break, Thou unconcerned canst hear the mighty crack. Pit, box, and gallery in convulsions hurled, Thou stand’st unshook amidst a bursting world.


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