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.
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.
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!