Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare: A Reference Guide Part I

Two popular poets and story-tellers. It would be incredible if Dylan hadn’t referenced Shakespeare. Here’s a selection (by no means exhaustive) of references, some obvious, some oblique, to Shakespeare in the lyrics of Bob Dylan.

Straight References

These are the ones that even I can catch. Blatant hello mum’s from Dylan to the great bard.

Highway 61 Revisited, Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

Now the fifth daughter on the twelfth night
Told the first father that things weren’t right

Twelfth Night (1601-2) is a play by Shakespeare, innit.

Desolation Row, Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

Now Ophelia, she’s ’neath the window
For her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday
She already is an old maid
To her, death is quite romantic
She wears an iron vest
Her profession’s her religion
Her sin is her lifelessness
And though her eyes are fixed upon
Noah’s great rainbow
She spends her time peeking
Into Desolation Row

Ophelia is a tragic character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1599-1601).

Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again, Blonde on Blonde (1966)

Well, Shakespeare, he’s in the alley
With his pointed shoes and his bells
Speaking to some French girl
Who says she knows me well

That’s my boy!

Time Out of Mind (1997)

The phrase ‘Time out of mind’ is from Act 1, Scene 4 of Romeo and Juliet:

Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.

Bye and Bye, ‘Love and Theft’ (2001)

Well, I’m scuffling, and I’m shuffling
And I’m walking on briars
I’m not even acquainted
with my own desires

As You Like It, Act 1, Scene 2 (found and submitted by Nick Dorman to Dylan Chords):

O, how full of briers is this working-day world!
They are but burs, cousin, thrown upon thee in
holiday foolery: if we walk not in the trodden
paths our very petticoats will catch them.

And later in the same scene:

I do beseech your grace,
Let me the knowledge of my fault bear with me:
If with myself I hold intelligence
Or have acquaintance with mine own desires

Po’ boy, ‘Love and Theft’ (2001)

Othello told Desdemona, “I’m cold, cover me with a blanket,
By the way, what happened to that poisoned wine?”
She said, “I gave it to you, you drank it.”
Po’ boy, layin’ him straight,
Pickin’ up the cherries fallin’ off the plate.

Othello and Desdemona are characters in Shakespeare’s Othello (1603). Interestingly, it looks like Dylan has confused or (being generous) deliberately conflated the plot of Othello, in which Othello dies by stabbing himself, with the plot of Romeo and Juliet, in which Romeo dies after drinking a fatal poison.

That’s it for the obvious references (that I can find anyway) – now here’s some more obscure ones.

More Oblique References

You’d only spot these if you’d spent far too much time playing Shakespeare and reading Dylan. I didn’t find these.

You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go, Blood on the Tracks (1975)

Dragon clouds so high above
I’ve only known careless love
It’s always hit me from below
This time around it’s more correct
Right on target, so direct
Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go

And in Antony and Cleopatra, Act 4, Scene 14:

Sometimes we see a cloud that’s dragonish

Thanks to Ellis Sharp for this stupidly obscure reference!

This reference is given greater credence by the later literary reference in the song to Verlaine and Rimbaud, two other poets.

Mississippi, ‘Love and Theft’ (2001)

My clothes are wet, tight on my skin
Not as tight as the corner that I painted myself in
I know that fortune is waiting to be kind
So give me your hand and say you’ll be mine

And in Measure for Measure, Act 5, Scene 1 (submitted by Mike Conley to Dylan Chords):

If he be like your brother, for his sake
Is he pardon’d; and, for your lovely sake,
Give me your hand and say you will be mine.

Other Parallels

Dylan doesn’t just quote Shakespeare, he also uses the same kind of scripting techniques and has even suffered some of the same traps of fame.

Measure for Measure (1604) and Seven Curses (1963)

The folk narrative of the lecherous and unjust judge in Dylan’s Seven Curses parallels the premise of Measure for Measure, when Isabella pleads for mercy to the nasty judge Angelo for her brother, Claudio, who is to be executed for fornication. Over the course of two scenes between Angelo and Isabella, it becomes clear that Angelo harbours lustful thoughts about the novice nun, and he eventually offers her a deal: Angelo will spare Claudio’s life if Isabella will yield him her virginity.

I could have saved myself the trouble of copying that from Wikipedia by just making a few edits to the Bob Dylan lyrics:

Old Reilly’s daughter got a message
That her father was goin’ to hang.
She rode by night and came by morning
With gold and silver in her hand

When the judge he saw Reilly’s daughter
His old eyes deepened in his head,
Sayin’, “Gold will never free your father,
The price, my dear, is you instead.”

I got the inspiration for this parallel from Bardfilm.


Apparently, Shakespeare didn’t want his sonnets published: they were circulated among fans as – what can only be described as – bootlegs.

The parallels with Dylan’s Basement Tapes, recorded in private in 1967 and never intended for release, but widely bought and sold among fans, are obvious. Like Shakespeare, Dylan has bowed to the inevitability of popularity and now regularly releases out-takes from his album recordings and live performances as his very own ‘Bootleg Sessions.’

I picked up this story from NPR.

This is Part I because there is no way that I’ve found all of them, just from searching the internet and my own brain-ears. Maybe one day I’ll throw a corpus-analysis at the entirety of Dylan’s lyrical output and the whole of the first folio of Shakespeare. Probably not though.

If you can spot any more references, please do add them in the comments below. Thanks!

7 thoughts on “Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare: A Reference Guide Part I

  1. Great piece. Actually writing a paper about how Shakespeare’s tragedies and comedies influenced 20th century music, and this was of extreme help. How one finds these parallels are completely beyond me; nevertheless, this is one hell of a list.

  2. Thanks, glad to be of use! I think with these things you’ve got to have a ridiculous level of fan-knowledge of both Shakespeare and 20th century music. I found most of these examples in various places online – submitted by people with even more ridiculous levels of fan-knowledge than me!

    Sounds like a really interesting paper – good luck with it!

  3. Actually the Measure for Measure similarity with the the Seven Curses verses is somewhat compromised by a more popular balled often sung by Joan Baez, called Anathea, whose brother was arrested for horse stealing and about to be sentenced to death. Anathea rides with gold to buy the judge off. The judge wants her instead and she makes the deal only to have the judge hang her brother anyway. This doesnt mean that Dylan wasnt familiar with the Measure for Measure reference or that he wasnt referencing both sources, but we know that he would certainly have known the Anathea song, which of course might have also been originally sourced from Measure for measure, or even conceivably the other way round.
    Nice references all round though and thanks for them.
    One other possibly arcane but interesting comment regarding the Shakespeare reference in Memphis Blues Again. I had always thought that the last two lines of the verse were a little dadaist absurdity viz The post office has been stolen and the mailbox is locked. These are two events that in the real world are highly unlikely to occur and so seem absurd, almost playful. But Dylans next comment is “If I could I’d send a message,” But he cant because the post office has been stolen and the mailbox is locked which surely suggests that communication with the dead Shakespeare is impossible. cheers malcolm harrison.

    1. Thanks Malcolm – very interesting comments. I didn’t know that about Anathea, it certainly does muddy the waters. As a writer myself, I know all about absorbing multiple influences – usually without even being aware of them myself! :)

  4. DC, a boy after my own heart! (Or 3 boys, if you count Bob and Will).

    (Somewhat) more seriously: I’ve been thinking lately that Bobbie is or was one of the greatest free-associators of all time. Which is not to say arbitrary, but awesomely what lots of creating — Joyce, Dada, Hip Hop simply obvious examples — necessarily does. Shakespeare himself of course was a master of appropriating previous narratives, images etc. etc for his own genius purposes.

    Did he, or Dylan, always sit down and say: “Okay, now I’m gonna use something from Plutarch” (the Bible, the Bard, the OED for goddssake…) prior to composing? Maybe sometimes, but my guess is at other times it happened first and he — she, we–saw it afterwards.

    1. Hi there Davichon – thanks writing. You’re almost certainly right, but it’s still great fun spotting those influences post-hoc. I know in my writing I’m constantly stealing neat words and phrases from other sources (I bet you’re the same?). Half the time I steal so much that I can’t keep up with where and who I’m stealing from – all I know is that if something I write is even half good, then I must have taken it from somewhere! I take refuge in TS Eliot’s words:

      Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.

      All the best!

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