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Shakespeare: The Biography
By Peter Ackroyd
Random House Audio, unabridged nonfiction,
16 CDs, 19 hours and 12 minutes, $49.95, read by Simon Vance.
Also available as a download from www.audible.com, $34.97.

A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599
By James Shapiro
Harper Audio, abridged nonfiction,
six CDs, seven hours, $29.95, read by the author.
Also available as a download from www.audible.com, $20.97.

Shakespeare: The Seven Major Tragedies
By Harold Bloom
Modern Scholar, unabridged
original material, seven CDs or cassettes, 14 lectures, $95.75.

Time’s Fool: A Mystery of Shakespeare
By Leonard Tourney
Blackstone Audiobooks, unabridged fiction,
nine CDs, 11 hours, rental price $17.95;
read by Tony Jay.
Also available on eight cassettes, rental price $15.95, or one MP3-CD, sale price $29.95.

‘‘Shakespeare’’ by Another Name: The Life of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, the Man Who Was Shakespeare
By Mark Anderson
HighBridge Audio, abridged nonfiction,
eight CDs, 10 hours and 15 minutes, $34.95,
read by Simon Prebble.
Also available as a download from www.audible.com, $24.47.

Though William Shakespeare and his work have scarcely ever gone out of fashion in the nearly 400 years since his death , for some reason everyone and his brother have put out an audiobook about old Will of late. If you have time for only one of these, opt for Peter Ackroyd's compelling ``Shakespeare: The Biography." Fascinating doesn't even begin to describe it.

Ackroyd takes all the info rmation we have on Shakespeare and puts it into a new perspective. Much, he admits, is based on both possibility and probability, since little was documented about the playwright and actor. However, he does lay a solid foundation for what are the most likely scenarios, and places Shakespeare in a cultural, economic, social, and political climate that would have influenced his writings. Because Ackroyd is an accomplished writer and historian, the tale unfurls like fast-moving fiction, is swaddled in atmosphere, and is always engaging.

Enhancing our enjoyment is British narrator Simon Vance, who reads with easy fluidity. He takes us from small-town politics to the London stage without a hitch and effortlessly moves from narrating Ackroyd's words to acting the Bard's. If you've committed to spending so much time with one voice, it's nice to have one as mellifluous and polished as Vance's.

If more than 19 hours of listening proves too daunting, plug in James Shapiro's ``A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599." History rarely seems as lively as when we hear Shapiro's vivid descriptions of this pivotal year -- chivalry was dying, the Spanish threatened invasion, a new millennium was beginning, and Shakespeare was taking it all in. It was during this year that he penned ``As You Like It," ``Henry V," ``Julius Caesar," and (debatably) ``Hamlet."

The material is hard to turn away from, but it is too bad we can't turn a deaf ear to Shapiro. He sounds urban, American, and flat. What, what, what was he doing reading this? Bonus material pops in at the very end without a much-needed introduction. Scenes from the 1599 plays are presented with much theatricality, but no context. They represent some of the best scenes in each play, but still, it is a little jarring when they just appear. Luckily, thanks to modern technology, we can decide if they are to be heard, or not to be.

Though it's not available for rental, ``Shakespeare: The Seven Major Tragedies" is worth every penny of the nearly $100 price tag.

These are taped lectures, so don't expect the studio-quality sound normally heard from Recorded Books, although the content far makes up for ambient noise. The observations of Harold Bloom, Sterling Professor of Humanities and English at Yale University , are never less than intriguing and often brilliant, while his passion for the subject is palpable.

It is a stretch, but once you buy into it, ``Time's Fool: A Mystery of Shakespeare" is quite a lot of fun. Set in 1603, this fluffy fiction involves Shakespeare's mysterious Dark Lady of the sonnets, several murders, boisterous historical context, and lots of atmosphere. Author Leonard Tourney clearly did his homework. (The price is high, so either rent it or get thee to a library.)

And as for `` `Shakespeare ' by Another Name: The Life of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, the Man Who Was Shakespeare," we say ``Phooey," and we do so while lobbing rotten fruit at the author.

Even if you bought into the conjecture that is passed off as theory, you'd be in a boredom-induced coma by the time you listened to all of it. Author Mark Anderson beats a dead horse by constantly telling us, and without much factual basis, which historical figure was the basis for every character in every play.

Audio veteran Simon Prebble does a professional job, as always, but unless you are already a believer, don't expect this audiobook to convert you. After all, there is that little problem of the earl dying in 1604. That sound you hear as you shut off your stereo is our beloved Bard spinning in his grave.

Rochelle O'Gorman is publisher and editor in chief of audiobookcafe.com, an online magazine about the audiobook industry.

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