A Shakespearean in Downing Street

It was in another lifetime that Boris Johnson stood up – on the eve of the May era, in fact – and quoted Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

“There is a tide in the affairs of men/Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” On that occasion, bearing fresh backstab wounds, he decided that it wasn’t his moment. It was to be, in retrospect, his final moment of indecisiveness. Johnson is now installed in Downing Street rather like a hero in a Shakespearean history play. It has to be said that he has seized and practised the premiership with uncommon ruthlessness since.

It’s worth taking a moment to celebrate the arrival of a literary man in Downing Street. Like him or loathe him, Johnson must be the best-read PM since Harold Macmillan. In Tom Bower’s biography of Corbyn, Dangerous Hero, he reveals that the Labour leader didn’t read a book for four years and his house hardly had a novel in it. Corbyn was no intellectual like Denis Healey, that’s for sure.

But if you know your Shakespeare then you’ll know that the hero always has a flaw. What’s Johnson’s? Given the epic gamble of the election, the PM is no wavering Hamlet; maybe he’s closer to a reformed Falstaff. True, he has enough children to produce a Lear-ish spectacle one day, but it’s too soon for the youngish prime minister to be taking to Hampstead Heath to reenact that one. One also doubts that the jealousy of Othello will ever plague this seasoned playboy: in fact, Mace wonders whether we will hear wedding bells (St Margaret’s is a short walk from No 10) during the Johnson administration, as in a Shakespearean comedy.

That leaves Macbeth, whose flaw was “vaulting ambition” which “o’erleaps itself ”. Macbeth never overcomes the method by which he attained power – a question we examine in our long read.

Now that he’s reached Downing Street, has Boris changed? After all the plate-breaking, spilled wine, heartbreak, divorce bills, estrangement and pain that he has caused, Boris now seems like a man vindicated by victory.

Yet the Greeks believed that a man’s character doesn’t change – that he is always fighting a losing battle against his fate. Indeed, in his biography of Churchill, Johnson writes that “character is destiny”. The main lesson about Shakespeare’s plays – as Boris surely knows from his research – is that suffering is the key to self-knowledge and redemption. Whether he has the self-awareness to know this, or will continue to think that men are “the masters of their Mace Leaders fates” may decide how well he does in the job.

At the moment, back from his Caribbean island holiday, Johnson most resembles Prospero in The Tempest, casting spells of bumbling charm on an island kingdom having defeated Theresa May, his Sycorax, and tamed his Remainer Calibans. His elevation to PM leaves us bereft for the time being of his planned biography, Shakespeare: The Riddle of Genius. We are left instead to ponder the riddle of Johnson. But no matter: they’re the same now.

6th February 2020