This year I decided to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death by taking a trip through his “complete works” as a listener. Decca, the venerable classical music label, had just reissued a legendary historic recording of the complete works published in the late 1950s and early 1960s by the Argo record company. What better way or time to honor Shakespeare than to go all the way through, with a landmark, pivotal recording series as my guide and companion?

I put “complete works” in quotation marks, because the 1957 version of the complete works is not currently anyone’s idea of complete. There’s no Edward III, no Thomas More, no Two Noble Kinsmen. At the time, though, the selection was quite daring. Who would buy Pericles, Henry VI or Timon of Athens on LP? And who would listen to them? Decca’s program booklet outlines with fascinating detail the process of getting the works into audio format. The British Council spent years getting the project off the ground, approaching the Old Vic and the Stratford Memorial Theatre for help in artistic direction and casting. Both companies turned them down flat, but recommended Cambridge University’s Marlowe Dramatic Society, under the direction of the celebrated and influential George Rylands. The undergraduate society had been performing amateur productions of classical theater for decades and had acquired a reputation for artistic excellence. And, as an amateur group, they could do it cheaply

Rylands was persuaded to direct the project and they plugged away for several years, getting every word of John Dover Wilson’s New Shakespeare edition on vinyl. At first, the players were mostly amateurs, undergrads and a few faculty members with a very small handful (just six, in fact) of professional actors involved. Later, the number of professionals was increased, but the recordings were never going to represent some ideal series of productions featuring legendary performers in the roles that made them famous. Rather, the series represents university players inhabiting Rylands’ vision of how Shakespeare should sound. And that vision is from the English department – so the spoken word, the poetic line are paramount even at the expense of theatrical effect.

So I’m making allowances in advance. The world of George Rylands is that of intimately recorded, acutely sensitive voices putting the stylistic and emotional content of Shakespeare’s plays and poems onto a recorded medium with as much accuracy and subtlety as possible. Nothing there, significantly enough, about keeping me entertained nearly sixty years later. But there is something authoritative about the recordings – maybe because they were the first, perhaps because of the unity and purity of the director’s vision of Shakespearean performance. And so I embark, beginning with the poems and then charting my course through the plays in Wikipedia order.

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