William Shakespeare… in rock

Illustrazione di Zoa Studio dedicata all'Amleto di William Shakespeare
Illustration by Zoa Studio dedicated to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet

William Shakespeare has always been a part of my life, really. The “Bard of Avon” accompanied, with his works, many of my steps, even before I knew it.

First my father is called after the Moor of Venice, so Shakespeare had already practically marked me! Later, during my adolescence, I had started reading some of his works, thanks to Leonardo di Caprio and Claire Danes in Romeo and Juliet, a film adaptation by Baz Luhrmann. Or thanks also to the film Dead Poets’ Society, in which the young Neil challenges his family to star in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Obviously there have been hundreds of films inspired by Shakespeare, and I have a special memory of many. From 1961 West Side Story to Titus by Julie Taymor, a masterpiece, up to the Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons or to the lighter Shakespeare in love.

William Shakespeare was also the dissertation topic of my degree in English literature. I tried to show, as only a bold 20-year-old could do, if England’s most famous playwright was a gay icon for literature. Like a Alexander McQueen for fashion or Freddie Mercury for music, so to speak. Anyway, Shakespeare is not a gay icon, now I know!

Almost twenty years later we are again talking about the most eminent playwright of Western culture. This time, however, we do it in the Zoa-Studio manner, that is, by telling curious and succulent details, and with a decidedly rock cut!

William Shakespeare and music

Biography in pills

Due brief introduction. William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564 in Stratford upon Avon, and died the same day in 1616. That’s why we remember him today. Like Dante Alighieri for Italian culture, Shakespeare is considered the most important English writer and, as mentioned above, the most eminent playwright of Western culture.

Including some collaborations, in his life he wrote 37 plays, both tragedies and comedies (Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Titus Andronicus to name a few), 154 sonnets and a number of other poems.

He became immensely popular after his death (although he was also in life) and his works were celebrated in thousands of others in the following centuries, right up to the present day. Like Isaac Asimov, an asteroid was also dedicated to the Bard: 2985 Shakespeare.

The strength of music in and from Shakespeare

The Elizabethan Age, in which Shakespeare lived, is known for the importance given to music. Playwrights, at the time, to satisfy the demands of the public, inserted ballads and choirs in their works, sometimes even inappropriately. The music was really relevant: it emphasized a melancholy atmosphere, brought out an aspect of a character’s behaviour or made allusions. In the works of Shakespeare there are at least 100 songs that the characters sing, and many times it is the characters themselves who talk about music.

As they say in English “when words fail, music speaks”. It follows that music, in the works of the time, avoided verbal explanations or awakened emotional associations in the audience only with some notes (still valid today).

Imagine then, if music was already important “in” the works of the Bard, how much it became “through” these same works in the following centuries. Over the years, many great musicians have found a way to pay homage to William Shakespeare, defined by some (and perhaps not wrongly) “the most pop writer in history”.

Today we tell you about some of these musicians and their more Shakespearean  rock pieces (because pop in the strict musical sense is not really our genre!). Let’s not forget that some bands have taken their name from the works of the Bard, for example punk-indie Titus Andronicus.

Rush, Limelight

Let’s start our personal rock-Shakespearean roundup with the Rush song Limelight, which opens with some sentences from the work As you like it.

All the world’s indeed is a stage and we are merely players.

The lyrics were written by the late drummer Neil Peart, who had already used the same words on the live album All the world is a stage.

Elvis Costello, Miss Macbeth

And everyday she lives out another song 

It is a tearful lament of somebody done wrong

Well how can you miss what you have never possessed, Miss Macbeth

With a modern take on the Macbeth opera, Costello tells a different story of the famous Lady Macbeth, traditionally naive and dark, instead giving her a new light, where a greater sensitivity towards her emerges.

Elton John, The King Must Die

In this passage we talk about the loss of power of a man, through the story of the dethronement of a king. Elton John not only does refer to several Shakespearean works, including Hamlet and Julius Caesar, but uses in the text (written by Taupin) many words of ancient Renaissance and medieval English. Content and form!

No man’s a jester playing Shakespeare
‘Round your throne room floor
While the juggler’s act is danced upon
The crown that you once wore

Bob Dylan, Desolation Row

While in this  Bob Dylan’s piece, Desolation Row, there doesn’t seem to be any real influence from Shakespeare’s plays, actually some characters are named after them: we find Romeo from Romeo and Juliet and Ophelia, from Macbeth. The song paints some urban situations of disorder and chaos, with disoriented and problematic characters.

The title is a reference to another writer we have already talked about, Jack Kerouac, with his work Desolation Angels.

Lou Reed, Romeo had Juliette

Lou Reed, with Romeo had Juliette, succeeded in a difficult task: to take a work from the late 1500s and give it a pop connotation. In fact, the song is about two young people from New York who live on opposite sides of this city, making quotations, in addition to the urban area of Manhattan, also to the police of Harlem and to ethnic minorities.

The Band, Ophelia

In this case, Canadian-American The Band dedicated an entire song to Macbeth’s iconic Ophelia. According to group biographer Barney Hoskyns, the name Ophelia for the song did not come from Shakespeare’s Hamlet but rather from the real name of comedian Minnie Pearl.

But Shakespeare’s scholar Stephen M. Buhler saw some Shakespearean echoes in this song particularly linked to Othello. In particular, Buhler noted hints that Ophelia was perhaps a black woman in a southern US city, forced to flee due to intolerant attitudes towards interracial relationships.

Radiohead, Exit Music

We close this overview of the most Shakespearean songs with Radiohead’s Exit Music (I let you reflect on the genius of having put Exit music as the closing song of the article).

It seems that Thom Yorke, frontman of the group, composed this song after seeing Romeo and Juliet by Franco Zeffirelli. The same song was used in the credits of the aforementioned film Romeo + Juliet by Luhrmann.

Pack and get dressed
Before your father hears us
Before all hell breaks loose

Breathe, keep breathing
Don’t lose your nerve
Breathe, keep breathing
I can’t do this alone

The lyrics of the song are heartbreaking. A little less those of Yorke, who said about the composition: “I saw Zeffirelli’s version when I was 13, I cried bitterly. I couldn’t understand why, the morning after they shagged, they didn’t just run away “.

There is nothing to ass…William Shakespeare, please, keep on inspiring us “as you like it”.



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