Shakespeare’s literary genius inspired musicians, too

by - 16:04

Is Shakespeare’s influence all-encompassing in the world of literature? With the number of column inches dedicated to his works, it’s hard not to think so.

And given how his prose have seeped into the vernacular of popular culture, it’s unsurprising to see the poet appearing in the pop music sphere, as well. From The Beatles to Bob Dylan, a clutch of artistes owes a great deal to his literary genius.

The Beatles – I Am The Walrus

It would be natural to expect fellow Britons, The Beatles, to have dipped their hands into and liberally quoted from Shakespeare’s inventory, but quizzically, only this Fab Four nugget tips its hat. The story goes that John Lennon had heard a reading of King Lear on BBC Radio, and decided to incorporate a line from Act 4, Scene 6 during the recording of this bizarre Beatles gem, in utter defiance of scholars attempting to decode the band’s lyrics.

He placed that bit at the end of the song, which infused radio static with the read excerpt: “Slave, thou hast slain me. Villain, take my purse”, which simply added to the odd-ball nature of the tune.

Rush – Limelight

The Canadian power trio’s chief songwriter, drummer Neal Peart, is a renowned voracious reader, and if the band’s 1976 double live album, All The World’s A Stage, didn’t already provide a clear indication of his reading diet, then 1981’s Limelight took it a step further by quoting the passage, “All the world’s indeed a stage, and we are merely players,” from the play As You Like It, in its entirety.

The song was in response to the group’s growing popularity and how privacy was fast becoming a hard-fought commodity. Peart reasoned that the band only signed up to be musicians, not stars.

Dire Straits – Romeo And Juliet

It must have been painful enough for Mark Knopfler to put into words – and frame Shakespeare’s classic tale of romance against his own – his fractured relationship with Holly Vincent, bandleader and front woman of Holly And The Italians.

Nothing beats breakup songs with a true story behind it, and for this gorgeous ballad, from 1980’s Making Movies LP, Dire Straits’ main man pulled out all the stops, twanging away on a National steel-bodied resonator guitar while wearing his heart on his sleeve.

There are no direct passages quoted from the classic tale, but the undying love between the lovers is captured in fine detail in his interpretation of “tragic love”.

Iron Maiden – The Evil That Men Do

Long renowned as literature and history buffs, having even quoted Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Rime Of The Ancient Mariner previously, the British rock titans seeking inspiration from the Bard comes as no surprise. Coming off a fertile period in the band’s career in the mid 1980s, the quintet took from the tragedy of Julius Caesar, extracted from Marcus Antonius’s speech while addressing the crowd of Romans following Caesar’s killing (Act 3, Scene 2); “The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.”

The song itself has little to do with Caesar’s story, but as fans of English writing, quoting one of its own countryman seemed too good an opportunity to resist.


Iron Maiden’s vocalist Bruce Dickinson performing during The Book of Souls World Tour in Buenos Aires in March. Long renowned as literature and history buffs, the legendary British rock band seeking inspiration from the Bard comes as no surprise. Photo: AFP

Bob Dylan – Desolation Row

Trust Bob Dylan to trump everyone else by referencing not one, but two Shakespeare tales – Romeo And Juliet and Hamlet, which is probably why the song is a sprawling piece clocking in at 11-odd minutes.

Desolation Row, which concludes the American folk hero’s classic Highway 61 Revisited album, while judiciously taking from the Shakespeare stories, is in fact, a mishmash of history, the Bible and fiction, all of which amount to a suggestion of utter discord.

Shakespeare’s influence runs the gamut of popular music, too, appearing in a variety of genres, with new artistes equally clued in to his influence. Taylor Swift, Elbow, Mumford & Sons and Dream Theater, represent the newer brigade, while older acts like Blue Oyster Cult, The Band, Spandau Ballet, Elvis Costello and The Smiths make up the older guard, who have all been cast under his spell.

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