The Bard on the Brain By Paul M Matthews and Jeffrey McQuain<br></br>In Search of Shakespeare By Michael Wood

Superhuman Will was a brain specialist testing his fancy theories on the stage; Will the playwright was an astute, cautious outsider. John Morrish weighs up the competing claims of two very different takes on Shakespeare
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

DANA £24.50 £24.50 (+ £2.25 P&P PER ORDER) 0870 800 1122 / BBC £20 £18 (+ £2.25 P&P PER ORDER) 0870 800 1122

So many well-intentioned attempts to unite the arts and science seem to have precisely the opposite effect. The Bard on the Brain, a glossy collaboration between a neuro-scientist and a historian of language, is no exception. "Understanding the Mind Through the Art of Shakespeare and the Science of Brain Imaging", to quote the book's galumphing sub-title, is not one questionable pursuit but two. And it is difficult to see what they have to say to each other.

Professor Matthews' field is functional brain imaging, which means taking pictures of the brain's electrical activity as it experiences various emotions or undertakes various activities. The existence of these pictures - a new, science-based phrenology - is a modern scientific triumph, vital in cases of brain disorder or damage. They tell us which parts of the brain light up when we smell things, and which parts close down when we're depressed. But what they have to say about the way we think and feel remains to be seen.

But, then, what does Shakespeare tell us about the mind? In the great tragedies, starting with Hamlet, characters are imbued with a self-aware, questioning type of consciousness, new in drama. A few years on, though, and he seems to have changed his mind. Now he gives us Leontes, in The Winter's Tale, whose moods and motivations are both instantaneous and unfathomable. Was he depicting a different type of mind? Did he decide the mind was unknowable, after all? Or was he just in a hurry?

The truth is that to take Shakespeare as a guide through some of the most advanced of 21st century medical science, you need to see him through a distinctly 19th century lens. We are back with Divine Shakespeare, the superhuman analyst of character and the human soul.

"While his experiments were not designed and executed as are those of modern brain scientists, the underlying goals had intriguing similarities," write Matthews and his collaborator Jeffrey McQuain. "His laboratory was the theatre, where he tested his words and refined them until they communicated powerfully and accurately. Like a modern brain scientist, he was testing hypotheses..." And so on, stretching the a metaphor well beyond its natural capacity to elucidate.

My suspicion is that this book began as a set of photographs, and Shakespeare only arrived as an organisational device: a neat and reasonably familiar package of ruminations on the differences betwen men and women, madness, depression, physical courage, the senses, dreaming, memory, language, race, music, love and the imagination. In a way, any sufficiently prolific creator might have worked - "Understanding the Mind Through the Art of Walt Disney" anyone? - but Shakespeare has both range and insight. He earns his keep here.

What lets this book down is not art but science, or rather technology. For a book about imaging, the images are terrible. The thesis is that particular mental states and processes can be pinpointed to areas in the brain. But the pictures used to persuade us of this are blocky, pixellated computer graphics, sometimes manipulated and overlaid with irrelevancies for "artistic" purposes. And the captions barely help. It's a shame, because the science is both impressive and disturbing. Some of it is familiar to we browsers in the PopSci shelves, but even so, it is fascinating. Did you know, for instance, that the same part of your brain is active when you use a tool and when you are just thinking about using it?

On the other hand, anyone interested in William Shakespeare the dramatist and human being, rather than superhuman Will, would do better with Michael Wood's decent, straightforward biography. Of course, you can always watch the television series which is the "onlie begetter" of this book (four hourly episodes, starting on 28 June at 9.10pm on BBC2), but the book gives you more facts and absolutely no dodgy reconstructions and dramatisations.

It's a picture book, of course, and the paucity of biographical detail means that many of the pictures are of dubious relevance. Early on, we are told at some length about Shakespeare's early life in a provincial English Catholic family. To illustrate "the kind of material life to which Shakespeare's parents aspired", however, we get a double page image of a family of Flemish Protestants at dinner. No doubt television, with its hunger for the visual, will resort to more of that kind of improvisation.

Searching for Shakespeare has, of course, been a popular hobby for many years. Michael Wood doesn't get much closer to his man than anyone else: and at this stage it seems unlikely that anyone will. There is a gap where the stuff of biography - particularly television biography - should be. We don't know, for instance, how Shakespeare found his way out of Stratford and into the London theatre.

Still, Wood is very solid on the evidence we do have. There's a heavy emphasis on property records, for that reason. They show us a strongly Catholic family in Stratford, and then a whole series of lodgings and houses in London, and, in the last few years, a serious burst of property acquisition and provincial empire building.

Wood's is an honest, well-organised account that will serve the general reader well. You won't find either the high-flown rhetoric of a Schama or the novelettish imaginings of a Starkey. Instead, you get a strongly grounded sense of what it was like to live and work in London at the turn of the 17th century, making a living by your wits at the heart of what was almost a police state.

Shakespeare is notoriously a blank canvas upon which we inscribe our own values and preconceptions: a "happy hunting ground for minds that have lost their reason", as someone says in Ulysses. Wood deals firmly with the lunatic fringe by ignoring them. His man is an outsider, a near-Catholic, class-conscious, secretive, politically astute, a sympathiser with aliens and asylum-seekers, and a man who in middle age developed a passion for both a Venetian/Jewish "Dark Lady" and a young aristocratic boy, this latter being "possibly non-sexual".

Make that "probably non-sexual". While Tudor poets were artistically obsessed with what Walt Whitman later called "manly love", the penalties for actual homosexual activity were extreme, and not likely to have been risked by someone who was already on the fringes of civil society by virtue of his profession.

Wood's evidence, however, is a straightforwardly biographical reading of the Sonnets. He considers the possibility that they were a "mere literary game", and discounts it. Well, he makes a more convincing historian than he does a literary critic. A series of extremely artful short poems does not constitute a confession.

But television, inevitably, prefers biography to critical analysis. It's a pity for the programme makers that Shakespeare has been so unwilling to cooperate, but hardly surprising. He was a mystery in life, and remains so. And the inscription on his tomb, which Wood suggests he may have composed, was almost a warning to biographers: "Good friend, for Jesus' sake forebear / To dig the dust enclosed here."