TV UK, 10 July

Michael Wood's search for Shakespeare forgets that the bard went beyond his own biography.

Dolan Cummings

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Michael Wood’s search for Shakespeare finally emerges on Saturday (BBC2 at 9pm) from the rural twilight world of ‘could have been like this’ to the murky urban landscape of ‘probably something like that’.

Wood’s determination to root every aspect of Shakespeare’s work in the life of the man is grating, but there is something to be said for examining the historical context in which Shakespeare emerged, if only to appreciate more precisely his artistic achievements.

On Saturday Wood discusses Shakespeare’s distant cousin (maybe), the pious Jesuit poet Robert Southwell, who argued that the role of the poet was to glorify God, not to revel in love and the other trivialities of human life. While Wood wants Shakespeare’s own putative Papism to be an essential influence on his life, however, the bard clearly didn’t share his alleged cousin’s artistic philosophy.

In fact, Shakespeare didn’t share anybody’s artistic philosophy. His greatness lay at least partly in his ability to capture something of the human experience that more conventional artists could not. No artist fully transcends history, but in coming as close as he did – close enough to seem contemporary even now – Shakespeare certainly went beyond his own biography. Just how he did that is something of a mystery, but Wood supposes Shakespeare’s own feelings about the role of the poet are revealed in King Lear: ‘The weight of this sad time we must obey, / Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.’

No doubt Bernard Williams approved. BBC4 is repeating an episode of The Talk Show featuring Williams on Friday, as a tribute to the philosopher, who died in June. Williams talks about his recent book, Truth and Truthfulness. In it he addresses the apparent paradox that while people value truthfulness in public life, they tend to doubt the possibility of truth. He partly resolves this by showing that one can value sincerity as a character trait without necessarily committing to the idea of objective reality. So, if there is no single true story of Shakespeare’s life, at least Michael Wood seems convinced of his account, and that conviction, as with the bard himself, is infectious.

Channel 4’s Story of the Novel begins on Saturday at 8pm with Daniel Defoe stumbling into the form almost accidentally by writing a satirical tract and attributing it to a fictional Anglican zealot. Critics like John Carey, David Lodge and AS Byatt provide commentary on the development of the form, while an impressive cast of actors illustrates with extracts from the novels being discussed. It’s good stuff, and it makes the BBC’s Big Read look a bit naff, which indeed it is.

The first episode hinges on a spat between Samuel Richardson, whose Pamela was supposed to uplift its readers morally, and Henry Fielding, whose Shamela purported to show what human nature is really like. The programme argues that this initial spat over the moral role of the novel grew into a more formal difference, with Richardson’s second novel Clarissa taking us inside the mind of the heroine, while Fielding’s Tom Jones focused on action-packed plot. To make a long story short, this tension was finally resolved by Jane Austen, who set the novel up for its golden age in the nineteenth century. Hooray!

Next week’s episode looks at Walter Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Charlotte Bronte and George Elliot, before describing another shift, from the panoramic and politically engaged social novel to the more aesthetically and psychologically focused form perfected by Henry James. David Lodge argues, not all that convincingly, that this happened because it was no longer possible for one individual to know everything. Tell that to Michael Wood.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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