Shakespeare in Song, Categorized by Play


During a scene in Hamlet 2, Dana Marschz, played by Steve Coogan, laments to his cat, “Oh my God, writing is so hard!” It sure is, when you’re writing a sequel to Hamlet 1! It’s easier to borrow. These following artists took a page out of Shakespeare’s own script and wrote songs borrowing from the Bard himself.

King Lear

“I am the Walrus” [1967. The Beatles, from the album Magical Mystery Tour]

The only Shakespearean reference in The Beatles’ entire recorded repertoire. When compiling the sound collage for the song’s ending, they used the radio as a source for found elements. Coincidentally, King Lear was being broadcast: beginning at around 3:56 in the song, you can hear the lines from Oswald’s death (4.6.246-55).

King John

“You’ve Got Everything Now” [1984. The Smiths, from the album The Smiths]

The first line from The Smiths’ debut record is “As merry as the days were long,” a phrase Shakespeare liked so much that he used it twice in his plays. The first reference is in King John, when Arthur notes that Hubert looks “sad” (read: “serious”). As per Shakespeare, Morrissey is concerned with bondage: he doesn’t “want to be a lover,” he just wants “to be tied to the back of your car.”

The Comedy of Errors

“Miss Misery” [1997. Elliott Smith, from the album Good Will Hunting]

Toward the end, Smith sings, “It’s a comedy of errors…It’s about taking a fall.” In Comedy of Errors, love triumphs, but only after a series of false starts, mistaken identities, and near misses. If “taking a fall” is necessary to eventual success…the singer of “Miss Misery” seems to think so too.

Henry VI, Part II

“Get Over It” [1994. The Eagles, from the album Hell Freezes Over]

Listen to Don Henley make fun of 1990s confession culture and its consequent discourse of victimization. In the second verse he quotes Dick the Butcher, who speaks the most famous line from the Henry VI plays: “old Billy was right, / Let’s kill all the lawyers-kill ‘em tonight.”

Hamlet

“Cracked Actor” [1973. David Bowie, on tour for the album Aladdin Sane]

In live performances of this song, Bowie often sings while holding a skull. Thaaat might be where the similarities end.

“To Be or Not To Be” [1994. Composed by Marky Mark and Marvyn Warren, from the movie Renaissance Man]

An unemployed adman (Danny DeVito) gets a job teaching academic subjects to underachieving army recruits. Shakespeare soon becomes the main focus of the class and the students put together a rap music based on Hamlet. Example lyric: “The shit’s iller than Cape Fear, the Shakespeare saga. Started with this Prince kid, his moms and his father.” Sold.

“What a Piece of Work is Man” [1968. From the musical Hair, lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni, music by Galt MacDermot]

In Hair, the Tribe sings this song in reaction to the horror of the Vietnam War; as in Shakespeare’s play, their words are both hopeful and ironic (see man’s “noble reason” and “infinite faculties”). Hair lyrically contains a play within a play!  Knowing Shakespeare’s habit of keeping things meta, I think he’d approve.

Macbeth

“The Milkman of Human Kindness” [1983. Billy Bragg, from the EP album Life's a Riot with Spy vs. Spy]

Whereas Lady Macbeth worries that her husband’s nature may be “too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness” (1.5.17), Bragg’s song kind of follows through on Shakespeare’s metaphor: if there is such a thing as a “milk of human kindness,” shouldn’t there be a “milkman” of human kindness” too?

The Merchant of Venice

“Stairway to Heaven” [1971. Led Zeppelin, from the album IV]

Robert Plant is better known for adapting J.R.R. Tolkein, but this song beings, “There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold.” An inversion of the message written on the scroll that Portia’s unsuccessful suitor, Morocco, finds in the golden casket: “All that glisters is not gold, / Often have you heard that told” (2.7.65-66).

Twelfth Night

“Highway 61 Revisited” [1965. Bob Dylan, from the album Highway 61 Revisited]

Dylan demonstrates his cultural literacy by filling this song with irreverent cultural references that range from the Bible to French history to Shakespeare. His allusion to “Mack the finger” points both to Macbeth and Weill and Brecht’s “Mack the Knife.” The most overt Shakespearean moment comes in the next stanza: “The fifth daughter on the twelfth night told the first father that things weren’t right.”

There are, undoubtedly, several hundred more that we’ve missed in this simple survey.