“If music be the food of love, play on…” Duke Orsino declares in his opening speech in William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Many musicians in the years since it was written in 1601 have seemingly taken heed in that line and run with it, whether classical composers, rock stars or otherwise. It’s no wonder lyricists have been drawn to the work of Shakespeare, given his gift for a turn of phrase and his mastery of meter. Four hundred and fifty years, 37 plays and 154 sonnets down the line, Shakespeare continues to exert an effect on musicians as much as writers, philosophers and the modern vernacular, inspiring the likes of Radiohead, Lou Reed, Mumford and Sons and many more. To mark his 450th birthday today (23 April), Jamie Skey salutes King Bill with a top ten list of modern musical re-evaluations of his work.
Mumford and Sons - Roll Away Your Stone Not only do they like to garb themselves in Olde English costumes, Marcus Mumford and co. like to dress their songs in Shakespeare quotes, as on the Macbeth-raiding Roll Away Your Stone: “Stars hide your fires/ And these here are my desires.”
Rush - Limelight A song about battling success, Rush’s Limelight paraphrases the “all the world’s a stage” line from a speech in As You Like It.
Titus Andronicus - Titus Andronicus Forever Not only is the name of these New Jersey indie rockers swiped from Shakespeare’s least loved play, but some of their lyrics and song titles showcase the playwright’s influence too.
Blue Oyster Cult - (Don’t Fear) The Reaper This stone-cold rock classic is about, as lead singer Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser has said, “eternal love” and not a suicide pact. Either way, it’s fairly obvious who the lyrics are inspired by: “Romeo and Juliet are together in eternity”.
Radiohead - Exit Music (For A Film) Thom Yorke originally composed this agonisingly beautiful tune for the credits of Baz Luhrmann’s remake of Romeo and Juliet. “I saw the Zeffirelli version when I was 13 and I cried my eyes out, because I couldn’t understand why, the morning after they shagged, they didn’t just run away,” Yorke said about the song. “The song is written for two people who should run away before all the bad stuff starts”.
The Band - Ophelia Despite its feel-good vibe, the ex-Dylan backline’s lyrics are as tortured as the original lines from Hamlet: “Ashes of laughter, the ghost is clear/ Why do the best things always disappear/ Like Ophelia, please darken my door.”
Lou Reed - Romeo Had Juliette The ex-Velvet Underground grouch could well have been a tortured character taken from the pages of a Shakespeare tragedy. The opener of his 1988 New York LP, Romeo Had Juliette is one of the most straightforward translations of the great scribe’s works in music.
Elton John - The King Must Die This Elton John classic is about how the mighty fall, and takes its lead from a clutch of Shakespearean characters: “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”.
Elvis Costello - Miss Macbeth Elvis Costello has always been one to show things in a different light, which he does on Lady Macbeth, a bid to humanise one of the most villainous female characters in history.
Dire Straits - Romeo And Juliette Yet another ode to the star-crossed lovers, thanks to this hugely popular 80s hit from Mark Knopfler and co. Jamie Skey @jamie_skey