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December 17, 1989|KEITH LOVE

Revisiting old favorites and closing gaps in your reading are two ways that the audio versions of literary classics can enrich your life.

But I recently discovered another that may be the most enriching of all: listening to Shakespeare as you read the text.

I stumbled upon this quite by accident after I noticed in the new catalogue of The Mind's Eye of San Francisco that I could own the BBC productions of four Shakespeare tragedies for $14.95 apiece.

I'd like to say that I chose "King Lear" first because it is Shakespeare's greatest play, but in truth I chose it because Alec Guinness plays Lear--a perfect example of how the audio productions of classics are affecting my appreciation of them.

Before I put the tape in my Walkman, I remembered that some years ago a relative had given me the bard's complete works in the massive and authoritative Riverside Shakespeare.

(You can purchase paperback collections of the major tragedies and comedies for less than $10 if they're not already on your bookshelves.)

I blew the dust off the Riverside, put "King Lear" in my tape player and was soon appreciating Shakespeare at a level that, frankly, I had not come close to before.

The sound effects on the BBC production were probably one reason.

When Lear goes out into the storm, the fierce wind that you hear on the tape dramatically enhances the old king's coming to terms with his mortality.

But there also is the magic that good actors can bring to a writer's lines--even the one writer who surely would need no assistance.

For example, at the end of Scene V of Act I, the Fool is chiding Lear for not realizing he would become an afterthought to daughters Regan and Goneril the moment he turned his kingdom over to them:

Fool: Thou shouldst not have been old before thou hadst been wise.

Lear: O! let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven; keep me in temper; I would not be mad!

That exchange between Guinness and Ronald Pickup, who plays the Fool on the BBC tape, was far more affecting than it is when one simply reads the text.

Likewise, when Lear and Cordelia are reunited in Act IV, Scene VII:

Cordelia: How does my royal lord? How fares your Majesty?

Now, if you simply read it, that's a line in the play and nothing more.

But you should hear Sarah Badel say it in the BBC production. All of the love and pain that characterized Cordelia's honest relationship with her father comes forth in the actress' voice.

Guinness, in turn, responds as a Lear whose rage has finally left him. The thin voice that speaks to Cordelia is almost that of a child:

You do me wrong to take me out o' the grave.

Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound

Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears

Do scald like molten lead.

When the play was done, I listened to it again straight through (two cassettes, about 3 hours). I then turned back a few pages in the Riverside edition to Frank Kermode's essay on "King Lear" and learned something I do not recall hearing from my professors years ago.

The source of this greatest of all plays was a folk tale in which a daughter tells her father she loves him like salt and then extinguishes his anger by persuading him that she means he is essential to her.

Out of that tale came a play whose author is unknown, "King Leir," and it is one of the two main sources for Shakespeare's work, which he wrote in 1605.

His other main source was a story of the Paphlagonian King in Sidney's "Arcadia," which inspired Shakespeare's subplot of Gloucester and his two sons.

Shakespeare wove these two strands together in revision after revision until he had what he wanted, according to Kermode. The result is more than a play, as the BBC audio production will convince you (if you need convincing).

It is what Shelley called "the most perfect specimen of dramatic poetry existing in the world."


The Mind's Eye, 800-227-2020, or 415-883-7701; Box 6727, San Francisco 94101.

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