Just as the plays incorporate many songs from his own era, so Shakespeare is integral to popular music of many different periods and genres, as an inspiration to echo – or to outdo.
Popular music is one of humanity’s greatest creations, used by people across the world to move and be moved. We might say the same of Shakespeare: musicians from every era since the 16th century have often parodied Shakespeare, reminding us he too is popular, not necessarily elite. The Beatles showed just this regard and irreverence as they performed a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream on British television in 1964.
For a long time, too, popular musicians have empowered themselves by referencing Shakespeare in the context of their own creativity, thereby making their music credible and legitimate – especially when some commentators have dismissed it as neither. Duke Ellington’s 1957 jazz suite Such Sweet Thunder is an example of this.
Musicians developing genres with African-American roots continue to stress the links between their intentions and those of Shakespeare. Rap, like Shakespeare, puts a premium on using words in powerful, political, playful, and rhythmic ways, often to showcase prowess. Such links have resulted in rappers referring to themselves as ‘modern-day Shakespeares’, explicit in songs such as ‘Renegade’ (2001) by Jay-Z, featuring Eminem; or Akala’s ‘Shakespeare’ (2006).
Popular songs are often about love, so it’s hardly surprising that Shakespeare’s plays about love are often popular with musicians. Taylor Swift’s 2008 song ‘Love Story’ is modelled on one of the most popular: Romeo and Juliet. Swift’s song apparently romanticises the characters, but even a mainstream megastar does strange things with Shakespeare. Swift’s high-school girl-meets-boy fantasy confuses genders, when she sings as both girl and boy, each defying a father’s advice. Comparably, Rufus Wainwright’s version of Sonnet 29 recalls the poem’s joys and anxieties about same-sex relations.
Popular musicians, then, are not awed by Shakespeare, but see him variously as a collaborator, a source and a challenge. In turn, popular music helps us discover in Shakespeare what we might have forgotten or overlooked in a traditional reading of his work. Moreover, Shakespeare provides popular music with cultural power, a cast of thousands, rich imagery and suggestive language.
It’s worth remembering that popular music is not the only way we experience the contemporary sounds of Shakespeare: Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film Romeo + Juliet had a big influence on how later Shakespearean cinema would soundtrack scenes with popular songs. Equally, just as the internet makes so much music available, so it can support all kinds of DIY Shakespearean mash-ups, with, for example, Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film version of Hamlet re-cut as a music video.
Finally, across the world, many productions of Shakespeare’s plays use music and sounds to make Shakespeare resonant now, or reinvigorate what remains relevant in his work. The Propeller Theatre Company does this, but also intersperses performances with ‘guerilla’ gigs, featuring songs themed for each staging. Working with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Swedish director Maria Aberg has built a deserved reputation based in part on her use of music, whether ‘sampled’ from pre-existing sources, or composed fresh. Particular plays, like Macbeth, inspire particularly avant-garde sounds: the French-Tunisian company Artistes Producteurs Associés’ 2012 production created a dissonant world evoking the ‘Arab Spring’; and Filter Theatre’s 2014 staging echoed the ways the play conjures ‘strange screams of death’ using synthesised and treated instruments.
Beyond the web, film, and theatre, Shakespeare also informs contemporary sounds of celebration in events with a global reach, as well as local significance: Underworld’s score for the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics threaded The Tempest’s dreams into a story of national identity and international spectacle.
Wherever you are, whatever you listen to, someone will be making Shakespeare part of your soundscape. Tune in.