As the UK is celebrating one of their most famous exports in March, we thought it was time to take a closer look at the pervasive influence of the Bard on popular music. There’s no shortage of references – from lines lifted directly from plays and sonnets, to plotlines reworked and updated for a modern ear.
Shakespeare gave artists, writers, and lyricists plenty to work with. The Bookogs Database currently has over 250 versions of his works, spanning tragedy, comedy, and poetry, published in English, German, Hungarian, Russian, Polish, Portuguese and more.
From a quick glance at this list of songs below, Romeo And Juliet is the ripest source material for songwriters (plus a quick search of the Discogs Database for ‘Romeo and Juliet’ surfaces almost 10,000 releases). The kings (and prince) are pretty popular too, with Richard III, Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth also making a strong showing.
Notable mentions also go out to Titus Andronicus, named after Shakespeare’s most violent and bloody play, which is basically a whole lot of fighting, cutting off extremities, murdering, baking dudes into a pie and feeding said pie to said dudes’ mother. The mini-album, Now is the Winter Of Our Discotheque by Australian band, Idiot Son should at least get a mention for the clever play on Richard III’s famous opening line, “Now is the winter of our discontent.” And the jury’s still out on whether Missy Elliott’s Work It line, “I put my thing down, flip it and reverse it” was intentionally written in iambic pentameter or if it’s a happy coincidence.
There’s still hope for you if you snoozed through your English classes on Shakespeare, fake your way to sophistication by listening to these tunes.
“Ere thrice the sun hath done salutation to the dawn” is (an intentional) misquote of ‘My lord, ’tis I. The early village cock, Hath twice done salutation to the morn.’ from Richard III.
Morrissey goes full pot/kettle in this song where he calls someone else for being pretentiously wordy.
Not the part that goes “oompah oompah stick it in your jumper.” Apparently someone switched on the radio while they were making a sound collage for the fadeout, and caught a broadcast of King Lear. The line “Oh, untimely death…” from Oswald’s death scene struck a chord with Lennon and made its way onto the track.
More than 400 years after the play was scribed and a decade before his remains were found in a car park in Leicester, Richard III scored the title of this track. While lyrically it doesn’t have much Shakespearean flare to it, the band has been quoted as saying the menacing swagger of the song is a reflection of the car park king, and that’s good enough for me.
Thom Yorke was so taken by early footage of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet adaptation that he went and penned this classic straight after seeing Claire Danes put a gun to her head. Lyrically, it’s a pretty close reflection of the plot of the play, with the climax “now we are one, in everlasting peace” a pretty clear reference to the (spoiler alert) double suicide ending.
Another Romeo and Juliet reference here. As well as naming the R&J, the lyrics allude to a couple whose romance is forbidden but who will be together in the afterlife. While many listeners gleaned a murder-suicide pact from the song, Dharma has stated it’s about eternal love rather than suicide.
“Some great Shakespearean scene, where a ghost and a prince meet, and everyone ends in mincemeat” Songwriters, Schwartz & Deitz effectively sum up Hamlet is a couple of lines. The song also tidily condenses Oedipus Rex down to “where a chap kills his father, and causes a lot of bother.” If there was ever a question of Judy’s street cred (there wasn’t), we’ve been reassured by Buzz from Melvins.
Dylan has often looked to Shakespeare for a little inspiration; Highway 61 Revisited nods to Twelfth Night, Romeo and Ophelia are referenced in Desolation Row, You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go uses the imagery of dragon clouds from Antony And Cleopatra. On Bye And Bye he borrows the line “I’m not even acquainted with my own desires” from As You Like It.
“All the things we did together must have made your job much harder, surely” A lesser known tune, but a good one nonetheless, written from the perspective of Lord Banquo in Macbeth. Banquo was Macbeth’s best mate but the ruthlessly ambitious Macbeth starts to see him as a threat and has him taken out.