Shakespeare ’s capacity to depict and to lay bare the nature of mankind in his triumphs, weaknesses and failings is without peer in English dramatic poetry. He was a man for all men, and a man for all times.
On a number of occassions over recent months I have been struck by a number of lesser-known lines from a Shakespearean play or sonnet, and their potential to address figures or events on the political stage of my lifetime.
Many will remember the summer of 1995 when John Major challenged his enemies in the Conservative Parliamentary party to “back me or sack me”.
Shortly afterwards, Michael Portillo was discovered to be installing new telephone lines into the offices of his unofficial campaign HQ. Had he stood, Portillo may well have got the number of votes necessary to secure Major’s resignation, and the crown of the Conservative Party. In the eyes of many, it was there for the taking. But Portillo never went through with his challenge. He lost his nerve, the less popular Redwood stood and, although Redwood secured a creditable 89 votes, Major held on until the oblivion of 1st May 1997.
Some may know these lines of Menas, Pompey’s pirate comrade in Anthony and Cleopatra:
I'll never follow thy pall'd fortunes more.
Who seeks, and will not take when once 'tis offer'd,
Shall never find it more.
And indeed, although Portillo went for the leadership in 2001, the poisoned chalice was handed to Iain Duncan Smith, and Portillo announced his resignation from Parliament a couple of years later.
"Once back here I got to thinking - 'how do I get out of this?' Perhaps the really haunting spectre is that I would have to turn my back on the lake, and the prospect of the sword." Alan Clark, Diaries - 19th May 1999