Note: This article is originally from 2006. I repost this article from time to time, because these recordings are so enjoyable that anyone interested in Shakespeare should own them.
“We might be better off with public readings of Shakespeare,” says Harold Bloom in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. “Ideally, of course, Shakespeare should be acted, but since he is now almost invariably poorly directed and inadequately played, it might be better to hear him well than see him badly.” (Now that I live near Stratford-upon-Avon, I have to disagree; I’ve seen many good productions of Shakespeare plays both by the RSC in Stratford, and in other theaters in the UK.)
While we cannot always find such public readings, we can listen to recorded, dramatized versions of the plays, as with this set of Shakespeare’s 38 plays (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). With a cast of hundreds, most actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company, these works come alive through a skillful combination of reading, sound effects and music. As radio used to do when dramatizing works, the Arkangel set gives you the acting and the atmosphere. While one may be a bit irked by the “original” music, a sort of Coltrane-inspired Elizabethan music – why didn’t they use actual music of the period, including that composed for Shakespeare’s plays? – the overall production quality is about as good as it gets. Each play comes in a single CD jewel case containing two or three discs, with an insert containing a synopsis and cast information, and the discs are tracked by act and scene (with a handful of scenes that are split at the end of one CD and the beginning of the next one). When I imported a few of these discs to iTunes, the Gracenote CD Database, which iTunes uses to display track information, showed precise tags for each track, including, in the case of scenes that were split, the precise line numbers for the ends and beginnings.
The quality of these performances is excellent. While the occasional actor or actress sounds less convincing that they should–which may be because these actors are trained for working on the stage, not recording in studios–most of them are top-notch. One is quickly enveloped by the atmosphere, both textual and sonorous, and the plays roll on with astounding energy and verve. The tone is that of radio: not the radio of today, of course, but the time when radio was a source of performance and drama. But there is no “old-time” sound in these productions; they are modern and vibrant.
Cast members include David Tennant (Antipholus of Syracuse in The Comedy of Errors; Henry VI; Edgar, in King Lear; the Porter, in Macbeth; Launcelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice; The Archbishop/Ghost of Henry VI, in Richard III; Mercutio, in Romeo and Juliet), Simon Russell Beale (Hamlet; Angelo, in Measure for Measure; Antonio, in The Tempest; Prologue and Epilogue, in The Two Noble Kinsmen), Imogen Stubbs (Ophelia, in Hamlet), Damien Lewis (Laertes, in Hamlet, Alcibiades in Timon of Athens; Valentine, in The Two Gentlemen of Verona), Jane Lapotaire (Gertrude, Hamlet; Queen Katherine, in Henry VII), Richard Griffiths (Falstaff in Henry IV parts 1 and 2), Bill Nighy (the King of France, in Henry V; Cardinal Pandolph in King John; Antonia, in The Merchant of Venice), Brian Cox (Chorus, in Henry V), Stephen Boxer (Edward IV, in Henry VI, part 3; Edward IV/ Oxford, in Richard III), Adrian Lester (Antony, in Julius Caesar; Ariel, in The Tempest), John Gielgud (John Gower, in Pericles, Prince of Tyre; Time the Chorus, in The Winter’s Tale), Joseph Fiennes (Romeo), and many other well-known Shakespearean actors, nearly all of whom have acted (and some still do) at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
The recordings use the text of the Complete Pelican Shakespeare, an excellent and very readable edition of the plays. (This edition has thick enough paper to make reading easy, unlike some others, and the texts of the plays are in two columns with notes at the bottom of each page.) While there are some minor changes in the text (listening to King John, I noticed that “God” was replaced by “Heaven” throughout), reading the plays while listening is an enlightening experience. You get the advantage of clearly knowing which character is talking (which can be difficult at times when simply listening), you can see the spelling of unfamiliar words (and check the notes), and you get the emotion and intonation that you miss when only reading. Together, the recordings and printed text provide much more immediate understanding of the works.
At just under $400, this set is expensive, for sure. However, that comes to about $10 per play, and how can you put a value on Shakespeare? For fans of the Bard, or for those interested in discovering his work more deeply, this is a worthy investment. You may want to check and see if your library has this set, at least to sample one play before purchasing, but you really can’t go wrong with actors of this caliber, impeccable production, and a huge, heavy box that will impress your friends.
(There is also a very good set of the plays from the BBC on DVD.)
Note: I don’t know who owns this company any more. Some years ago, the BBC bought them out, and was selling the set on CD and by download on their audiobook site, AudioGo. But that company went out of business. I see this set is still listed on Amazon’s sites, but I don’t know if it’s actually still in print. I do see some of these CDs at the shop at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-Upon-Avon, so someone is clearly distributing them, but I wonder if the set will be disappearing soon. It would be great if the entire set were available for download in one big digital box set…