Dylan and Shakespeare

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By Stuart Hampton-Reeves, University of Central Lancashire


foto: Divulgação

Recently, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature and in his acceptance speech, he made some surprising references to Shakespeare:

I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”

Dylan speculates that, like him, Shakespeare was more preoccupied with the day-to-day challenges of putting on a performance than he was with his place in literary history. Dylan is probably right. Shakespeare may have had one eye on history (as does Dylan, who was the first rock star to publish his complete lyrics as a book), but he was deeply embedded in the practicalities of the theatre. His sense of theatrical craft shines right through his works: even his Sonnets have a theatrical quality about them. Dylan and Shakespeare write with a strong sense of their audiences of a kind that can only come from being on a stage. This was a craft they learnt before they become writers and it stayed with them through their careers.

Dylan and Shakespeare are cut from the same cloth. They both travelled down from the provinces to the big city (London for Shakespeare, New York for Dylan) at a time when a new cultural form was exploding. Dylan arrived in the middle of the early 1960s folk boom, Shakespeare started working in the theatre just as the Elizabethan play was taking off.  Shakespeare cut his teeth as a player, learning how to work the stage to entertain audiences who demanded a different play every day. Dylan absorbed hundreds of folk songs which he performed in coffee houses across Greenwich Village. They both had early ambitions as poets, but soon discovered that the popular entertainment of the day – plays for Shakespeare, pop songs for Dylan – could be transformed into a new literary art.

Because they were performers before they were writers, Shakespeare and Dylan also quickly assimilated songs and plays which they later returned to in their own creations.

Both are literary magpies. Dylan reworked the folk song No More Auction Block as Blowing in the Wind and he took the tune from Scarborough Fair for Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright. Shakespeare dusted down old history plays and turned them into riveting political dramas such as Richard III and Henry V. He also turned an old play about King Leir into one of his most powerful tragedies and remade Thomas Kyd’s revenge play Hamlet into one of the greatest works in literature. These are not isolated examples: almost everything Shakespeare and Dylan wrote has a source which they adapted. Between them, Dylan and Shakespeare are probably the two greatest thieves in literature – but they always made the material better, their versions often superseding and obliterating what went before.

But the similarities do not end there, for few writers have elevated the common insult to high art as Shakespeare and Dylan. Dylan is famously unforgiving in his songs, many of which are caustic character assassinations. Take for example this unforgettable putdown from Positively Fourth Street (1964):          

Yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes

You’d know what a drag it is to see you 

But no one insults like Shakespeare. Try this from Henry IV Part One: “Thou clay-brained guts, thou knotty-pated fool, thou whoreson obscene greasy tallow-catch!” Or this, from As You Like It: “Your brain is as dry as the remainder biscuit after voyage.”

To my knowledge, Dylan has never written any plays, but characters from Shakespeare crop up in many of his songs. Ophelia appears in Desolation Row (1965), Othello and Desdemona exchange a few words in Po’ Boy (2001), and Shakespeare himself appears in the alley in Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again (1966). Tears of Rage (1967) is based on King Lear and Seven Curses (1963) retells some of the story of Measure for Measure. For his part, Shakespeare was also a songwriter. As You Like It is the most musical of Shakespeare’s plays, including the classics ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ (later covered by Dylan’s contemporary Donovan) and ‘Blow, Blow, Winter Wind.’ Shakespeare also incorporated (and adapted) traditional ballads into his plays, many of which resemble Dylan’s early work.

Shakespeare and Dylan do have some things in common. They were performers who became poets, they made great literature out of a form regarded as mere popular entertainment, they recycled old plays and songs and made them live for the ages. Time will tell whether our descendants celebrate Dylan’s quarter-centenary, but there is no doubt in my mind that his Nobel prize was well-deserved.


The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.

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Author:Stuart Hampton-Reeves

Professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of Central Lancashire.
  • petesh

    Nicely done! Re: the pinching, adapting, improving and suchlike, I note the insight provided by (IIRC) one of PG Wodehouse’s characters to the effect that Hamlet is nothing but a bunch of quotations strung together by a flimsy plot. A few of Dylan’s lines have similarly seeped into the language as if they had always existed, and if I never hear “the times, they are …” in a news report again it will be too soon. The other magpie I personally lump in with them is Picasso — invention, craft and chaos spread over an enormous career.

  • Marco Demel

    Good Evening, Mr. Hampton-Reeves,
    Your article about Shakespeare is too short.
    May you know the book of a collegue, Mr. Heinrich Detering, its not translated in english till now, the title Voices from the underworld-The mistery games of Bob Dylan.
    in german: Die Stimmen aus der Unterwelt-Bob Dylans Mysterienspiele
    You will learn, that Masked and Anonymous is a shakespearian based play or even the Song “Tempest” with all the charakters like Pity, Cupid, the reaper, the bishop etc.
    Send a student to the book store and let him translate this book.
    Best regards
    Marco Demel

  • Vegard Martinsen

    Thank you. It is of course great to read Shakespeare, but to see the plays performed by great actors, that is magnificent.

  • Stuart Hampton-Reeves

    That’s a good question – I don’t know but if I find out anything I will let you know.

  • Vegard Martinsen

    Are there any reports from people seeing Dylan in the audience attending a performace of a Shakespeare play?

  • Stuart Hampton-Reeves

    Yes you are right, should have been Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons When You’ve Gone as recorded by Paul Clayton. Thanks for reading,

  • Bob J

    Some enjoyable and persuasive parallels – tho’ (nitpicking, maybe) isn’t it ‘Girl from the North Country’ that echoes ‘Scarborough Fair’?…Tellingly, both Dylan and Shakespeare have, too, their academic admirers and their small-minded detractors (eg the ludicrous Baconians). Bob J

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