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This report is taken from PN Review 231, Volume 43 Number 1, September - October 2016.

BrexitSpeare Andrew Hadfield
WHEN BORIS JOHNSON quoted Shakespeare, was he being awfully clever or awfully stupid? The question matters because Mr Johnson is due to publish a biography of the bard this autumn to coincide with the four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, in case that event has passed you by. He has already been paid an advance reputed to be £500,000, rather more than most experts would receive for a similar offering. However, politicians do not normally say very intelligent things when they quote Shakespeare. In 1983 Nigel Lawson got under the skin of a lot of people when he claimed that ‘Shakespeare was a Tory’ who wrote ‘from a Tory point of view’, citing Ulysses’s speech on degree in Troilus and Cressida: ‘Take but degree away, untune that string, / And, hark, what discord follows’. Strangely enough the lines seem peculiarly relevant now, but not necessarily as support for a unified Tory point of view.

Richard Burt’s book, Unspeakable ShaXxxspeares (1998) argues that, paradoxically, when popular culture cites Shakespeare it generally serves only to lower the intellectual level. For Burt popular culture works best when it accepts what it is and infantilises itself when it tries to increase its standing by citing high culture: Shakespeare in particular lowers the tone. The same may well be true of politicians who are usually best when they are being politicians and not trying to show that they are men or women of culture. And citing Shakespeare almost never works.

One of the most overused plays is, of course, Julius ...

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