All the recorded world's a staging ground for CD reissues, but the latest task undertaken by Rhino Wordbeat is daunting: "Be Thou Now Persuaded: Living in a Shakespearean World" is a six-CD introduction to Shakespeare, which is not quite the same sort of thing as Night Ranger's greatest hits. The result is something much less than the complete works, but more than an audio compilation of the Bard's best-known phrases.
Judging from the essays in the accompanying booklet, the box set is designed for people who have discovered the author recently, perhaps through "Shakespeare in Love" or that version of "Romeo and Juliet" that was more Leonardo DiCaprio than Shakespeare. Jane and Michael Stern's egregiously up-to-date comments refer to "Hamlet's poll numbers" and Lady Macbeth's lack of interest in baking cookies, and they suggest that Romeo and Juliet "would be excellent guests on any daytime talk show."
"Romeo and Juliet" is, in fact, the only play presented in full, with Albert Finney and Claire Bloom in the title roles. The four other discs collect well-known speeches, arranged thematically: The readings in "To Be . . ." address humanity, ambition and honor; "Love's Labors" examines both erotic and filial attachment; "Hot Blood" covers jealousy, rage and violence; and ". . . Or Not to Be" considers dreams, death and the supernatural.
Disc 1 opens with an aural collage of greetings, and Disc 4 closes with a similar round of farewells. Otherwise, the compilation presents the speeches unaltered, although sometimes in odd juxtapositions: Disc 4's "What Dreams May Come" section strings together nightmares from "Macbeth," "Julius Caesar" and "Richard III," only to jump to Bottom's reverie from "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
The set's sources vary, and so does the sound quality. John Barrymore's "To be or not to be" soliloquy sounds particularly ragged, but many of these recordings couldn't be brought up to contemporary audio standards. Still, with a cast that includes Orson Welles, Paul Robeson, Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton and John Gielgud, some allowances for crackle and hiss can be made.
Ultimately, the concept is more problematic than the sound. This is a massive endeavor, yet it offers but a taste of all but one of Shakespeare's plays. Is the set meant to be a reference work, a Bardic appetizer or a sort of hypertext literary opus of its own? Despite the great language and fine performances, it's hard to imagine people listening to these discs repeatedly. Ironically, this attempt to introduce Britain's greatest playwright to a new audience of media-savvy youngsters may end up being just another Shakespeare volume to collect dust on a shelf.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8153.)