Where there's a Will there's a free-for-all

SOMEWHERE in the world the curtain rises on a Shakespeare production every 12 minutes. At least, so it was claimed in The Irresistible Rise of William Shakespeare (BBC 2), itself the curtain-raising programme of 'Bard on the Box' - a celebratory festival of Shakespeariana which seems determined to put a dent in the playwright's batting average. In a two- month season of documentaries, films, animations and readings there will be only one new production of a Shakespeare play. You can have Mel Gibson as the Dane (Mad Max, the prequel), Prue Leith cooking Elizabethan food, animated Shakespeare, plays in rehearsal and celebrities like Damon Hill and Eartha Kitt reading appropriate passages - but you won't get much Shakespeare that hasn't already been cut up into small pieces just in case you choke.

It may be wise not to overdo the indignation about this fact. After all, the BBC's last excursion into large-scale Bardic obeisance proved a very mixed blessing indeed. Shakespeare presented in a spirit of dull piety may well be worse than no Shakespeare at all. Besides, one of the glories of the poet is the penumbra of excited intelligence that surrounds him, the sense of minds working through history upon the same object and, in doing so, revealing their own desires.

The title of Sunday night's opener rather suggested that this long mastery of our literary imaginations might be a protection racket - Shakespeare as the front man for the lit-crit gang, sustained in power by a mixture of swooning flattery and self-interest. If you wanted to resist you were even supplied with good company at the beginning - Wittgenstein complaining that 'he is not true to life' and George Bernard Shaw moaning, with Fabian earnestness, that 'his pregnant observations of life are not co- ordinated into any philosophy'. Sure he can write plays, but can he do pamphlets?

Coleridge wrote more beautifully of Shakespeare that his greatness lay in the fact that 'he felt, and made others feel, on subjects no way connected with himself, except by force of contemplation and that sublime faculty by which a great mind becomes that which it meditates on'. What's fine about that remark is the way that it elides the difference between emotion ('felt') and intellect ('force of contemplation'), seeing that the works are, above all, thought in play. It was reassuring to hear Adrian Noble restate this principle (he talked of 'keeping the audience's intelligence stimulated constantly') right at the beginning of Shakespeare Laboratory (BBC 2), a workshop on two scenes from Measure for Measure.

Noble also reminded you that Shakespeare was 'a very pragmatic artist, a very practical fellow' and his close working on the scenes showed how 'simple' decisions about where people should stand actually involved crucial adjustments to the emotional chemistry.

The rehearsal, in truth, was slightly better than the finished product - worrying at the knots in ways that revealed the intricacy of Shakespeare's craft, demonstrating the text's astonishing capacity to absorb detail of interpretation. After some time working on the encounter between Isabella and Claudio (a difficult scene anyway for audiences who take a more relaxed view of virginity) you were shown the printed dialogue, to see with a little shock that the opposed desires of the two speakers actually make a pattern on the page: Isabella's wordy prevarications against Claudio's short, stabbing questions.

This is much closer to literary criticism than television often gets, which suggests that we should bear the celebrity endorsements with some fortitude and be grateful for what we get.