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The Ongoing Riddle Of Boris Johnson’s Book, "Shakespeare, The Riddle of Genius"

There is still no plan for when Boris Johnson's long-awaited book about William Shakespeare will be published (Alamy)

5 min read

When news of its publication was first announced in July 2015 the world was promised “a celebration of the best-known Brit of all time”, but almost six years on there is no sign of Boris Johnson’s long-awaited book about William Shakespeare.

So what exactly has happened to The Riddle of Genius, and will the Prime Minister ever get to write about “the illicit sex and the power struggles; the fratricide and matricide” in the Bard’s work, as the promotional material suggested?

Discussion about the book, which also promised intriguingly to look at “the racism, jealousy and political corruption” in Shakespeare’s plays, has been renewed after allegations Johnson had attempted to get it finished at the start of last year.

The Sunday Times reported yesterday there are fears his former aide Dominic Cummings will use a select committee appearance on Wednesday to claim the PM raced to complete it when he was out of the public eye in February 2020, in order to earn money as he finalised his divorce from ex-wife Marina Wheeler.

Crucially during the same period he missed the first five emergency Cobra meetings to discuss the oncoming Covid-19 pandemic.

PoliticsHome has also been told by sources the 12 days he spent at the Chevening grace and favour estate were in order to finally write “The Riddle of Genius”.

However when asked today if he worked on the book during January and February 2020, when those Cobra meetings took place, Number 10 rejected the assertion.

His official spokesperson told reporters: “No, the Prime Minister has been leading the response to this pandemic throughout. That has been his focus.”

Defending the decision to miss the meetings, he added: “There are a number of incidents I can run you through where Cobras have been chaired by relevant secretaries of state as we made clear last year.”

But on whether Johnson has spent any of his time whilst in Downing Street on the book the spokesman was more evasive.

He replied “not that I am aware of”, and when pushed to be as definitive as he had been about the period of January and February 2020 for the whole of Johnson’s premiership, the spokesman could not be.

The book was originally slated for publication by Hodder & Stoughton in October 2016, close to the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

But in July 2016 after Johnson was made foreign secretary by Theresa May the company said it "will not be published for the foreseeable future”.

At the same time a spokesperson for his US publisher Riverhead said he would be unable to complete the work in time for original publication “in light of his new responsibilities”, and had no plans to publish the book at a later date.

The Mail on Sunday alleged that decision meant the PM would have to pay back an advance of up £500,000 to his publishers.

Johnson has never referenced an advance for the Shakespeare book in the Parliamentary register of MPs' interests, but in 2015 he declared two payments worth a total of £98,000 from Hodder & Stoughton "for book as yet unwritten".

He was said to have begun work again on it in late 2018, and the Amazon page for the title then listed a new publication date of December 15 that year.

The Sunday Times said having resigned from the Cabinet over May’s Chequers deal on Brexit that summer he was “at a loose end” and “has complained to friends that he is working flat out on the book”, but it failed to materialise.

Six months later in April 2019 a statement from Hodder & Stoughton confirmed in fact the book would now be released in April 2020, but the published admitted it was not yet finished.

However they were forced to change tack after Johnson won the Tory leadership contest in July of that year and became PM.

They once again replied to inquiries saying: “Hodder & Stoughton have no plans to publish Boris Johnson’s book on Shakespeare for the foreseeable future.”

The man himself had referenced the project during the race to replace May, revealing at a hustings: “There’s no doubt at all that being a full time politician means I won’t be able, for instance, to rapidly complete a book on Shakespeare that I have in preparation."

He then added: "It means that unjustly neglected author will no longer get the treatment he deserves as fast as it might otherwise happen. That will grieve me because... I love writing about him.”

The PM has not mentioned the book since, but intriguingly he began discussing Shakespeare entirely unprompted during a “People’s PMQs” session in February 2020, supporting the idea he had the subject on his mind at the exact point it has been suggested he was writing about it.

On the 5 February he finished the online Q&A with an extended and detailed soliloquy about Queen Elizabeth’s relationship with Shakespeare and the monarch’s love of the character Falstaff.

At the end of his almost two-minute riff he said the bard probably performed as ‘Adam” in the play “As You Like It” for Elizabeth I, perhaps indicating his own research on the matter adding: “How about that, I bet you didn’t know that.

“Anyway, nobody asked me that question tonight on ‘People’s PMQs’, but I’m giving you that information absolutely free.”

A week after this event Johnson left Downing Street for a “working” holiday at Chevening with his partner Carrie Symonds, and would not be seen in public for 12 days.

During this time a judge at the family court approved a financial settlement between Johnson and Wheeler, and gave his second wife permission to apply for a divorce decree to officially bring their 27-year marriage to an end.

As for the book, a spokesman for Hodder & Stoughton told PoliticsHome today: “After the success of Boris Johnson’s The Churchill Factor, which was published in 2014, Hodder & Stoughton contracted him to write a book about Shakespeare, originally planning to tie in with the Shakespeare anniversary in 2016. 

“When Boris Johnson became foreign secretary we agreed that we would delay publication until a more suitable time, and we have not scheduled the book to be released in the foreseeable future.”

The riddle goes on…

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