HE'S MYSTERIOUS AND HE'S DEAD, AND RIGHT NOW, OF course, he's really hot.
Jumping on the 400-year-old Shakespeare bandwagon is Rhino Records, famous for its pop-ephemera collections, not so famous for forays into the literary abyss. Which is where it's landed, chin deep, with its new book-and-six-CD set, Be Thou Now Persuaded: Living in a Shakespearean World. The packaging is lovely, with beautiful graphics of the Bard, and the accompanying book is illustrated with photos of actors such as John Barrymore brooding evocatively in Shakespearean garb. Thus, with bated breath, does one turn to the actual content -- and is sore brokenhearted.
What we're supposed to be persuaded of is unclear -- there's no explanatory intro as to the whys and hows of the compilers' mission, except co-producer Michael W. Johnson's statement that these are "some of the best moments from some of the best plays ever written." Sort of like Shakespeare's greatest hits. Same deal as with, say, the Doors, if only you took Jim Morrison's best lines and put them together as you saw fit. If the intent of this collection of thematically linked snips is to drive us to either read or see the plays in their entirety -- or, better yet for Rhino, to purchase one of the complete recordings advertised with the set -- we are persuaded.
The first four CDs, as befits a collection of tome-ish works, are labeled "Volume 1: To Be . . . ," "Volume 2: Love's Labors," "Volume 3: Hot Blood" and "Volume 4: . . . Or Not To Be," each further broken down into subthemes, for instance, "Our Human Actions," "Of King and Country" and "Love-Sick Love." (The final two discs are a complete reading of Romeo and you-know-who by Claire Bloom and Albert Finney.)
Volume 1 begins, idiotically enough, with 21 different greetings from various plays. While this might seem logical, the effect is of a psychedelic swirl of mad, cheery men (mostly) who just can't get enough of each other and insist on saying "Hello, how fare thee?" over and over again. With that out of the way, we're on to five lines from The Tempest ("How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in't!"), then six from Hamlet ("What a piece of work is a man"), etc.
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There are longer soliloquies and bits of scenes, each read by well-known actors of their day. But from which day and what source -- film? recording? stage? -- are not noted. As performance styles have changed over the years, from melodramatic chest-beating to understated fierceness to naturalistic maundering, it would be illuminating to our understanding of the readings to know the context in which these actors were working.
IN THE BACK OF THE BOOK IS A LIST OF THE EXCERPTS and their complete text, so it's possible to follow along. But to find out who's performing, it's necessary to flip farther back, to another list -- making the effort a clumsy bother. Short chapters on "Who Was Shakespeare" and "The Elizabethan Stage," both by Norrie Epstein, give a good, visceral picture of what is known about Shakespeare and what it was like to attend the Globe Theatre:
"Once inside [the audience was] assaulted by the stench of garlic, ginger, tobacco, urine and sweat . . . Vendors hawked beer, oranges, water, gingerbread, and hazelnuts, the Elizabethan equivalent of Raisinettes." And the short synopses of the plays may be useful as a refresher, but they hardly impart the passion and intrigue that keep people interested in Shakespeare centuries later: "Romeo and Juliet declaim some poetry in the dark; the next day they're married by Romeo's confidante, Friar Laurence." Are you persuaded?
BE THOU NOW PERSUADED: Living in a Shakespearean World Compiled by BRENDA JOHNSON-GRAU | A six-CD set distributed by RHINO RECORDS