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Radio review: Free Thinking, Turning Point: First Folio, and Being Roman with Mary Beard

17 November 2023


Shakespeare was a theme across BBC radio channels this week

Shakespeare was a theme across BBC radio channels this week

IS ADMIRATION for Shakespeare a universal phenomenon? Is it a natural human instinct to be moved by his words? When it is put like that, most of us would retreat into squeamish relativism. But, in Free Thinking (Radio 3, Wednesday of last week), the presenter Matthew Sweet was in a provocative mood. And his questions had the desired effect: of eliciting from his guests the kind of academic Eng. Lit. revisionism that has traditionalists reaching for the smelling salts.

Professor Preti Taneja showed the way. “Lucky [Shakespeare]!” she declared. “He was the one that swam through the rest, and was supported by a media drive to make him ‘Shakespeare’.” And, what’s more, that drive to create the brand that is “Shakespeare” was embedded in the ambitions of colonialism and Empire. Dr Iain Smith followed up: Shakespeare was constantly borrowing from others. His talent was as a collaborator who relied on his fellow thespians for inspiration. There was no solitary mastermind, but a composite. And that’s why it’s quite all right to adapt the plays in whichever way fits our modern sensibilities.

All this and more went unopposed by our host, whom one imagined quietly rejoicing at the dyspeptic response that such views might elicit — albeit in the tiny audience that this programme will have attracted.

More congenial efforts to mark the anniversary of Shakespeare’s First Folio included Turning Point: First Folio (Radio 4, Saturday), a light-hearted play by Mike Harris. It reimagined the process undertaken by John Heminges and Henry Condell to gather together the works of their late colleague. As well as having a ghost, and lots of cross-dressing, the play did far more to inform us laity about the business of 17th-century bookmaking than an academic round table. The problems of authorship and creative genius were raised here also, but in a manner that didn’t have you grinding your teeth. Meanwhile, over at The Verb (Radio 3, Friday), Ian McMillan and guests did a wondrous thing and talked about the words themselves — and the words that they have inspired. Thus, Shakespeare and “Shakespeare” are reunited.

The impulse to remove a historical figure from their context and treat them as a cultural plaything was similarly exemplified in the first episode of Being Roman with Mary Beard (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week). Our introduction to her central character, Emperor Marcus Aurelius, consisted of dates (AD 161-180), some mention of the popularity of his writings with Bill Clinton and Rory McIlroy, and the fact that Richard Harris played Marcus Aurelius in the film Gladiator.

Where he came in the history of the Empire, and what he did, were wholly omitted; for this was lifestyle history. What was Marcus Aurelius really like? It turns out that he was a bit of a mummy’s boy, who, from his holiday villa, wrote teasingly flirtatious letters to his tutor, Fronto. All the macho stuff was mere performance, we were told — with the enthusiasm of a journalist who has discovered a historic cache of incriminating Facebook posts.

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