To be or not to be satirised: how politicians get the Shakespeare treatment

Written by David Singleton on 6 March 2017 in Culture

Michael Gove is one of many politicians to have been compared to a Shakespeare character - as the RSC’s ‘Draw New Mischief’ exhibition makes clear.

During the bloodthirsty Tory leadership contest of 2016, Boris Johnson’s father had a neat response when asked about the behaviour of Michael Gove.

"Et tu Brute,” is my comment on that," he told BBC Radio 4 presenter Martha Kearney. "I don’t think he is called Brutus, but you never know."

Stanley Johnson was not the only one turning to Shakespeare for inspiration after Gove knifed his old pal and announced his own bid for Downing Street. The Independent went down the same path, describing Gove as "a modern Brutus", while Channel 4’s Gary Gibbon declared that "Michael Gove has done a double Brutus".

Johnson himself avoided the direct comparison, but in his speech withdrawing from the Tory leadership race said it was “a time not to fight against the tide of history but to take that tide at the flood and sail on to fortune”. The line was almost the same as that uttered by Brutus in Act 4 of Julius Caesar - after he has turned on his friend and become one of the assassins who stabbed him.

And all of that was before the cartoonists got involved.

Now an exhibition by the Royal Shakespeare Company suggests that Gove is in esteemed political company having been compared so effusively to one of the bard’s most famous creations.

The RSC’s ‘Draw New Mischief’ exhibition celebrates the last 250 years of Shakespeare and political cartoons, with illustrations dating back to 1846 when Robert Peel had just been forced to resign as prime minister.

The exhibition’s curator David Francis Taylor, associate professor of English at the University of Warwick, says that Shakespeare has such allure for political commentators because it often offers a "wonderfully concise way of suggesting much more complex political problems".

The Shakespeare treatment tends to applied in a few key ways, the exhibition suggests.

Julius Caesar is the go-to play for cartoonists looking to highlight betrayal and insincerity – as Gove found out last year. But while Gove was compared to Brutus, politicians such as Tony Blair have been depicted as Mark Antony.

"Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him," said Antony in his famous funeral oration for Caesar, using emotionally charged rhetoric to whip up the crowd while claiming to do the opposite. 

Antony’s speech has often been seized upon by cartoonists seeking to highlight displays of disingenuous political posturing. The cartoonist Peter Shrank notably depicted Blair as Antony when the then Labour leader was seeking to dilute trade union power early on during his time at the top of the party.



While Julius Caesar is best for betrayal and insincerity, Hamlet is the perfect vehicle for cartoonists who want to show political indecision or vacillation.

A few years ago, Shrank depicted Barack Obama as Hamlet as a means of scolding him for his failure to act decisively in Syria.

In 2016, David Cameron was shown as Hamlet pondering the problem of Boris Johnson after his fellow Tory made an ill-judged reference to Obama’s Kenyan ancestry during the EU referendum campaign. Morten Morland envisaged Cameron holding the skull of Johnson and saying: ‘Alas poor Boris, a fellow of infinite jest, but now how abhorred in my imagination ..."

Up there with Julius Caesar and Hamlet in the political popularity stakes for cartoonists is Macbeth. Shakespeare's tragedy of greed and ambition provides them with a way of suggesting illegitimate use of power, often via the ghost of Banquo who has been murdered by Macbeth and returns to haunt him at a banquet.

A political cartoon by John Doyle from 18th century shows then prime minister Lord Melbourne as Macbeth - and one of his political victims as the ghost of Banquo. More recently Martin Rowson depicted Cameron as Macbeth, to show how the then prime minister was haunted by his decision to intervene in Libya. Rowson had the ghost of Colonel Gadaffi walking through the door.

Meanwhile the character of Lady Macbeth also allows cartoonists to depict female politicians as strong characters who capable of seizing power from the useless males around them. A 1975 cartoon by Nicholas Garland shows Ted Heath trembling and holding daggers labelled ‘Tory policy’. Next to him, Thatcher is saying: ‘Give me the daggers’.

Hillary Clinton and Cherie Blair have also been cast as Lady Macbeth. But it is often not always quite such a positive portrayal, says Francis Taylor. "Lady Macbeth gets used as a nasty image of a woman who has unsexed herself and abandoned her own sense of femininity to pursue power," he notes.

The exhibition curator suggests it is only a matter of time before Theresa May gets the Lady Macbeth treatment. "It’s an inevitability that if you are a woman in high office you will be compared to Lady Macbeth at some point," says Francis Taylor. "For better of worse, Lady Macbeth is the image of political womanhood that we have in our culture."

And what about Jeremy Corbyn? Francis Taylor says there are a number of characters that would suit the Labour leader.

"Corbyn would make a wonderful, slightly rebellious figure. Any of the classic Shakespearian malcontents. Calaban from The Tempest for instance or Edmund in King Lear. Any of these slightly outside figures."



The RSC Draw New Mischief exhibition runs from 25 February – 15 September 2017.


Photo by Press Association.


Share this page


Please login to post a comment or register for a free account.