What does modern music owe to William Shakespeare? That’s a question that has been floating around my head this week, as we gear up to celebrate the 400th anniversary of his death.
We all know our Hamlet’s, our Macbeth’s, our Othello’s and our Romeo and Juliet’s, but how central a role did music play in the works of Shakespeare, and how, in turn, has this fed into, and still feeds into, our modern culture today, with regards to popular music? The answer is enormously.
You don’t have to look hard to see modern references to his work across musical genres, and these are only the obvious references.
From the ‘King Lear’ quoting ‘I Am The Walrus’ by the Beatles to Lou Reed’s ‘Romeo and Juliette’, to ‘Desolation Row’ by Bob Dylan and Morrissey quoting Richard III in The Smiths ‘Cemetery Gates’, to ‘Heart of Gold’ by Neil Young and ‘Exit Music (From a Film)’ by Radiohead, to ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ by Arctic Monkeys and Alex Turner’s assertion that ‘There ain’t no love, no Montagues or Capulets’, the list goes on and on.
For many, Shakespeare is the undisputed king of story-telling, having had an ability to do what the likes of Homer, Tolstoy and other famous writers couldn’t do – tell every kind of story. Whether it be tragedy, comedy, adventure, love, fairy tales – they are all present in his works, and central to these were music.
What is clear is that music played a key role in his understanding of the world around him, with songs and ballads integral to the stories he told, songs which fired the imagination of his audience, delighted them, and entertained and moved them in equal measure.
The most emotive lines in his plays; the expression of such extreme emotions of joy and introspection, have, as their subject, music.
Take ‘A Twelfth Night’ for example. The opening line of “If music be the food of love, play on” spoken by Duke Orsino, obsessed by love, as he orders his court musicians to play long enough to satisfy and dilute his desires.
Or the famous balcony scene from ‘Romeo and Juliet’, which fully encapsulated what we know to be ‘teen angst’, which reads “How silver-sweet sounds lovers’ tongues by night, like softest music to attending ears.”
Of his 37 plays and 154 sonnets, the man from Stratford-upon-Avon made more than 2000 references to music, including over 100 songs and fragments of ballads.
It is clear that he had and sharp and astute ear for the music of his time, and his use of poetic language to give life to these sounds and rhythms has no doubt inspired musicians throughout the ages, music of every style and from every culture and background.
Out-with the musical references, let’s not forget language too, and the role Shakespeare played and continues to do so on the very words that we speak. His ability to use ‘neologizing’ – by expressing new ideas through the invention, borrowing or adopting words and phrases from other languages, means that over 1700 of the words we use today were created by him. 1700.
Words like ‘swagger’, ‘addiction’, ‘bedroom’, ‘lonely’, ‘majestic’, ‘numb’, and even ‘road’ can all find their first usage within Shakespeare’s plays, words that together may look like the ‘cold-turkey’ scene from Trainspotting but words which separately populate popular music lyrics.
And if something has ever vanished into thin air, if you’ve ever been tongue-tied, if you’ve wished someone good riddance, or had a heart of gold, broke the ice, not slept a wink, had too much of a good thing, seen better days, felt love is blind or wore your heart on your sleeve, you again have Shakespeare to thank for creating the expression.
So for what it’s worth, 400 hundred years later, it’s clear that those who love our music, we owe a curtain debt to the man. And to use another word Shakespeare created, if we were to translate his influence into a sound, that sound would be ‘deafening’.