What did Shakespeare ever do for us? I mean aside from creating some of the most archetypal and enduring works of literature, introducing countless words into the English language, and forging the bedrock of British theatre, literature,and culture. Aside from that.
No, there’s no escaping it. William Shakespeare is one of the most influential figures who has ever lived. Despite being written over 400 years ago, his plays capture some of the universal truths of human experience and do so almost entirely through character.
Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet are instantly recognisable characters, and that’s still the case for people who haven’t seen a Shakespeare play in their entire life. His work is so woven into the fabric of our everyday lives, that it’s near-impossible to talk to a friend without making a reference to something Shakespeare wrote in one way or another. From “Breaking the Ice” to “Puking” the man is bloody everywhere.
So, it is unsurprising that 400 years later, people are still banging on about the guy. His influence can be felt in almost every aspect of our culture. Film and Theatre are obvious examples, but he has also cropped up in a huge amount of music. And I don’t just mean in big orchestral productions like Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. There is also a countless array of rock, folk, rap, and pop songs which have either been influenced by – or make reference to – the immortal bard.
In this list, we’ll be looking at the ten greatest songs which were inspired by Shakespeare. So, let’s start with number ten.
10 great songs inspired by William Shakespeare
10. ‘Ophelia’ – The Band
Despite its funky bassline and sunshine-slick horn section, the lyrics to the band’s 1975 hit Ophelia, as the title would suggest, concentrate on one of Shakespeare’s most tragic figures.
With the lyrics: “Ashes of laughter, the ghost is clear. Why do the best things always disappear? Like Ophelia Please darken my door,” The Band use the madness (and ultimate demise) of the song’s titular character to talk about the neuroses of a particularly hard-to-reach girlfriend. One can’t help thinking that’s a little strong, but there you go.
9. ‘Macbeth’ – John Cale
Like his Velvet Underground bandmate, Lou Reed, John Cale had a taste for Shakespeare and clearly references his Scottish tragedy in this next track, singing the lines: “Alas for poor Macbeth. He found a shallow grave, but better than a painful death and quicker than his dying breath”.
Here, Cale actually makes two Shakespeare references in one, swapping out the famous line ‘Alas poor Yorick’ from Hamlet, and changing it to “Alas for poor Macbeth”.
8. ‘Titus Andronicus Forever’ – Titus Andronicus.
Titus Andronicus, so good they referenced it twice. Yes, Shakespeare’s most gruesome play smells distinctly like teenage angst. The bard’s earliest work, Titus Andronicus contains levels of hyper-violence that would make Tarantino weep. Notable examples include the scene in which Lavinia returns to the stage, having had both her hands and tongue cut off, as well as one in which a mother is fed a pie made from the flesh of her own son.
For the American punk band, Shakespeare’s least-loved play becomes the lens through which, using very simple lyrics, they criticised the presence of warfare throughout human history, singing “The enemy is everywhere” again and again and again.
7. ‘The King Must Die’ – Elton John
In this track from Elton John’s eponymous 1970 album, ol’ Rocketman sings: “No man’s a jester playing Shakespeare round your throne room floor, while the juggler’s act is danced upon he crown that you once wore”, using the bard as a way of talking about a fall from power.
It’s hard to tell which of Shakespeare’s characters John is referencing here, but it’s most likely King Lear, whose slow decline into madness is accompanied by the comic relief of his ‘Fool’, or ‘Jester’.
6. ‘Something Wicked’ – 2Pac
One of the many things Shakespeare is famous for is the musicality of his verse, something 2pac is also famous for. But, as poet and rapper Akala discusses, Shakespeare also shares an anti-establishment streak. He says: “there’s a speech which is probably Shakespeare’s most direct critique of royal power ever: ‘I live with bread like you, need friends, taste grief, subjected us, how can you say to me I am a king?’ Shakespeare directly challenged the whole idea of monarchy, so that was right up my alley because I’m not a monarchist.”
The title of this 2Pac track references a line spoken by one of the witches in Macbeth, and although it is fleeting, it reveals 2Pac’s quiet obsession with the bard. In his art school days, 2Pac put on many a Shakespeare play, using the performances as a vehicle to explore gang violence and cultural conflict.
5. ‘Blow Away’ – Kate Bush
This poignant ballad was written as a tribute to Kate Bush’s lighting director Bill Duffield, who died on the opening night of the singer’s Tour of Life in 1979. It contains a nod to Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello, with the line: “Put out the light then, put out the light,”.
It is taken from the scene just before Othello goes into his wife’s s bedroom and murders her out of jealousy. But, In Bush’s song, the line has less homicidal connotations. Here, the lyric touches on the fundamental frailty of human life.
4. ‘I Almost Had A Weakness’ – Elvis Costello
Costello has made a couple of references to Shakespeare in his work, one notable example being ‘Miss Macbeth’. But, for me, it’s his album The Juliet Letters that really stands out. Written and recorded with The Brodsky Quartet, The Juliet Letters is a musical setting of the imagined correspondences of Juliet Capulet.
To be honest, it’s quite hard to put into words how magnificent this album is. Costello himself described it as: “a song sequence for string quartet and voice and it has a title. It’s a little bit different. It’s not a rock opera. It’s a new thing”. This specific track is an angular, masterclass in harmony and is unlike anything Costello has done before or since.
3. ‘Romeo Had Juliette’ – Lou Reed
In this, the opening track to Lou Reed’s 1978 album New York, the reference is obvious. With ‘Romeo Had Juliette’, Lou Reed transplants the archetypal story of the two star-crossed lovers and sets it in modern-day New York. Sort of like West Side Story, but without all the jazz clicking.
The track features the two lovers, Romeo Rodriguez and Juliette Bell struggling to come together from opposite sides of the city, and captures their sexual frustration in much plainer terms than Shakespeare. See the line: “Inside his pants, he hides a mop to clean the mess that he has dropped into the life of lithesome Juliette Bell”.
Reed, you old romantic.
2. ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’ – Radiohead
This list simply wouldn’t;t be complete without a mention of Radiohead’s heart-wrenching track from Kid A. According to Thom Yorke, the song was inspired by Baz Lurhmann’s modern re-working, Romeo + Juliet.
But, apparently, the Shakespeare play had affected the frontman before: “I saw the Zeffirelli version when I was 13 and I cried my eyes out,” noted Yorke. “I couldn’t understand why, the morning after they shagged, they didn’t just run away. The song is written for two people who should run away before all the bad stuff starts. A personal song.”
1. ‘I Am The Walrus’ – The Beatles
Yes, who would have thought one of the most analysed songs in pop music history would also include a subtle reference to Shakespeare. Lennon reportedly got the idea for many of the more oblique lyrics after he received a letter from a student who explained that their English teacher was having them analyse Beatles songs.
Whilst the lyrics themselves contain no obvious Shakespeare references, the laughter which ends the track is taken from a BBC broadcast of King Lear, which John Lennon had turned on when The Beatles were in the studio. The band decided to use samples of the recording in the song itself.