"And there’s for
twitting me with perjury,” cries George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence, as he lunges
toward the customary bloody stab-fest at the end of Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part
As an unapologetic Bardophile,
I take the view that nothing escapes the attention of the world’s
greatest poet and playwright – democracy, witchcraft, suicide, psychosis,
England, Iceland, football and tennis: it’s all there. But ‘twitting’ during
the Wars of the Roses was not a prescient reference to the emergence of Twitter:
it is part of a tirade of insults among fractious brothers each vying for the Crown
of England. Richard taunts Prince Edward, who declares himself
better than all three traitorous and usurping brothers. King Edward IV, Richard
and George in turn stab the young Prince Edward to death. Queen Margaret
faints, and Richard skulks off to the Tower.
In this little twitting spat, insults are liberally
hurled, offence undoubtedly caused and blood flows in rivers. It’s all a bit too
much for Margaret to bear, but there’s no ‘Report Abuse’ button for her to
press, no tabloid editor to harass and no intervention by the Chairman of an
influential Commons committee.
This got me wondering about the Twitter abuse
threshold; the undeniable social-media reality that one person’s harmless jibe
is another’s grievous offence. You joke about a hijab; you’re an Islamophobe.
You diss French cheese; you’re a xenophobe. You joke about the Welsh and find
yourself hauled before the courts on a charge of racism. Or you’re frustrated by
a flight delay, so you threaten to blow the airport sky high – quite obviously in
jest – only to be arrested, tried and found guilty of breaching the Malicious
Communications Act 2003.
If Twitter ever installs a ‘Report Abuse’
button, it won’t be long before it is itself abused by the touchy, thin-skinned
Last month I was watching Michael Gove at the
Dispatch Box delivering a tour de force during Education Questions. He spoke
his speech trippingly on the tongue. He mouthed occasionally, and had a
tendency to saw the air too much with his hand (thus). In the very torrent,
tempest, and (as I may say) whirlwind of his passion, he didn’t tear a passion
to tatters, to very rags, or split the ears of those on the green benches.
In fact, for the most part, he suited the
action to the word, the word to the action; he showed virtue her own feature,
scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and
pressure. This got me thinking about the whole theatre of others, as for the
most part they strut and bellow their humanity quite abominably.
So captivated was I by the Education
Secretary’s hammy performance that I decided to start a Twitter hashtag (NB
don’t bother doing this unless you’ve got c10,000 followers). I tweeted: “Let's kick off #BardPoliticians – I think
Michael Gove would make a superbly acerbic Malvolio”, and I lured fellow
Bardophiles Dan Hannan and Paul Goodman into my tragi-comic indulgence.
It didn’t take long
for Dan to take the bait. Ever a proponent of life imitating Shakespeare, he disclosed
the nugget that a couple of years ago David Cameron made it known
that he thought himself a latter-day Henry V. I spluttered over my tea, but an
entertaining thread ensued: is Boris Cameron’s Falstaff? Is Gordon Brown Macbeth?
Julian Huppert happened
to be in the news that day, with the Daily Mail asking if he was the
dullest MP in Westminster, having gained something of a reputation for “long-winded
questions and interventions in debates”. Ginger goatee aside, I thought we
might have found our #BardPoliticians Polonius. And then I received an
excellent suggestion that Vince Cable would make a good Touchstone
Funny how the baddies came from Scotland, the
goodies from Notting Hill, and the windbags and clowns from the Liberal
Would any of this this banter justify pressing
the ‘Report Abuse’ button?
Well, Mr Huppert has complained very publicly about
the boisterous jeers and regular lampooning he receives the moment he rises in
the Chamber to speak. But what if a certain insensitive casting proposal should
offend? What, say, if someone suggested that Harriet Harman might make a
splendid Katherina, needing to be tamed, or Eric Pickles a corpulent Falstaff,
begging to be spurned?
After all, Chris Bryant mounted his high pantomime
horse a few years ago over a casting suggestion. He accused George Osborne of delighting
in playing Baron Hardup during a time of recession, and urged him to play
Prince Charming instead. To this the Chancellor quipped: “At least I’m not the
pantomime dame”. This met with much hissing and booing from the Labour benches,
so Chris Bryant carried on playing to the Twitter gallery, insisting the Chancellor’s
response was either “homophobic or just nasty”.
Dan Hannan demurred on
my casting Gove as Malvolio. “Surely Mandelson is Malvolio,” he contended. “Gove
‘Sir Topas’ who examines him. Gove once played a curate.”
I had forgotten that
little cinematic gem. A thespian background is nothing to be ashamed of: some
of the world’s greatest and most inspirational politicians have been actors in
a previous life. One thinks of Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, Glenda Jackson…
But the Hannan School
of Acting was verging on typecasting. You can’t cast Gordon Brown as Macbeth
just because he’s a Scot. Or, as Andrew Lilico suggested, Peter Bone as one of three
witches just because he seems to enjoy stirring cauldrons of poison.
On the question of John
Bercow, I couldn’t decide whether Mr Speaker or Chris Bryant would make the
better puffed-up waterfly Osric. And then I found myself trapped in a never-ending
fantasy. Who would make the best Cassius? Who had the leanest
and hungriest look? What about Brutus – an honourable man prepared to indulge
in a bit of regicide for the good of the state? If Cameron is not Henry V, then
who? Enter true patriot Steve Baker, heading to the Chamber for another EU
But this is all shadows on the casting couch.
When nature is in revolt and children are born with teeth, we seek prophecies
of stability and images of social normality. Parliament is steeped in the
loyalties of blood and allegiance, and politicians plagued with vaulting
ambition. Evil lurks, but heaven is gilded into the architectural fabric of the
Palace. Political hierarchy needs its protagonists, its intrigue, its darkness
and devils. As the great man said, all the world’s a stage, and Westminster is itself
pure theatre. We groundlings are both bound by its law and spellbound by its virtuous
We’ve seen this play before, of course. Conservatives
are Lancastrians, Labour are Yorkists, and every PMQs is a re-enactment of the
Battle of Bosworth. And if you think all this is theatrical hyperbole, just ask
Alex Salmond about the looming referendum on Scottish independence and the
Battle of Bannockburn.
Did I mention Alex Salmond?
Banquo or Bottom?