Live fast, die young and write a pleth’ra of plays and poems. That was the motto William Shakespeare most likely lived by (and may have even scribbled down) nearly four centuries ago in early Elizabethan England. And, if his prolific output is any indication, the poet probably knew just how influential he’d be in the future. Of the nearly 200 literary works he penned in his short 52 years, nearly all of them have spawned a generations of films, books and songs. April 23 marked the 400th anniversary of Ol’ Bill’s death. To honor him, we’ve rounded up 10 more tunes that were inspired by his irreplaceable genius.
Just like his dad Loudon, Rufus Wainwright has always loved Shakespeare. In 2010, the longtime singer-songwriter put three of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets to song for his critically lauded album, All Days are Nights: Songs for Lulu. This year, he revisited that concept and made a 16-track, sonnet-centric record called Take All My Loves (named after Sonnet 40). It features guest appearances by the likes of William Shatner, Helena Bonham-Carter and, most notably, Florence Welch, who brings the lovely Sonnet 29 to life musically with her angelic vocal lines.
Many of The Decemberists’ songs are ripe with knotty, obscure literary references, but this cut, off 2006’s The Crane Wife, really takes the cake. It’s a 12-minute, three-part indie rock epic that references an ancient Japanese folktale and one of Shakespeare’s wildest plays, “The Tempest.” Frontman Colin Meloy is a huge lit nerd, so when he’s not devouring books like a crazed bibliophile, he’s crafting epic tracks about the world’s greatest stories.
Shakespeare’s tragic characters Romeo and Juliet have long been symbols of super powerful, but really screwed up love. That’s why Dire Straights’ Mark Knopfler used them to portray his failed relationship with fellow musician, Holly Vincent. In the song, from 1981’s Making Movies, he gives his versions a cute modern twist: Romeo is a lovestruck musician playing under streetlights who’s still hung up on his ex, Juliet, who’s clearly moved on. Bummer.
The Smiths’ jangly, buoyant, pioneering indie pop sound might be timeless, but their lead singer Morrissey would be right at home during Shakespeare’s era. He’s can be flamboyant, melodramatic and excruciatingly erudite, especially when he drops random literary references in songs just to further his air of lonesome longing. In “Cemetery Gates,” for instance, he takes a stroll with his lover through a graveyard. When they recite an excerpt from “Richard III” and claim it as their own, he tells them not to plagiarize. True to form, Moz has referenced Shakespeare in “The Queen is Dead” and “Come Back to Camden,” but never used a direct line.
British garage band The Libertines aren’t all about sex, drugs and rock ’n ‘roll? Pete Doherty actually gave a nod to Shakespeare when making the twisted love song “Get Thee to a Nunnery.” In Act 3, Scene 1 of Hamlet, the prince tells his soon-to-be wife Ophelia to become a nun because he doesn’t want to marry her anymore, but he won’t let anyone else have her (P.S. The only known recording of this rare cut comes from a 2006 solo session by Doherty at London’s Jazz After Dark).
In 2005, these Canadian alt-rockers made a 19-track album called As You Like It for Stratford, Ontario’s renowned Shakespeare festival. Among the record’s various sonnet and play-themed instrumental tracks, “Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind” is a recreation of an actual musical piece written by the Bard himself. BNL’s rendition, with its wandering organ lines and twangy lead guitar, is kinda trippy and very catchy.
“Macbeth” and power metal go quite well together, as proven by Rebellion’s 2003 concept album, Macbeth — A Tragedy in Steel. Out of the 15 songs, “Husbandry in Heaven” is particularly brutal. The nearly 14-minute barnburner tells listeners about Macbeth’s doubts when it comes to killing Duncan, the King of Scotland. Swayed by his wife, Lady Macbeth, the conflicted general stabs Duncan as he sleeps. As the song ends, it becomes clear that Macbeth must cover up his vicious crime.
The lyrics of this harmonica-tinged rock tune have no clear connection to Shakespeare’s historical play Antony and Cleopatra, but it’s pretty obvious Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo digs the writer’s work. In July 2015 he threw a series of Shakespeare-themed soirees in Los Angeles for some lucky fans. Dubbed “Nerd Nights, each party featured live productions or films based on the Bard’s various plays.
Only Foals could add lyrics about a contentious boxer and a controversial assassin to an already charged up dance tune. One is Cassius Clay, the 1964 world heavyweight champion who later converted to Islam and became Mohammed Ali. The other is Gaius Cassius Longinus, the conspiring senator that had Julius Caesar killed. For the latter, the band’s frontman Yannis Phillipakis took influence from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, among other sources.
This emotionally gripping track from Russian-American songstress Regina Spektor is made all the more dour by her chilling refrain “What’s a pound of flesh among friends?” Of course, a “pound of flesh” is what the righteous heroine Portia offers the shrewd Shylock in Shakespeare’s comedy The Merchant of Venice. He thinks he’s entitled to it, but doesn’t understand that it’s wrong to ask for. If he does, he will be punished!