In the late 90s, Classic FM Magazine asked its readers what they considered to be their favourite pieces of Shakespeare and the results were collected in a book and this double cassette. There are few surprises. Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?”) comes first with Sonnet 116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds”) second, with both of Henry V’s iconic speeches in there somewhere (“Once more unto the breach”) and Jacques from As You Like It (“All The World’s Stage” providing a loose structure for the programme). “To Be, Or Not To Be” is ninth beating only the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet.
The anthology attracted an excellent cast with Antony Sher, Imogen Stubbs, Victoria Hamilton, Alan Cox, Richard Griffiths and Derek Jacobi all appearing, the latter three eclectically offering us their three witches from Macbeth (and very good they are too). Each of the clips is introduced by John Brunning though it’s with the bare minimum of background information, sticking with a brief outline of the character and a reminder of who the actors are and where a given clip appeared in the poll.
The enterprise is bulked out with sections overlooked in the poll and there are some wonderful choices which aren’t usually included in such endevours like Wolsey from Henry VIII or Verse 12 of The Passionate Pilgrim. But not all the plays are covered. There’s no Measure for Measure, no Cymbeline (a pity since it would have been nice to hear Stubbs inhabiting her near namesake). About the only flaw is the lack of track listing for the music which appears between the verse, which is odd considering the source of the publication.
Act III, Scene I:
”To Be, Or Not To Be”
Hamlet: Alan Cox
Cox presents a reading of what sounds like the folio text, usually identified by the enterprises of great “pith” and moment instead “pitch” and an additional “these” before “fardles” but which has “away” replaced with “awry” towards the end. His piece of Hamlet has a real sense of wrestling with the questions therein, perhaps in an attempt to imbue the speech with the whole play’s worth of characterisation. There’s no sense that he’s playing for the benefit of whoever might be watching (unless it’s a double bluff).
But it is very much a reading, more about the text than performance, indicated by Cox adding an extra breath at the end of every line with or without punctuatation, which while creating emphasis messes up the stress patterns in places, with “and by a sleep to say we end […] That flesh is heir to” proving a real challenge thanks to the quick semi colon and another pause at the end of “consummation”. As John Barton says, Shakespeare is very clear as to were the pauses and breaths should go and this is an excellent example of what happens when other choices are made.