“We’ll hear a play…”

“We’ll hear a play to-morrow,” says Hamlet to the players. Of course, he’d see the play as well as hear it, but “We’ll see and hear a play tomorrow” is far too clumsy a line for Shakespeare to write, and, given the choice between “see a play” and “hear a play”, Shakespeare opted, rather interestingly, for the latter. If an order of importance is to be established, hearing comes before seeing.

It is perhaps not so surprising. It is the words that contain and communicate the drama. And this is perhaps why hearing audio recordings of Shakespeare’s plays is so satisfying a way of experiencing them. And also the most convenient: it is very difficult to catch up on the plays in the theatre – even if one happens, as I do, to live within reasonable distance of theatres putting on these plays. Over some forty or so years, I have seen only sixteen of these plays on stage (although, admittedly, there are some I have seen several times, and many others that I have seen on screen – mainly in the variable, but at times quite wonderful, BBC Shakespeare series). Most of my experience with these plays have been through the printed page rather than through performance, and, while there are those who claim that these plays must be experienced in performance and only in performance, experiencing them on the printed page has proved so enriching over the years that I find it hard to think of reading these plays being in any way a lesser experience than watching them.

But there can surely be no bar to hearing these plays; and in this respect, we are fortunate indeed: there are, currently, many quite excellent audio recordings available of, I think, the entire canon. We have available on CD, or as downloads, many of the classic performances made in the 60s by Caedmon (these are currently issued by Harper Collins ): these include such gems as Paul Scofield as Lear (he re-recorded this part many years later on the Naxos label to celebrate his 80th birthday), John Gielgud as Leontes, Vanessa Redgrave as Rosalind, Anthony Quayle as Falstaff, Albert Finney and Claire Bloom as Romeo and Juliet, etc. (Some of these Caedmon are still missing from the current catalogue – most notably, Paul Scofield’s extraordinarily intense reading of Hamlet; but presumably, these will eventually be released either on CD or as downloads in the not too distant future.)

And we have also several issues from the excellent edition of the complete plays recorded in the 60s by the Marlowe Society. The casts on this latter sets  were not generally as start-studded as those on the Caedmon recordings, but such performances as Richard Johnson, Ian Holm and Anna Calder-Marshall as Othello, Iago and Desdemona; or Tony Church and Irene Worth as Macbeth and his good lady wife; are unmissable. (Also unmissable in the Marlowe Society series is a recording that has recently appeared on CD of Twelfth Night, with Dorothy Tutin phrasing those lovely lines of Viola with the most exquisite beauty and poise.)

And, more recently, we have three more labels, featuring the finest of the current crop of Shakespeare actors, recording these plays: they are Naxos, Arkangel, and the BBC (I know these BBC recordings exist, but I couldn’t find an online catalogue: so much for BBC’s publicity department!) I have not, of course, heard all of these recordings, but the ones I have heard – with the solitary exception of the Naxos recording of Macbeth which had irritating sound effects providing a constant obbligato to the actors’ voices – have seemed to me excellent.

Last weekend, I had to drive up to Lancashire and back. This is normally a tedious drive which takes me some four dull hours if I am lucky with the traffic, and often considerably longer if I am not. But what better opportunity, I thought to myself, of hearing a play or two, uninterrupted! So, on the way up, I listened to the Naxos recording of Othello ,  with Hugh Quarshie, Anton Lesser, and Emma Fielding all outstanding as Othello, Iago and Desdemona; and on the way back, I listened to the BBC recording of Antony and Cleopatra, with David Harewood and Frances Barber in the title roles. And those otherwise tedious hours in the car passed surprisingly quickly.

Othello is the Shakespeare play that most powerfully engages my emotions. The first half of the play is very deliberately paced, but once the passions begin to grip – somewhere around the middle of Act Three, I think –they don’t let go: the tension tightens unremittingly right up to that gut-wrenching ending. I do not know why it should grip my imagination so: after all, I am myself nothing like any of those principal characters. I think it is perhaps because the drama that is being played out is no mere intrigue involving three individuals, but, rather, the drama of humanity struggling for its very soul: Keats had written about having to “burn through” the “fierce dispute betwixt damnation and impassioned clay”: admittedly, it was King Lear he had been writing about, but those lines could apply just as well to Othello. In destroying the innocent Desdemona (whom, I think, Shakespeare, Pygmalion-like, fell in love with even as he was creating her), Othello loses not merely a heaven in this world, but also the prospect of a heaven in the next: he loses his very soul. And the emotional impact of the poetry that depicts this – especially when delivered by such superb actors – is devastating, even when heard in a traffic jam just outside Birmingham.

The impact of Antony and Cleopatra is entirely different. It does not even aim to engage the audience’s – or the readers’, or the hearers’ –emotions: we may sympathise with Antony and Cleopatra up to a point, but we never empathise with them. And neither are we expected to. The first time they appear, they are shown in a comic light: there they are, the great queen and one of the three rulers of the Roman Empire – whispering sweet nothings into each others’ ears like lovesick teenagers. We wonder and we marvel, and we feel exalted by the sheer opulence of the poetry, but Shakespeare makes us observe these people without becoming emotionally close to them.

When I last read this play, it seemed to me that one of its major themes was the sheer plenitude of life – the infinite variety not merely of Cleopatra, but of humanity in general, the ever-shifting shapes of which make it impossible to pin down. Yes, all that is certainly in there. But listening to it this time, it seemed to me also to revisit a theme that had been explored previously in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – the transforming power of the imagination.  After Antony’s death, Cleopatra imagines him in terms appropriate to a god:

His legs bestrid the ocean: his rear’d arm
Crested the world: his voice was propertied
As all the tuned spheres, and that to friends;
But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,
He was as rattling thunder. For his bounty,
There was no winter in’t; an autumn ’twas
That grew the more by reaping: his delights
Were dolphin-like; they show’d his back above
The element they lived in: in his livery
Walk’d crowns and crownets; realms and islands were
As plates dropp’d from his pocket.

She knows well that Antony was never like this. “Think you there was, or might be, such a man as this I dream’d of?” she asks Dolabella. “Gentle madam, no,” comes the courteous but uncompromising answer. “You lie, up to the hearing of the gods,” says Cleopatra: such a creature as Cleopatra describes may not have existed in reality, but exists now in Cleopatra’s imagination. And that is good enough. Of course, Cleopatra knows, even now, what he had been in reality: in plays, she says, “Antony shall be brought drunken forth”: this is because Antony had been, as she well knows, a drunkard – an “old ruffian”, as Octavius had so accurately described him. But in her imagination, now, he has been transformed. And Cleopatra transforms herself too, imagining herself to be the great queen she never had been in life, and living out that part as she dies. Only when she has transformed herself into what she likes to imagine herself as being, does she abjure her “infinite variety” and describe herself as “marble constant”. Her imagination has utterly transfigured both Antony and herself from two deeply flawed and frankly rather ordinary mortals into demi-gods, figures not unbecoming a Shakespearean tragedy.

As with Othello on the way up to Lancashire, the performance of Antony and Cleopatra on the way down left nothing to be desired. Roger Allam as Enobarbus performed his famous speeches (the “Age cannot wither her” speech, and the glorious “The barge she sat on…”) with relish; David Harewood, whom I had seen at the National Theatre as Othello (my wife and I went to see that on an anniversary: now, I ask you – what sort of people go to see Othello on a wedding anniversary?) was a splendid Antony, and Frances Barber I thought was an outstanding Cleopatra, at times caressing those gorgeous lines with her lovely velvety voice, and at other times screeching like the proverbial fishwife: infinite variety indeed. But by the end, once Cleopatra has decided to die like the great queen she pictures herself in her imagination as being, she is indeed “marble constant”: Octavius triumphs in reality, but, perhaps, the imagination triumphs over Octavius. And that’s true too.

And so, the next time you face a long boring drive – or even if you don’t, but have a few hours to spare – I’d strongly recommend hearing play. Especially as there is now such an embarrassment of riches to choose from.

8 responses to this post.

  1. Great recommendation. I’m sure that if I had a car I’d be listening to a lot of audio-books, and I’d expect that “hearing a play” would generally be preferable to hearing a novel. Of the very few audio-lit experiences I’ve had, by far the most listenable were audio-plays – particularly a French series of cassettes of radio mysteries. Among a few others, though, I’ve been disappointing by how pedestrian the reading can be. One notable exception was Irene Worth reading Isak Dinesen’s The Old Chevalier – if one is going to listen to literature being read out loud, it certainly pays to have an outstanding actor doing the reading – or perhaps the author him or herself, as I still have running through my head, some 20 years after hearing it, a recording of William Butler Yeats reading “The Lake Isle of Innesfree.”

    What’s this? It’s available on YouTube!: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hGoaQ433wnw

    An embarrassment of riches indeed!


    • Hello Scott, and thanks for that wonderful link: I’d never heard the voice of Yeats before. Many years ago, i’d heard recordings of TS Eliot reading The Waste Land and The Four Quartets, but I don’t know if these recordings are currently available. There are, however, recordings available of these poems read by Paul Scofield, and they’re very impressive.

      I don’t really listen to audio books too often,I must admit, but when I do, I go for poetry and drama – especially Shakespearean drama. Sound is so important an aspect of poetry and of poetic drama, and it’s great to hear how these words actually sound. In brief- novels are to be read, and poetry is to e read … AND heard!

      Cheers, Himadri


  2. Posted by Brian Joseph on April 27, 2012 at 10:31 pm

    Hi Himadri,

    Thanks for the great commentary. You raise an interesting point about reading verses seeing a Shakespeare play. I think that both experiences are very different but in a way, both very necessary to appreciate the works. There is a certain complexity that lends itself to immediate contemplation that I think one only can achieve in reading the lines. On the other hand the live performances bring out incredible nuance and meaning that seems to be only accessible if one hears and sees the work. Of course all live performances include some Interpretation by the producers and actors, which is often fascinating in of itself.

    I have never actually heard an audio only recording. I think that I will give some a try based on your recommendations. I listen to audiobooks so it seems natural to listen to Shakespeare!


    • Hello Brian,

      Shakespeare has been, from quite an early age, more or less at the centre of my reading, and I don’t frankly understand those claims often made that these plays weren’t meant to be read. If they weren’t meant to be read then why were so many of them published even within Shakespeare’s own lifetime (the good Quarto editions)? More to the point, perhaps, if they are not to be read, then why is it that reading these plays have given me some of my most wonderful experiences? These plays really are so inexhaustibly rich, that they demand to be pondered on at one’s own pace in the study as well as heard at the actors’ pace in the theatre (or, indeed, in the car! 🙂 ) These are all, it seems to me, equally valid (though different) ways of experiencing these works. As you say, the complexity of these works demand a contemplation that isn’t readily achievable during a performance.

      And there are so any excellent editions available of these plays currently. We’re it not for lack of time (and funds!) it might be a good project simply to collect the various different editions and do a a comparison of the different editors’ approaches!

      Cheers for now, Himadri


  3. Posted by Alan Boshier on April 29, 2012 at 10:05 am

    I’ve been listening to the some of the BBC audio recordings (the recent “essential” collections of tragedies and comedies) and I’d have to say my experience is mixed; it all depends on how well you know the play I think but there are substantial challenges to listening to Shakespeare when the play features a large cast and the production does not sufficiently differentiate the characters by voice or mannerism. My advice would be to read the play or watch a production first, otherwise you may find yourself (like me) constantly skipping backwards to try and figure out what’s going on.


    • I certainly don’t claim to know all the plays well, but I think I know them well enough to be able to follow them on audio. But yes, I do take your point: if you don’t know the play well enough, and if thr play has many characters (some of the history plays, for instance) then following only on audio can be a bit difficult. I’ve actually downloaded all the Shakespeare plays free on to my iPad, and also a number of audio recordings, and I must say that I do enjoy followng the text on screen while listening.


  4. Not the same scale, but the BBC is planning on airing new versions of four history plays starting at the end of June. See this link for new detail.


    • Shells Dwight, and thanks very much for this. It has been many, many years since BBC television produced Shakespeare plays, and I am certainly looking forward – amongst other things, to seeingSimon Russell Beale play Falstaff. The two Henry IV plays are among the highest peaks of Shakespeare’s achievement: I remember many years ago seeing both parts on a single day in Stratford, with the late Robert Stephens as Falstaff. Let’s hope these broadcasts are the first of many!


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