Shakespeare’s Playlist

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Shakespeare's PlaylistWhile the works of William Shakespeare have shaped nearly all facets of modern culture today, his influence is keenly felt in the popular music scene.  Marjorie Garber, an English professor at Harvard University, writes in her book Shakespeare and Modern Culture (Pantheon Books, 2008), “Shakespeare makes modern culture and modern culture makes Shakespeare”.

In 1949, the first VW Beetle arrived in the United States, the NATO treaty was signed and the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb.  Meanwhile American composer and lyricist Cole Porter was setting off his own explosions in the theatrical community with “Another Op’nin’, Another Show”, the opening number from his controversial musical Kiss Me, Kate, which is based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.  Winning the very first Tony Award for Best Musical in 1949, the Broadway show tells the tale of a musical production of Shakespeare’s Shrew and mirrors the real work containing a play within a play.  Much as Shrew opens with Christopher Sly being told the story of Petruchio and Katherine, Kiss Me, Kate’s main characters, stage director Fred Graham and leading lady Lilli Vanessi, learn about the warring wooers they are set to portray, as their off-stage relationship imitates their on-stage one.  Some of Porter’s lyrics were considered so risque that they were censored by the movie industry when the film adaptation was released in 1953.  In the very tongue-in-cheek tune Brush Up Your Shakespeare, Porter suggested using Shakespeare for sexual seduction:

“Brush up your Shakespeare. Start quoting him now. Brush up your Shakespeare and the women you will wow.  Just declaim a few lines for “Othella” and they’ll think you’re a helluva fella.  If your blonde won’t respond when you flatter ‘er, tell her what Tony told Cleopaterer.  If she fights when her clothes you are mussing, what are clothes? “Much Ado About Nussing.”  Brush up your Shakespeare and they’ll all kowtow.”

While Porter’s lyrics are not quite politically correct by today’s standards, he was not the only lyricist to be inspired by Shakespeare.  Before he became half of the songwriting duo of Rodgers and Hammerstein, legendary lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, penned his first known lyric for the song Shakespeare Up-To-Date in 1916 as a tercentenary tribute, in honour of Shakespeare’s death in 1616:

In my youthful college days, I read all of Shakespeare’s plays.  From Henry VIII to Taming of the Shrew.  I’ve seen almost ev’ry one of the plays that Shaw has done, and can’t find much resemblance in the two.  But strange to say I had an awful dream the other night.  I woke to see this weird unusual sight:  Oh there was Romeo and Imogen parading around the room.  Lady Macbeth was getting married with Hamlet as the groom.  Then Juliet and Lear were playing cards while Portia was keeping score.  Now this may all seem wrong to you, but I’m sure it would be true, if George Bernard Shaw had but written some of Bill Shakespeare’s plays.  Once a friend remarked to me, how great would the profit be to put some music to Bill Shakespeare’s shows.  I have hunted all around, there’s a man that I have found could do the job as ev’rybody knows.  Just fancy George M. Cohan in a music comedy for this is how his stunt would doubtless be:  Henry VIII would wave a flag and sing “Hooray for the U.S.A.”  Shylock would seek his pound of flesh in a patriotic way.  Then Cleopatra might be seen in tights or dancing with Romeo.  Now this may all seem wrong to you, but I’m sure it would be true, if George Cohan had ever produced some of Bill Shakespeare’s plays.

Although many of Hammerstein’s references may not play to today’s audiences unless they are well-versed in theatre history, his irreverent but sweet portrayal of Shakespeare’s cast of characters is echoed in many other songs inspired by the Bard.  Many musicians in genres ranging from classic rock to country have featured Shakespeare in several ways:  directly quoting him, using his works to highlight the drama in their own stories, or to further investigate an iconic character’s point of view.  Compiled by the Folger Shakespeare Library in 2009 to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday, an itunes playlist was created to feature Shakespeare-inspired songs.  From chart toppers to indie angst-ridden songs, it is clear that Shakespeare’s influence reigns supreme.

Pop/country crossover artist Taylor Swift took inspiration from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet for her 2008 song Love Story, but that was certainly not the first time Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers had been featured in a top ten hit.  In 1964, rock and rollers The Reflections had a hit with (Just Like) Romeo and Juliet.  The Indigo Girls also named a song after the famous pair and former Van Halen member Sammy Hagar recorded Rock ‘n’ Roll Romeo, which tells of “Red Rocker’s Romeo” falling in love with a “Blue Jean Juliet.”

Kiss Me, Kate was not the only appearance of Shakespeare in a Broadway smash.  The tribal rock-love musical Hair features the song What A Piece of Work Is Man, which has roots in one of Hamlet’s most famous speeches.  Rocker Lana Lane released Lady Macbeth, a rock concept album, in 2005, which recounts “the Scottish play” from Lady Macbeth’s side of the story.   Ranked #185 on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list, Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row references both Romeo and Ophelia.

Even the sonnets inspire songs.  Sting’s song Sister Moon steals its lyrics “my mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” from Sonnet 130.  British pop artist Samantha Fox may have had the right idea when she borrowed Duke Orsino’s lovesick lines from Twelfth Night for her song If Music Be the Food of Love.  Shakespeare’s influence will continue to “play on” in not only the music world, but all aspects of modern culture as we continue to hear his inspirational words.

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Author:Holly Rodgers

Holly Rodgers is an educator, musician, and writer in the greater Washington DC area that has worked collaboratively with the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC to design lesson plans to promote the use of Shakespeare's works with English language learners. She has over a decade of experience in the field of education working as a band director, ESL teacher, presenter, and curriculum developer and is the founder of, a blog designed as an education resource for teachers wishing to share the works of J.R.R. Tolkien with their students. Holly has presented at the Folger Shakespeare Library Elementary Educators Conference and their webinar and teacher-to-teacher technology sessions. Her elementary ESL students performed at the Folger in 2010 for the Emily Jordan Folger Children's Shakespeare Festival and were featured on the Verizon cable television program Push Pause. Holly has also presented her work with Shakespeare and English Language Learner (ELL) students at the WATESOL (Washington Area Teachers of ESOL), KYTESOL (Kentucky Teachers of ESOL), and NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) conventions and her work with Tolkien and ELL students at Mythcon, the conference of The Mythopoeic Society. Follow Holly on Twitter @hmrodgers
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