If Gordon Brown's fate has been to resemble not just one but several Shakespearean tragic heroes – cursed in his relationship with Tony Blair by a jealousy worthy of Othello, racked in the first months of his premiership by the indecision of Hamlet – then today he was Macbeth, seemingly playing out his final act. Like the embattled Scottish king holed up in his castle, watching Birnam Wood march on Dunsinane, Brown sat in No 10 knowing that, a few yards away, enemy forces were gathered, preparing to combine and seize his crown.
The cameras were trained on 70 Whitehall, where Lib Dem and Conservative negotiators were trying to make David Cameron prime minister. But on the other side of what's known as "the link door" sat the incumbent, surrounded in No 10 by advisers, ministers and former aides, including two of the founding fathers of New Labour, Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell. The only man missing from that pioneering quartet was Blair – although perhaps, like Banquo, he sent his ghost.
What was the mood? Officially, Brown was doing no more than his constitutional duty: preparing for the eventuality that Con-Lib talks broke down and the task of forming a coalition fell to him. Others suspected a more dramatic scene.
The generous version cast Brown as a man who had at last accepted his destiny. One senior Labour official said Brown's efforts to woo Nick Clegg represented little more than going through the motions, a token effort, given that the PM knew the arithmetic made it near-impossible.
In this reading, Brown understood that his time as PM was coming to an end. The only question was the manner and timing of his departure. Should he stay on as leader of the opposition – or would it be slightly humiliating to face Cameron at prime minister's questions from the wrong side of the dispatch box? Would it be better to let Harriet Harman stay on as acting leader while a formal contest to replace him got under way?
None of this meant he was about to bow to the handful of backbenchers who over the weekend demanded his instant resignation. That would create a constitutional vacuum, leaving the country without a prime minister and forcing the Queen to name a replacement. It would not even make a Lib-Lab coalition more likely: it would simply replace one obstacle – Brown, whom Clegg is known to dislike – with another, by saddling a new, progressive government with a second, unelected prime minister.
But these were political considerations. As for personal ambition, the virus that brought down Macbeth, those looking kindly on Brown said he was cured of it. "I'm past caring," he mused privately on Friday, when asked about his own position. They point to his statement accepting that Clegg talk to Cameron first, all statesmanlike and above the fray, as if he had made the emotional shift from combatant to referee.
Others see the weekend's events rather differently. The less charitable version pictures Brown in the No 10 bunker, scheming to cling on. It cites the late-night calls to Clegg – although those who heard them insist they were calm and businesslike – imagining a fevered Brown stabbing jotting pads with his thick pen, totting up the assorted minor parties to see if he could somehow reach the magic number that spelled power.
That the PM saw Clegg again today, in a clandestine meeting at the Foreign Office, confirmed Brown was far from ready to surrender. Instead, this man of uncanny resilience was clearly planning one more resurrection.
Which version is true? Is Brown now the becalmed statesman, planning his exit, or the bloodied survivor, determined to fight on? The likelihood is that, when it comes to Brown – the most psychologically complex figure to inhabit Downing Street since Winston Churchill – the answer is both.