Shakespeare in contemporary music


In our post-modern age, a frequent question is being asked: is still Shakespeare contemporary with us? Undoubtedly, his texts are as alive as in the times they were written. The literary criticism proposed by David Damrosch (Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University) plays with three concepts: hypercannon, countercannon and shadow cannon. The hypercannon is characterised by famous works which have gained in the past 20 years a lot of fame, the countercannon includes those literary acts who are not that famous and have a contestant spirit and finally the shadow cannon represents the category of the minor writers who had been studied, but now only few specialists pay any interest in them.
The hypercannon can be best illustrated by the works of William Shakespeare, says Damrosch. Even if we ignore the category of the universal reader (everybody asks at a moment of his life ”To be or not to be?”), we can not avoid the almost infinite modern approaches to Shakespeare’s plays. Many would be tempted to say that his works are a crucial reference only to the dramatic field. False. Today, almost every artistic discourse makes reference to Shakespeare’s ideas. Of course, not all of them are sending valid references. For examples, it is a fact that the characters of Romeo and Juliet have entered in the collective mentality as the symbol of love. We can find these characters in songs which denote the lack of culture and inspiration of the songwriter.
Music is one of the most permeable art form. It changes constantly and always wants to improve, to bring something new. Many specialists say that the music is the mirror of the mentality of a people or a social group. For example, the Black Metal music couldn’t have developed in a Catholic country, like Italy. Instead, he found roots of growing in the Protestant countries like Sweden, Norway, Finland. Another example is jazz music, which was listened in Paris, mostly by bohemian-people, artists in the mid-20s.
Therefore, if Shakespeare is ”processed” by modern music, it means that is contemporary and his ideas are not only addressed to a small historic group, but for the whole mankind. The first case to approach is David Gilmour’s Sonnet 18. David Gilmour is best known for vocalist and writer with Pink Floyd, he is also renowned for his solo work and collaborations with other artists including Kate Bush, Paul McCartney, and Pete Townshend. He has ”a multiple perspective for interpreting this sonnet, because he tries to mingle the simplicity with the wisdom. Shakespeare’s Sonnets have their own poetic diction, their erotic quality and their metaphysics. The real theme is choice, or rather the impossibility of choice between the youth and the woman, the universality of desire which can not be contained or limited to one sex”.(Bogdan, 1976: 3):
”Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May”
in contrast with love:
”But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;”.
In Gilmour’s version, the piano and the orchestra background illustrates the purity of nature. The song, written in a major scale, suggests happiness and an optimistic vision of future.
The well-known band Dire Straits plays with the theme of fallen love in the song called ”Romeo and Juliet”. The vision is put in a modern, urban context, but hit preserves the same Renaissance references like the dramatic idea of the love as a victim of hate. In this case, we have a subjective point of view, which can be seen in the second part:
”I can't do the talk, like the talk on TV
And I can't do a love song, like the way it's meant to be.
I can't do everything, but I'll do anything for you.
I can't do anything, 'cept be in love with you!”
This message is emphasised by the instrumental part by slowing down the rhythm and making a duo: piano-guitar. This is a specific manner of Dire Straits, from which they distinguish themselves from other similar bands. Dire Straits take the essence of this tragedy: the late misunderstanding between the two lovers, who are living constantly in a different life:
”Come up on different streets, they're both the streets of shame.
Both dirty, both mean, yes, in the dream it was just the same
And I dreamed your dream for you and now your dream is real.
How can you look at me as if I was just another one of your deals?”
From the point of view of lyrics, this is a classic example of Shakespeare promoted into commercial. The accent is not put here onto the lyrics, like in Gilmour’s case, but the instrumental part. In fact, Dire Straits was a band which has made a name more from its musical approach. They also have country inflections, occasionally merging structures of progressive rock with influences from Bob Dylan. The game of intertextuality is played here by sending references to the movie “West Side Story”, which is an American musical based on the same play, particularly to the songs “Somewhat” and “My Boyfriend’s Back”:
“There's a place for us, you know the movie song.
When you gonna realize it was just that the time was wrong, Juliet?”
An unusual interpretation of Shakespeare is given by the heavy metal project called The Metal Shakespeare Company from Oregon, USA. They give funny interpretations and comic videos of Shakespeare. In this case, we have an interesting mixture between the culture of blood, heavy metal music and Shakespeare. Many fans of this genre are fascinated by the Shakespearian era, by the interesting music and culture and the occultism from that period. The phenomenon is not singular: apparently without reason, the metal fans are very interested to literary works from decadence periods, like Shakespeare or later Baudelaire, E.A.Poe and philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche.
In this case, we have more a comic representation who wants to put Shakespeare’s plays and quotations from fun to grotesque. The power metal riffs want to give an aura of mystery, but they fail. The lyrics are modified without any aesthetic purpose. This is an example of not putting Shakespeare into contemporary music.
An interesting vision has Sir Elton John in the song “The King Must Die”, where he uses the classic symbols of “vanitas, vanitatum et omnia vanitas” and “fugit irreparabile tempus”, which appear so often in the Shakespearian plays. In this case we have more an abstract line of verses. The structure is very simple. Elton John mixes the sad blues tunes with this the message very often used in Shakespearean era: ” Le Roi est mort, vive le Roi!”, a cynical declaration. This last message is emphasized by a continuous instrumental crescendo.
As we can see, there are thousands or reinterpretations of Shakespeare’s thoughts in our global times. Of course, the interpretation of them is not the same. We can see this grotesque new form in the mentioned text called “To bleed or not to bleed” from The Metal Shakespeare Company. On the other hand, this means that Shakespeare’s ideas are dynamic, capable of always bringing something new.


Bernheimer, C. (1995)- Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism. John Hopkins University Press
Bogdan,M. (1976)- William Shakespeare.Repere critice contemporane.Ed. UBB.
Caraman-Fotea, D. (1999)-Dictionar rock, pop, folk, Editura Humanitas
Shakespeare, W(2007)- Complete works, Ed. Academia Română
Shakespeare, W.(2010)-Sonete, Editura Adevărul Holding

Here are also the samples:

David Gilmour- Sonnet 18.

Dire Straits- Romeo and Juliet.

The Metal Shakespeare Company- To Bleed or not to Bleed :)):)):)):

Sorry about my English language mistakes. Currently I am not at the most satisfying level of English, therefore mistakes are inevitable.

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