Review: Boris Johnson’s Shakespeare book

or, The Riddle of The Riddle of Genius

Boris Johnson’s book about Shakespeare – Shakespeare: The Riddle of Genius – was originally scheduled for publication by Hodder & Stoughton in October 2016. Unfortunately for everyone, Johnson has been busy with other projects since then, so it’s been delayed for the ‘forseeable future‘.

Once upon a time it would have been considered unfair and even downright stupid to draw any conclusions about a publication that we haven’t read. But Johnson himself has blazed a trail in this regard: witness the following exchange from Prime Minister’s Questions on the 15th July this year, when Johnson was pressed on the details of a report commissioned by his own government, which concerned preparations for a ‘second spike’ of Covid-19 infections in the UK over the winter.

Keir Starmer: I have to ask, in light of the last few questions: has the prime minister actually read this report, that sets out the reasonable worst-case scenario and tells the government what it needs to do about it in the next six weeks? Has he read it?

Boris Johnson: I am, of course, aware of the report […]

Being as we are now aware of Boris Johnson’s book about Shakespeare, this seems – by Johnson’s own rigorous standards – to give us full and happy encouragement to press on as if we had read any of it. Let’s begin.

*

Though Shakespeare: The Riddle of Genius hasn’t been published yet, someone somewhere must have had a chance to enjoy Johnson’s fresh take on Shakespeare’s work: there are several highly enthusiastic descriptions of the book’s contents already in circulation. Search Amazon and you’ll find over 300 words describing a ‘joyful, fascinating’ book. Waterstones tells us that

Boris Johnson explains Shakespeare’s genius in a simple and readable way; in a way that gets to grips with what is really going on, what the characters are up to, what the point of it all is; and in a way that sets the man simply and intelligibly in the context of his time.

Appetite sharpened? I hope so. But you’ll have to wait until next May to get stuck in, according to the Waterstones website. Amazon.co.uk says The Riddle of Genius is in fact already released – walking among us, perhaps – but it’s currently unavailable for purchase. A pity. Still, it could be worse: any readers outside the UK who visit Amazon.com hoping for a copy of the international edition will find that they’ll have to wait another fifteen years to get their hands on Boris Johnson’s ‘joyful, fascinating’ book about Shakespeare. It’s released on December 31st 2035, apparently: a lovely way to ring in 2036, I suppose, but that long wait for the overseas edition doesn’t inspire a great deal of confidence in, oh, I don’t know, forthcoming international trade deals.

This, then, is the first and possibly defining stroke of brilliance from the author of The Riddle of Genius. In a startling twist, the book about Shakespeare is itself the riddle. Inverting the long-running and controversial question of Shakespearean authorship (did the man called William Shakespeare actually write the plays we attribute to him?), Johnson gives us something radical and new: there is an author, named Boris Johnson, and he wrote a book, but nobody – other than the writer of the book’s blurb – knows what it is in it.

Perhaps I ought to withhold the final flourish in which I unpick ‘the riddle of genius’, but – by god, I think I have it, and I’m too excited to keep it to myself. The ‘genius’ in the title may not refer to Shakespeare at all, but – gasp! – Boris Johnson, all along! Look again at that putative front cover and reflect, in fact, how Shakespeare’s presence here is actually quite irritating. How much better this book would be if that other name in crumbly, dessicated font were simply omitted. How much better this book would be if those white bars across Shakespeare’s face could be made broader, leaving simply a peek of (if anything) those ruddy cheeks, and fleshy hangdog lips. How much better a book if the name of our hero – and the real writer here – was expanded to fill the whole cover, perhaps retaining Shakespeare’s face as a dot over the ‘i’ of ‘Boris’, rather than that name being simply stamped (with too much reverence!) on Shakespeare’s forehead.

But the genius behind The Riddle of Genius clearly wants to involve Shakespeare in this piece. To what end, though? And in what way?

*

From the inimitable, mop-headed, “New York Times” bestselling British journalist and politician‘, the blurb on Amazon tells us, ‘a celebration of the best-known Brit of all time.‘ This first line underscores what Johnson, as a bestselling and British writer (and politician), can bring to Shakespeare. Centuries of readers have already argued the case that Shakespeare may be the best-known writer of all time; several, indeed, have gone so far as to set out why they think Shakespeare is the best writer of all time, as well as the best-known. But they neglect, crucially, the key factor in Shakespeare’s fame: his Britishness.

Did Shakespeare think of himself as British? This is an easy question to answer: one need only look at depictions of Scottish characters in Macbeth, or the Welsh in the Henry IV plays, or read Cymbeline in its entirety, to conclude that Shakespeare was, very simply, British, and proud to be so. Professor John Kerrigan needed 614 pages to explore the intersections of different national identities within the British Isles in Shakespeare’s time in his book Archipelagic English – but that’s probably because he didn’t go to Eton. Johnson, uniquely talented, better educated and characteristically to the point, cracks the question of Britishness in short order. No need for it to detain us any longer.

But of course what Shakespeare thought about Britishness isn’t that interesting, or important: Shakespeare is ‘the best-known Brit of all time’. In other words: do we think of him, primarily, as being a British person? First and foremost, yes; undoubtedly. Shakespeare was the Michael Caine of his day: tremendously versatile, capable of comedy and tragedy in equal measure, and one of the best-known owners of a Mini Cooper in all of Europe. But, like Michael Caine, these achievements are symptoms of a fierce quality of being-British, a fire in the veins that urges the speaker to step forward, to clear one’s throat, and to say – politely, but firmly – ‘I am’. What is sonnet 135 if not Shakespeare’s homage to Caine’s catchphrase ‘my name – is Michael Caine’?

Shakespeare is British. He is as British as Land Rovers. He wrote things, of course, like many other famous Brits who can write: Lulu. Jamie Redknapp. Mo Farah. If we read those things that Shakespeare wrote, whoever we are – whether a humble schoolchild, or a New York Times bestselling British journalist (and politician) – we will hear Shakespeare’s voice echoing through the ages, joining in concert with us as we rise to our feet unbidden and sing Rule Britannia.

But don’t be distracted. Who is this Shakespeare – this genius who tells us who we are? The syntax of that first line takes us gently by the hand. Our guide is ‘the inimitable, mop-headed British journalist and politician’, himself (perhaps?) ‘a celebration of the best-known Brit of all time’. Johnson, British himself, of course, is a journalist, a politician, and the celebration of the best-known Brit of all time – Johnson is Johnson, yes, but he is also the celebration of Shakespeare; and being British, he is Shakespeare too, essentially, as are all people who are as British as Land Rovers and, I don’t know, JCBs, and warm beer, and deeply entrenched systems of tax evasion. Johnson is the celebration of Shakespeare; Johnson is Shakespeare; Johnson is the celebration of Johnson. This is only the first line of the blurb, but the genius is riddling furiously for us: plucking away energetically at the frets and strings of language like the zither player in The Third Man.

Notably that torrid first sentence is only the beginning; a seething pan of rhetorical questions is coming to the boil. If Hamlet were the MP for Uxbridge, this is how he would frame a fundamental question which, in the hands of others, would sound banal. The likes of you or I might say ‘what exactly am I going to write?’, despite our innate Britishness demanding a twistier turn of phrase. In Johnson’s hands, such doughy matter becomes hot mercury, before transfiguring completely into a wild and volatile gas of questions. ‘Why is Shakespeare an unparalleled global phenomenon?’ he asks himself, laptop at hand. ‘What about Shakespeare has allowed him to stand the test of time’?

And Johnson is not nearly done here: in this book he ‘sets out to determine whether the Bard is indeed all he’s cracked up to be, and if so, why and how’. To settle this with both a why and a how shows off Johnson’s flair for detail. Is the Bard all he’s cracked up to be? Why won’t do it alone; neither, Johnson tells us, will how. Johnson, of course, is a brilliant and forensic interrogator of the world around him; here, he shines a bright light in the eyes of a sacred cow and demands extensive answers to this knottiest of questions. ‘IS SHAKESPEARE ALL HE’S CRACKED UP TO BE?’ he bellows at the cow.

But you or I or – dare I say it – Keir Starmer won’t get the answers we want from this particular cow, as we diligently and uselessly note down its confused mooing. No, this paragraph describing The Riddle of Genius shows how Johnson’s playfulness underpins his seriousness, an important quality when pursuing answers to a question this intricate. He sets out to find whether the Bard – that’s Shakespeare – is ‘all he’s cracked up to be’, we’re told, and – if so, he says – he’ll explore ‘why’ and ‘how’. A lesser writer would shy away from the spoiler, and would feel compelled to give their reader an if not to keep them interested. But Johnson doesn’t mind us knowing that this book will definitely conclude that Shakespeare is, indeed, all he’s cracked up to be.

This intellectual generosity of spirit is offered with all the easiness of a wealthy father setting up a direct debit to the mothers of his clamouring children. The sacred cow may be confronted with questions, then, but really what’s going on here is this: the cow’s interrogator is only playing with it. We – you, me, the cow, Johnson – can all relax.

*

The blurbs which describe the contents of Shakespeare: The Riddle of Genius lapse into an occasional vagueness, which we must permit: first, because the book may not exist yet, and second, because it’s the author’s duty (and his publisher’s) to try and instil in us an enthusiasm for a subject which has otherwise lacked critical attention and acclaim for some time. According to Waterstones, Johnson’s book tells us

No author has ever produced such astonishing female characters, perfected comic language so dazzlingly, or taught us as much about politics as William Shakespeare.

The how is absent here: we will have to buy the book, presumably (only £10.99, according to Waterstones), to learn any more on this count. How Shakespeare ‘perfected comic language so dazzlingly’ is left tantalisingly unexplained – but how like Johnson, the great rhetorician of our age, to distinguish between anyone who may simply have ‘perfected comic language’ (any hack can do that, after all) and Shakespeare, who did so ‘so dazzlingly’. Johnson is obliging enough here to signal a debt, of sorts; but, despite having encountered so many astonishing female characters in his own life, having perfected comic language himself – so dazzlingly – and having taught us a very great deal about how politics works himself, Johnson’s love of Shakespeare seems to blind him to his own achievements. Is it the case, I wonder, that if you are a Great Man of History you don’t see yourself in other Great Men of History, even though other people will undoubtedly note such resemblances on your behalf?

We cannot forget that Johnson, though a dreamer, is someone who knows what it is to wear the straitjacket of prime ministerial pragmatism. He is a communicator, above all, and just as a prime minister is sometimes obliged to set out what’s what as clearly as possible, sometimes a blurb must simply endeavour to tell you what is inside the book you’re holding. We are familiar with the calm, clear voice of Johnson the statesman:

So you should avoid public transport if at all possible – because we must and will maintain social distancing, and capacity will therefore be limited. So work from home if you can, but you should go to work if you can’t work from home.

Address to the nation, 10th May 2020

It’s this same clear voice we hear enumerating ‘the endlessly intriguing themes of the plays’ which will be explored in Shakespeare: The Riddle of Genius, according to Amazon. Those themes are as follows:

To recap:

  • ‘the illicit sex and the power struggles’
  • ‘the fratricide and matricide’
  • ‘the confused identities and hormonal teenagers’
  • ‘the racism, jealousy, political corruption’

These themes, Johnson says, ‘speak to us across the centuries’. What looks at first like an arbitrary list of phenomena, some linked with an equally arbitrary ‘and’, is actually a tremendously powerful and even emotional message from Johnson, a lonely genius who feels compelled to turn to Shakespeare for company. These themes – illicit sex, power struggles, racism, political corruption – indeed ‘speak to us across the centuries’, but they seem to speak to Johnson especially loudly. This, perhaps, marks the melancholy boiling in Johnson as he wrote this book: perhaps it even explains why none but the blurb-writers have been permitted to read it and respond to its contents. For while Waterstones tells us that the book ‘explains Shakespeare’s genius in a simple and readable way’, how could a writer of Johnson’s ilk possibly hope to twine his genius together with Shakespeare’s and explain to us such things as illicit sex, power struggles, racism and political corruption – and in a way that we would comprehend? These ‘endlessly intriguing themes’ are infinity stones that only Shakespeare and Johnson can hold, unharmed, in the hand; we, in contrast, can only gasp and gawp at their lustre.

*

Perhaps that analogy best sums up Johnson’s acute sense of social responsibility. Why, after all, would Boris Johnson feel he needs to write this book for us? He was called to it, evidently: just as he was called to Have I Got News for You, the Foreign Office, and, eventually, 10 Downing Street. William Shakespeare himself may have dialled Johnson direct from the afterlife: explain me to the masses, he may have said (a touch more iambically than that, I suppose). Nobly, Johnson will have replied, ‘Ok, Willy, I said I’ll do it. I’ll do it, don’t worry.’ Johnson’s middle name may be spelled ‘de Pfeffel’, but it is surely pronounced ‘public service’.

As Waterstones puts it, ‘he explores not only the origin of Shakespeare’s genius, but also the nature of his genius’. How apt that the ‘his’ in that sentence might apply equally to Johnson as to Shakespeare. When it was revealed that Boris Johnson was paid £275,000 a year to write opinion columns for the Daily Telegraph, many people observed, tritely, that he hardly needed the money. Quite so. Johnson’s prerogative – interpreted by him, nobly, as a social duty – is to use his writing to demonstrate to us what it is like to exist on a higher intellectual plane, as he does and as Shakespeare did. When he used those Telegraph columns to liken, say, women wearing burqas to letterboxes and bank robbers, or to refer to gay men as ‘tank-topped bum boys’, or when he described African people as ‘picaninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’, we may not have understood his point. But then neither would we fully understand Hamlet’s famous ‘to be or not to be?’ speech. The genius of such men is a riddle to the likes of you and me.

We are still waiting to read Boris Johnson’s Shakespeare book. We may have to wait some time yet; perhaps we will never read it. The Waterstones description of the book ends on an enigmatic note as Johnson foxes his reader at the last:

‘What makes Shakespeare Shakespeare? That, as the man once said, is the question.’

With the deftness we expect from Boris Johnson, the question which ‘the man’ (Hamlet) says is ‘the question’ – ‘To be, or not to be?’ – is switched for a question, a completely different question, in fact, barely relevant to what has been quoted. Boris Johnson may never answer ‘What makes Shakespeare Shakespeare?’ for us – but it may be some consolation that this riddle of genius will continue to play itself out over and over again for some years yet. In a sense, every time Boris Johnson answers a question which he has asked himself, rather than the question somebody else has asked him, we can nod to ourselves and think: there. That is a little bit of the book about Shakespeare written by Boris Johnson that I was promised.

5*

Shakespeare: The Riddle of Genius by Boris Johnson is available to pre-order from Waterstones, Amazon, and many other stockists.

(And, if you like reading about Shakespeare, you might enjoy my book – Shakespeare for Snowflakes: On Slapstick and Sympathy.)

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