The Politics of BrainyQuote.com

The blogs from this series arise from a talk I gave in March 2020 for the University of Bristol English Department.

Kabul fell to the Taliban while the UK’s Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, was on a beach in Crete. A lot of commentators have accused him of lounging around in the sun when he might have been an important voice in high-level, international conversations about saving people from death and oppression. One theory, though, is that he’s making a concerted effort to really get to know the principles of a place being by the sea; famously, of course, he had to admit that his campaigning for Brexit had been conducted untroubled by details like this one: ‘I hadn’t quite understood the full extent of this, but if you look at the UK and look at how we trade in goods, we are particularly reliant on the Dover-Calais crossing‘. Did he go to Crete to muse on Dover, then?

This sounds a rather odd theory, but I’ve arrived at it because Raab appears to have spent his time in Crete reading Shakespeare’s Henry V, a play which spends a very great deal of time musing on the relationship between England and Calais. Having eventually flown back to Global Britain HQ on Monday 16th August, Raab updated MPs on Wednesday 18th about what he was doing with regards to events in Afghanistan, and – seemingly irritated by the questions sent his way by the opposition – said of Keir Starmer

The right honorourable gentleman criticises the consequences of a decision that he backed. He does so with no serious or credible alternative of his own, not even a hint, a reminder of Shakespeare’s adage, the empty vessel makes the greatest sound.

Dominic Raab, 18th August 2021

Perhaps Henry V is a particularly cherished favourite of Raab’s: it may be testimony to his attachment to the play that this particularly reflection, spoken by an unnamed ‘Boy’ in Act 4 Scene 4 about the English braggart Pistol, jumped so readily to mind when responding to the opposition benches. If it’s an allusion we’re actually being invited to dwell on, though, it’s a strange and confusing choice for the Foreign Secretary to have made: is Starmer supposed to be Pistol in this analogy? Is Raab’s Afghanistan Shakespeare’s France? Or, confusingly, Shakespeare’s England? Shakespeare’s play is, after all, a play about an invasion, not an evacuation: it seems superficially relevant as references go, in that it concerns military matters, but actually it doesn’t really fit the situation at all. But if we’re not supposed to be thinking about the story of Henry V per se, just the overall principle that ‘the empty vessel makes the greatest sound’, well, why quote Shakespeare at all (or, more specifically, the ‘Boy’ of Act 4 Scene 4)?

Everyone likes Shakespeare, of course, but this quotation – pithy at it is – isn’t one of his greatest hits. Nor is it one of Shakespeare’s, strictly speaking (something that the Boy makes pretty plain himself, actually, prefacing the remark with the words ‘But the saying is true’). Google it and you’ll find that it’s most commonly attributed to Plato, who is supposed to have said, according to several internet sources ‘As empty vessels make the loudest sound, so they that have the least wit are the greatest blabbers.‘ If you’re thinking ‘blabbers’ is a curious turn of phrase for an Ancient Athenian to be busting out then you’re right to be suspicious: those exact words are actually first encountered in William Baldwin’s Treatise of Moral Philosophy Containing the Sayings of the Wise, which were ‘Gathered and Englished’ by him in 1547. In Baldwin it’s a saying that he attributes to one of ‘Hermes, Socrates, Plato’ – it’s not actually clear who’s supposed to have said it, and indeed it’s hard to find which of Plato’s extant works contains this particular maxim.

Overall, then, it’s not very obvious how Raab’s arguments are strengthened by saying Shakespeare said this. By the time Shakespeare put it in Henry V he was already underscoring the fact that it’s a CITATION UNKNOWN sort of a thing to say. It’s possible Raab was name-dropping in order to curry favour with his line manager, the wit and raconteur Boris Johnson – a man who loves Shakespeare so much he’s alleged to have missed COBRA meetings in order to write a book about his works. But this seems a fairly underwhelming reason, if it’s the primary reason, for mentioning a bit of Shakespeare when closing a speech to the Commons about the fall of Kabul. So, one question to investigate further is simply this: how did Dominic Raab hope to benefit from the use of Shakespeare’s name in particular? What purpose did his rather vague citation serve?

One intriguing possibility, incidentally – hard to believe – is that Raab didn’t actually pick up his copy of Henry V at all when he claimed to be quoting Shakespeare. His cabinet colleague, Jacob Rees-Mogg, gave a useful insight into his own literary-critical methods when he told Total Politics in 2012 that his favourite book was The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. ‘A fantastic cheat’s guide, it allows a smattering of knowledge to go a long way’, he said. ‘I’ve memorised a few of the quotations,’ he boasted, ‘but have flicked through the book often enough to have a store of ideas.’ Despite storing those ideas up like a child with a bag full of pogs, the Rees-Mogg Method was found wanting when he later failed to live up to his status as everyone’s favourite totem to How Things Used to be Better, flunking a Latin test live on LBC radio. Perhaps Raab, following Rees-Mogg’s example, thought a ‘smattering of knowledge’ might come across rather well in his closing peroration. He may have reached for Shakespeare in order only, really, to tell Keir Starmer to shut up, but we can all agree that it was elegantly done: more elegantly done, at least, than Gavin Williamson’s effort at something like the same message in 2018, when, as Defence Secretary, he told the country of Russia to ‘go away and shut up‘.

At that time Williamson’s diplomatic stylings caused some confusion, and even – in some quarters – amusement. One might reflect that telling anyone – let alone a country – to ‘go away and shut up’, in that order, doesn’t really make sense. But Williamson’s lithe, gymnastic approach to language and logic soon saw him moved (via a token period of backbenchery) to the Education brief where he seems to have occupied a rather tortured position vis a vis his own literary sensibilities. On the one hand, Williamson wishes to dismiss humanities degrees as ‘dead-end courses’ which give students ‘nothing but a mountain of debt’ (with not even a ‘smattering of knowledge’ dusting the peak, it seems). On the other hand, Williamson comes across, at times, almost as relentlessly bookish as Dominic Raab: what can have driven the man to lament what he saw as the decline of free speech in universities in terms taken from John Milton’s 1644 pamphlet Areopagitica?

Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties

Gavin Williamson, ‘Foreword’, Higher Education: Free Speech and Academic Freedom

From ‘go away and shut up’ to this? Clearly, as Raab was doing when he was reaching for Shakespeare, Williamson wanted to invoke a certain kind of authority by standing next to Milton’s words. Notably, as with Raab’s riff on Shakespeare, Williamson’s quotation of Milton was smuggled in at the very end of what he was saying (p. 6).

In both cases, time presumably forbad either man to engage more fully with their quotations: this was a pity, as Henry V and Areopagitica are interesting texts. It’s worth noting that, as an increasingly pronounced ministerial tic, mentioning a well known author’s name at the tail end of a presentation to parliament may give the unfortunate impression that members of the cabinet are getting their material not from canonical works of art but from the electronic equivalents of Rees-Mogg’s quotation compendium.

Ain’t no mountain high enough for Gavin Williamson
As peaceful as a beach in Crete

There are curious methods of citation being practised at the highest level of the British government, then: not the most curious activities being practised at the highest level of the British government, not by a long shot, but as I’m not an accountant, or a lawyer, or an expert on interior decoration, I’m not best qualified to investigate the other more curious activities of Raab, Williamson, Rees-Mogg or their other colleagues in government. As someone who’s read Henry V and Areopagitica, though, I’ll be using the next few blogs to explore a little more how government ministers have developed a conspicuous habit of wearing their learning unlightly and very awkwardly, donning John Milton, Shakespeare, and many others with all the raffish splendour of a tea cosy on the head.

So: in the blogs to come, I’ll be exploring and evaluating the following charges which might be levelled at ministerial literary practice (either as separate charges, or as activities conducted in concert):

Idiotic Quotation

Association by Quotation

Coercive Quotation

I will look forward to seeing you here for these next exciting instalments. For now, as Shakespeare once said, ‘fare you well’ (Hamlet, 2.1.961)!


In the meanwhile: Shakespeare for Snowflakes: On Slapstick and Sympathy is currently available at Blackwell’s for less than a tenner, and at Amazon for just over a tenner (and at many other stockists near you!)

1 thought on “The Politics of BrainyQuote.com”

  1. Actually I’ve realised it’s the writer of this one who is always worth reading – shakespeareforsnowflakes

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