That is the question Shakespeare lovers will be pondering upon the release of The Complete Arkangel Shakespeare this month. Audio Partners is publishing the 98-CD, $600 set of all 38 Shakespeare plays—the first time the canon has been offered as a unit. Each recorded play is fully dramatized, performed by nearly 400 British actors, most of whom are Royal Shakespeare Company members. Players include Ciaran Hinds, Joseph Fiennes, Jennifer Ehle, Rupert Graves and Sir John Gielgud. The plays contain original music, as well.

Back in the early 1990s, the Arkangel series was the brainchild of Brits Tom Treadwell, a university professor who specialized in Elizabethan drama, Bill Shepherd, a film and TV producer, and Clive Brill, a former BBC director/producer. This trio developed the series in London for their company, Arkangel Productions, as a companion to the Complete Pelican Shakespeare.

The Arkangel series has been a standout throughout its development. Cassettes of the Arkangel recordings have previously been available in the U.S. at retail—sold individually—from Penguin Audiobooks. Penguin will no longer be involved with the series. Going forward, Audio Partners will offer the cassettes (stock transferred from Penguin) through its Audio Editions mail-order catalogue; the new CD set will be distributed to the institutional market via a sales force at BBC Audio America as well as through Baker and Taylor. Audio Editions will handle all sales to the trade.

Though it's definitely a high-ticket item, Grady Hesters, Audio Partners CEO, believes there is a market for it, albeit a specialized one. "We are working with booksellers and providing them with materials to help them hand-sell the set to the customers they think will enjoy it." Audio Partners has prepared a preview CD and a brochure that booksellers can give away or mail (in an Audio Partners envelope) to key customers. "We believe that independents can lead the way on this," he commented. As for the chains, Hesters noted that Borders has taken a few copies and that Amazon plans to do promotion for the project.