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There's much ado about life and works of Shakespeare
The Plain Dealer ^ | Sunday, April 23, 2006 | Rochelle O'Gorman

Posted on 04/23/2006 10:42:23 AM PDT by nickcarraway

Today is William Shakespeare's birthday. Or it would be had the man lived to be 442. Interestingly enough, this is also his death day, as he shuffled off this mortal coil on April 23, 1616, at the age of 52.

Though the Bard and his work have never gone out of fashion, for some reason everyone and his brother of late has made an audiobook about old Will.

If you only have time for one of these, opt for Peter Ackroyd's compelling "Shakespeare: The Biography." Fascinating doesn't even begin to describe it.

Ackroyd takes all the information we have on Shakespeare and puts it into new perspective. Much, he admits, is based on both possibility and probability, as little was documented about the playwright and actor.

However, he lays a solid foundation for what are the most likely scenarios, and places Shakespeare in a cultural, economic, social and political climate that would have influenced his writings. Because Ackroyd is an accomplished writer and historian, this unfurls like fast-moving fiction, is swaddled in atmosphere and is always engaging.

The author adds new understanding to Shakespearean lore by explaining the Bard's language. English was spoken differently in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, so his audiences heard words with often completely different meanings from modern interpretations. That we are not reading Ackroyd's research, but hearing it, makes this all the more accessible.

Enhancing our enjoyment is British narrator Simon Vance, who reads with an easy fluidity. He takes us from small-town politics to the London stage without a hitch and effortlessly moves from narrating Ackroyd's words to acting the Bard's. Also, if you are to spend so much time with one voice, be happy it is as mellifluous and polished as Vance's.

If more than 19 hours of listening proves a daunting challenge, plug in James Shapiro's "A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599."

History rarely seems as lively as when we hear Shapiro's vivid descriptions of this pivotal year. Chivalry was dying, the Spanish threatened invasion, a new millennium was beginning, the English invaded Ireland, the East India company was formed, and Shakespeare was soaking it all in. It was during this year that he penned "Hamlet," "As You Like It," "Henry V" and "Julius Caesar."

The material is hard to turn away from, but it is too bad we can't turn a deaf ear to Shapiro. He sounds urban, American and flat. What was he doing reading this? His very presence gets in the way, as we can't help but pause when we hear his inappropriate accent and less-than-lovely voice.

Bonus material pops in at the end without a much-needed introduction. Scenes from the aforementioned 1599 plays are presented with much theatricality, but no context. They represent some of the best scenes in each play, but still, it is a little jarring when they just appear. Luckily, thanks to modern machinery, we can decide if they are to be, or not to be.

"Shakespeare: The Seven Major Tragedies" is not available for rental, as is the case with other titles from Recorded Books and its imprints, but the 100 bucks you'll spend on the Modern Scholar work is worth every penny.

These are taped lectures, so don't expect the studio-quality sound normally heard from Recorded Books, but the content makes up for ambient noise. Harold Bloom is Sterling Professor of Humanities and English at Yale University. It is safe, therefore, to assume that anything he has to say about "Romeo and Juliet" or "Hamlet" is well worth hearing. His observations are never less than intriguing and often brilliant, while his passion for the subject is palpable.

As with all Modern Scholar productions, a printed course guide is included, and one can take an online final exam. The course includes the above-mentioned plays, plus "Julius Caesar," "Othello," "King Lear," "Macbeth" and "Antony and Cleopatra."

It is a stretch, but once you buy into it, "Time's Fool: A Mystery of Shakespeare" is a lot of fun. Set in 1603, this fluffy fiction involves Will's mysterious Dark Lady from the sonnets, several murders, boisterous historical context and lots of atmosphere. The author clearly did his homework.

Blackstone only published library editions, meaning it is very expensive for the average audiophile to purchase. And it probably isn't something you would listen to repeatedly, so either rent it or get thee to a library.

And as for "Shakespeare by Another Name: The Life of Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford, The Man Who Was Shakespeare," we say "phooey," and we do so while lobbing rotten fruit at the author.

Even if you bought into the conjecture that is passed off as theory, you'd be in a boredom-induced coma by the time you listened to all of it. Author Mark Anderson beats a dead horse by constantly telling us, and without much factual basis, which historical person was the basis for every character in every play. He ambles off in the middle of some other topic, then, after losing us, gets back on track.

Audio veteran Simon Prebble does a professional job, as always, but unless you are already a believer, don't expect this audiobook to convert you. After all, there is that little problem of the Earl dying in 1604. That sound you hear as you shut off your stereo is our beloved Bard spinning in his grave.

O'Gorman is publisher and editor in chief of, an online magazine featuring daily reviews, interviews and articles about the audiobook industry.

TOPICS: Arts/Photography; Books/Literature; Miscellaneous; Music/Entertainment; Society
KEYWORDS: shakespeare; thearts

1 posted on 04/23/2006 10:42:27 AM PDT by nickcarraway
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To: GretchenM; TBP; clockwise; highball; KC_Conspirator; lizma; Stoat; rdb3; onedoug; ...
Shakespeare Birthday Ping

let me know if you want to join

2 posted on 04/23/2006 11:25:22 AM PDT by nickcarraway (I'm Only Alive, Because a Judge Hasn't Ruled I Should Die...)
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To: speedy


3 posted on 04/23/2006 11:25:44 AM PDT by nickcarraway (I'm Only Alive, Because a Judge Hasn't Ruled I Should Die...)
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To: nickcarraway

Bard Birthday Bump

"With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come"

4 posted on 04/23/2006 11:33:40 AM PDT by socal_parrot (Pass)
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To: nickcarraway
"I could be bound in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space." --Hamlet

How prophetic given today's debates of the cosmos.

Thanks, nickc....

5 posted on 04/23/2006 1:05:07 PM PDT by onedoug
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To: nickcarraway

Thanks for the ping, nick. We can never have enough Shakespeare.

6 posted on 04/23/2006 6:30:28 PM PDT by speedy
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To: nickcarraway

Do you know about "Shakespeare's Skum"? They perform at the Maryland Renaissance Festival every year and they do fractured versions of Shakespeare plays. they are hilarious and wonderful. If they come oyur way go see them.

7 posted on 04/23/2006 10:11:05 PM PDT by TBP
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