The Bard of Balliol

Never has a man turned so little knowledge to such great account


With things looking a little tricky on the old prime ministering front, Boris Johnson has been easing the stress by returning to his most reliable source of cash first love: writing.

They were smelly and filthy and pox-ridden, but they were also proud and inventive

Readers will doubtless be familiar with The Dream of Rome, in which he argued that Turkey should be admitted to the European Union, or The Churchill Factor, in which he made the case that a leader’s personal character was vitally important to government. Both of these books were widely reviewed, but nevertheless sold well.

The prime minister’s next, still uncompleted, book, Shakespeare: The Riddle of Genius, will explore “whether the Bard is indeed all he is cracked up to be” and why he has been so successful. Its publication date is still uncertain, but after going through the bins at Number 10, The Critic is proud to have secured extracts of the forthcoming work, which we present to the public for the first time today:


In 15?? [pls chk, ta – BJ] an actor stood on a wooden stage on London’s South Bank before a rumbling, tussling crowd of the people who were that great city’s glory. They were smelly and filthy and pox-ridden, but they were also proud and inventive and dismissive of the bores and bossyboots who wanted to tell them what to do. They had said “no” to Europe at [who were they fighting then? French? Spanish? Think it was Spain. Put a battle here] and rejected boring, pious Mary Tudor in favour of jolly patriotic Queen Bess.

London in the midst of the Renaissance was a thriving bustling city that showed England at its best. Visitors never knew what they were going to encounter as they turned the next corner, whether it was an outdoor workplace gathering or a surprising cake. Indeed, despite what puritans like Oliver Cromwell were going around saying, this was what made the country great, and it would have been quite wrong to start fining people just for relaxing for a few minutes, especially if, when you looked at it, you found they had been badly let down by everyone around them.

He was a misunderstood genius

Did the audience in the Globe that day realise that the actor before them was going to change the course of history and literature? Probably not. They probably thought he was a bit of a joke, with his mop of blond hair and his paunch that maybe, yes, he should have done something about. But this man, this Englishman who was perhaps the greatest Englishman, this Bor William Shakespeare was about to blow their sixteenth century stockings off.

Did they fall silent as he prepared to speak? Let’s say they did. Let’s say they sensed at some deep level that they were present for a moment of history. For our Will was about to utter for the first time the opening lines of his most famous play, Romeo and Juliet: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

Freeze frame! As they most definitely didn’t say back in the old 16th century! You might not have heard of William Shakespeare, but he was in fact the greatest scribbler of the pre-newspaper age. Some people think of him as a boring old playwright, but in this book we’ll see he was a misunderstood genius. Like some other people who are written off by the fuddy-duddies.

His phrases have slipped into our language: “band of brothers”, “the darling buds of May”, “to the manor born”, “pyramid of piffle”. He was a popular commentator, a political campaigner, a lover of many women and father of children by several of them, a man who with his brilliantly-pitched slogans saw off the Spanish Armada [am sure it was Spain actually], and a much better administrator and harder worker than was appreciated by people at the time.

Some killjoys like to lay into Our Will

Did Will have an affair with Elizabeth I? It may be apocryphal, but it is worth retelling. Did he write two versions of Hamlet? Who could blame him? Did he get other people to write his plays for him? Nothing wrong with a bit of delegation, although, as well shall see, he was sadly let down by Christopher Marlowe.

Shakespeare’s Greatest Characters

Othello: A really good guy, and I’m not just saying that because he was a Moor, although I knew one at Oxford and he was a great guy too, who really liked me and only complained about my jokes once. If Othello does have a flaw, it’s that he’s just too willing to believe the best of everyone, especially bald lanky advisers who say they’re on your side but turn out to be total bastards.

Macbeth: Bit of a swordsman, apparently, not that you see any of that he just goes around fighting people. Scottish, too, and more long-winded than Ian Blackford at PMQs.

Richard III: Great, decisive king who got things done, sadly let down by everyone around him.

Henry V: The archetypal English hero. Beats the frogs, gets the girl. Leads a small gang of determined campaigners that no one takes seriously around in a bus and pulls off an astonishing victory.

Hamlet: Ninny who didn’t appreciate what a good egg his uncle Claudius was. Would have been a lot happier if he’d just given Ophelia a seeing-to, if you catch my drift.

Julius Caesar: Great, decisive emperor who got things done, sadly let down by everyone around him.

Lady Bracknell: Provides much-needed light relief in King Lear, when she tells the Duke of Gloucester: “To lose one eye may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”

Falstaff: Not the dissolute rogue he’s so often played as, but in fact a sensitive and brave leader who knew how to connect with people. Widely believed to be lazy, but knew how to assemble a team. Even if they all let him down in the end. Especially Poins.

Final Chapter: Reflecting on Genius

Some killjoys like to lay into Our Will. His comedies aren’t very funny, they say! His history plays are just propaganda! Well, quoth I in reply, picking up the parchment and chewing on the old quill, isn’t there more to history than getting facts right? And some folk whose jokes are accused of being distinctly mediocre have had pretty cracking success on the after-dinner circuit, and even hosted Have I Got News For You! Perhaps we should just accept that, as the Bard himself wrote, you can’t please all the people all the time.

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