Averted from a ‘no deal’ crash over the Brexit cliff, Peter Jukes explains the Shakespeare-inspired front cover of this month’s Byline Times and wonders whether Britain’s tragic fall from grace will teach us some humility

For over a year, since the first deadline of 31 October 2019, Boris Johnson’s Vote Leave Government has kept us teetering on the cliff edge of sudden, ‘no deal’ exit from the European Union – a potentially ruinous departure from the largest trading bloc in the world, with no arrangements in place for security, tariffs, regulation or citizenship. 

Now that has been avoided at the last minute with a deal, the whole episode reminded many of the end of the 60s heist movie, The Italian Job, with Michael Caine’s team of bullion robbers torn between getting their swag or tipping their escape vehicle off a cliff. 

But there’s an even more resonant precursor of English exceptionalism and pride before a fall: the story of King Lear, dramatised by Shakespeare based on ancient chronicles. 

Planning to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, Lear cuts out the one who clearly loves him most, and is then driven to madness when the two remaining daughters diminish his status and try to have him sent to the Dark Ages equivalent of a residential care home.

The old king finally comes to his senses near Dover and reconciles with his good daughter who has returned with support from France. But she is hanged and Lear dies himself, in a fit of grief and distraction. 

There is a subplot in King Lear, which condenses the whole notion of the tragic fall – one which finds relevance in Brexit and Britain’s “world-beating” Coronavirus response.

One of Lear’s most trusted advisors, the Earl of Gloucester, is betrayed by his illegitimate son and then blinded. He also wanders towards Dover, where he attempts to commit suicide by jumping off the now named Shakespeare Cliff, featured on the front cover of January’s print edition of Byline Times (and above).

When he jumps, Gloucester is deceived: he has only fallen a few feet, but is led to believe that he’s fallen hundreds – and somehow survived.

EDGAR
Hadst thou been aught but gossamer, feathers, air,
So many fathom down precipitating,
Thou’dst shiver’d like an egg: but thou dost breathe;
Hast heavy substance; bleed’st not; speak’st; art sound.
Ten masts at each make not the altitude
Which thou hast perpendicularly fell:
Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.

A bit like the character of George Bailey played by James Stewart in Frank Kapra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, Gloucester’s jump over a mental cliff-edge, confronting his potential non-being, leads to him to acceptance and forgiveness, both of his own frailties and shortcomings, and the miracle of life. 

Britain has survived – just – a complete crash and fall through its hubris and supremacy. Maybe it can learn, like Gloucester, a little more humility about its place in the world and play a more positive part in the society of nations. 


OUR JOURNALISM RELIES ON YOU

Byline Times is funded by its subscribers. Receive our monthly print edition and help to support fearless, independent journalism.

New to Byline Times? Find out more about us

SUBSCRIBE TO THE PRINT EDITION

A new type of newspaper – independent, fearless, outside the system. Fund a better media.

Don’t miss a story! Sign up to our newsletter (and get a free edition posted to you)

Our leading investigations include: empire & the culture warBrexit, crony contractsRussian interferencethe Coronavirus pandemicdemocracy in danger, and the crisis in British journalism. We also introduce new voices of colour in Our Lives Matter.

More stories filed under Argument

EXCLUSIVE Who Watches the Watchdog? The CJR’s Russia Problem

, 7 February 2023
How the investigation into The Nation magazine’s pro-Russia bias was canned by ‘press watchdog’ the Columbia Journalism Review

‘The Boris Johnson Loan Scandal Shows how Cronyism Corrupts Public Life’

, 7 February 2023
BBC Chairman Richard Sharp's hidden involvement in arranging a £800,000 loan for the former PM exposes the gilded upper circles of politics and media in the UK, writes Adam Bienkov

‘Is Ukraine on the Path of Shock Therapy?’

, 7 February 2023
Victory for Ukraine is not just about defeating Russia but avoiding the path Putin's country has taken with its economy, write Gerhard Schnyder and Simon Deakin

More from the Byline Family