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!

Published by


David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at

32 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!

  5. I often taught *Measure for Measure* to senior high school students. Whenever we came to the letter in Act 4, scene 2 in which Angelo reneges on his part of the bargain after he has had his satisfaction, without comment I would stop the class, hand out a lyric sheet of “Seven Curses” and push “play” on a CD player. Dylan’s voice decrying the judge’s/Angelo’s evil always created an intensely emotional moment.

  6. You forgot to mention ROMEO in ‘Desolation Row’ and ROMEO AND JULET in ‘Floater’. ‘Walking shadow’ in ‘Forgetful Heart’ can be traced to MACBETH (soliloquy ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’). And then there’s the title of the ‘Tempest’ album ..

    1. Thanks for the additions! I actually wrote this post 4 years ago, long before ‘Tempest’. It’s great that people are still finding it and contributing :))

  7. Well met well met my own true love – Dylan is always mining old songs and lit. See Ricks analysis of “Love Minus Zero” with the sonnet 116 “Let me not to the marriage of true minds
    Admit impediments. Love is not love Which alters when it alteration finds,” which is inspired by St. Paul’s words in 1 Chor. 13:7 that love (charity in some versions) ” 7Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.”

    Poets are of course dreamers calling us to our better selves and if songs be listened to it is with the knowledge “it ain’t necessarily so” those things we read in the Bible (Gershwin).

  8. Thanks for publishing those, David. I teach Shakespeare and Dylan in the same classroom at a college in Eugene, on alternate days at 10:00, and one of my great joys is getting confused! In Shakespeare class I find myself talking about Dylan, and vice versa. The similarities are intrinsic–far deeper than the explicit echoes in the lyrics. I’ve been meaning to write about their relationship, but haven’t gotten to it. Your offering here is a great way to get others to start paying more attention to the two of them together.
    Jeff Harrison

    1. Thanks Jeff! I’d love to read your article, whenever you get the chance to write it. My little survey is almost embarrassingly superficial, considering the far superior knowledge of both Shakespeare and Dylan that has been demonstrated by other people in the comments. I only hope, like you say, that my offering can nudge people like yourself into writing something more comprehensive!

  9. hey…thanks for posting.

    i have never had the patience for willie the shake but i was thinking about the plot of ‘Masked and Anonymous.’ you have a father in power who has two sons. he steals the wife of one son and throws him in prison and makes the other son president(king?)…then the old man dies, things go to hell and dylan is on his way back to prison…

    i was wondering if that fits any shakesperean motifs and you seem like a good person to ask…

    great post!

  10. Thanks for the good work. I’m surprised that no one has mentioned references to King Lear and Othello in ‘Tears of Rage’.


    “Oh what dear daughter ‘neath the sun Would treat a father so, To wait upon him hand and foot Yet always answer “No”?

    Consider Cordelia’s lips tied shut in Act 1:


    [Aside] What shall Cordelia do?
    Love, and be silent.



    [Aside] Then poor Cordelia!
    And yet not so; since, I am sure, my love’s
    More richer than my tongue.


    To thee and thine hereditary ever
    Remain this ample third of our fair kingdom;
    No less in space, validity, and pleasure,
    Than that conferr’d on Goneril. Now, our joy,
    Although the last, not least; to whose young love
    The vines of France and milk of Burgundy
    Strive to be interess’d; what can you say to draw
    A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.


    Nothing, my lord.






    Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.


    Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
    My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty
    According to my bond; nor more nor less.


    How, how, Cordelia! mend your speech a little,
    Lest it may mar your fortunes.


    Good my lord,
    You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I
    Return those duties back as are right fit,
    Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
    Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
    They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
    That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
    Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
    Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
    To love my father all.


    But goes thy heart with this?


    Ay, good my lord.


    So young, and so untender?


    So young, my lord, and true.


    Let it be so; thy truth, then, be thy dower:
    For, by the sacred radiance of the sun,
    The mysteries of Hecate, and the night;
    By all the operation of the orbs
    From whom we do exist, and cease to be;
    Here I disclaim all my paternal care,
    Propinquity and property of blood,
    And as a stranger to my heart and me
    Hold thee, from this, for ever. The barbarous Scythian,
    Or he that makes his generation messes
    To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom
    Be as well neighbour’d, pitied, and relieved,
    As thou my sometime daughter.


    “All that false instruction Which we never could believe. And now the heart is filled with gold As if it was a purse.”

    Compare with Iago making a fool of Roderigo in the opening act of Othello.

    “Put money in thy
    purse; follow thou the wars; defeat thy favour with
    an usurped beard; I say, put money in thy purse. It
    cannot be that Desdemona should long continue her
    love to the Moor,– put money in thy purse,–nor he
    his to her: it was a violent commencement, and thou
    shalt see an answerable sequestration:–put but
    money in thy purse. These Moors are changeable in
    their wills: fill thy purse with money:–the food
    that to him now is as luscious as locusts, shall be
    to him shortly as bitter as coloquintida. She must
    change for youth: when she is sated with his body,
    she will find the error of her choice: she must
    have change, she must: therefore put money in thy

  11. Andy Gill likens the song to King Lear’s soliloquy on the blasted heath in Shakespeare’s tragedy: “Wracked with bitterness and regret, its narrator reflects upon promises broken and truths ignored, on how greed has poisoned the well of best intentions, and how even daughters can deny their father’s wishes.”

    From Wikipedia

  12. Act 4 Scene 4


       All blessed secrets,

    All you unpublished virtues of the earth,

    Spring with my tears. Be aidant and remediate

    In the good man’s distress. Seek, seek for him,

    Lest his ungoverned rage dissolve the life

    That wants the means to lead it.

  13. There’s a great line in Like A Rolling Stone that, to me, feels very much like a translation of this line from King Henry the Sixth, Pt III:

    “Having nothing, nothing can he lose.”

    “When you ain’t got nothin, you got nothin to lose.”


  14. There is an intriguing line in Honest With Me from the “Love and Theft” album.
    ‘I’m here to create a new imperial empire’
    I think of Shakespeare as having created a literary imperial empire and entertain the idea that Dylan may be creating one of his own.

  15. “Murder, most foul!” is said by Hamlet describing his father’s murder and is used by Bob Dylan in his song titled Murder Most Foul, recounting the murder of President John F. Kennedy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.