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Whatever happened to Boris Johnson's book on Shakespeare? Stratford-upon-Avon is curious to know...

The mystery of what happened to Boris Johnson’s book on Shakespeare was brought to the fore this last week when rumours began to swirl about its progress.

Before he became prime minister, Mr Johnson was apparently given a hefty half a million advance by Hodder & Stoughton and US publishers Riverhead to complete The Riddle of Genius. It was originally meant to be published in 2016, to mark the 400 years since the playwright’s death.

According to the Sunday Times this week, there were fears that former aide Dominic Cummings was about the blab to the select committee about how Johnson had skipped Cobra meetings to continue his epic 130,000 word tome. This led to Downing Street making a pre-emptive denial, saying that this is emphatically not why Johnson missed the meetings.


The meetings in February 2020 were particularly crucial in deciding how the oncoming Covid-19 pandemic was handled.

The PM was allegedly squirrelled away during this vital time at the Chevening grace and favour estate in order to finally write The Riddle of Genius. Completing the task was apparently crucial to him being able to afford his divorce from Marina Wheeler.

Amazon still has The Riddle of Genius as an upcoming title on its website. In the description it says: “From the inimitable, mop-headed, bestselling British journalist and politician, a celebration of the best-known Brit of all time.

“With characteristic curiosity, verve, and wit, Boris Johnson sets out to determine whether the Bard is indeed all he s cracked up to be, and if so, why and how… He explores the endlessly intriguing themes of the plays, and how they speak to us across the centuries: the illicit sex and the power struggles; the fratricide and matricide; the confused identities and hormonal teenagers; the racism, jealousy, political corruption.”

Shakespeare scholars are somewhat sceptical about what The Riddle of Genius will add to the canon of criticism and literary thought on the Bard.

Emma Smith, professor of Shakespeare studies at the University of Oxford, suggested pondering the ‘riddle of genius’ was a pointless pursuit.

She said: “I think that’s probably an unanswerable question, and all the biographies of Shakespeare have felt a sense of disappointment that the facts of the life don’t really adapt to the transcendence of the work. The mismatch between those two things is troubling, or anticlimactic. He is an ordinary man yet we want him to be a god on a pedestal.”

Boris Johnson in thoughtful mood.
Boris Johnson in thoughtful mood.

Meanwhile Stratford Shakespeare scholar Dr Paul Edmondson wryly observed: “'Rumour,' as Shakespeare shows us, 'is painted full of tongues'. And I have heard many rumours about Mr Johnson's much-anticipated book on Shakespeare. He himself might remind us of several Shakespearian characters - Falstaff perhaps - and, alas, he knows what it is to be betrayed by a one-time friend, like Julius Caesar was by Brutus. I am glad I live in a country in which the Prime Minister is producing a book about Shakespeare. I look forward to reading Mr Johnson's book because then I will be able to speak the truth about it.'”


An Argentinian newsreader made a terrible gaffe last week when she announced the death of writer William Shakespeare – 405 years too late.

Noelia Novillo was teased around the world when she confused the Stratford-born Bard with William 'Bill' Shakespeare, an 81-year-old from Coventry. Bill was in the headlines last year after he became one of the first people in the UK to receive a Covid vaccine – he sadly passed away last week.

In her blundering report on TV station Canal 26, Ms Novillo said: “'We've got news that has stunned all of us given the greatness of this man. We're talking about William Shakespeare and his death.

“As we all know, he's one of the most important writers in the English language - for me the master. Here he is. He was the first man to get the coronavirus vaccine. He's died in England at the age of 81.”

After trying to put the blame on misplaced punctuation, Ms Novillo, apologised on social media, and said: “Here I am to recognise my error. Thank you very much for listening. Have a nice day.”

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