11 Popular Songs That Reference Shakespeare

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1. "Romeo and Juliet" – Dire Straits

Dolly Parton, Steve Forbert, Elvis Costello, Michael Penn... These are just a few of many artists who've referenced the name Romeo in their songs. But this beautiful tune from Mark Knopfler stands out for its streetwise retelling of the tragic love story. Sample couplet: "Juliet the dice were loaded from the start / And I bet, and you exploded in my heart."

2. "You've Got Everything Now" – The Smiths

Morrissey has flirted with the Bard in several songs, most notably "Cemet'ry Gates" and this one, which opens with a slight variation on a line from Much Ado About Nothing: "As merry as the days were long."

3. "I Am the Walrus" – The Beatles

With their all-encompassing cultural reach, you might think that the Fab Four would've had more Shakespeare references in their songs. But there was only this one, and it was a happy accident. While making a sound collage for "Walrus"'s fadeout, they switched on a radio in the studio and caught a broadcast of King Lear. "Oh untimely death..." is one of the lines that pokes out, from Oswald's death scene.

4. "The Milkman of Human Kindness" – Billy Bragg

"Yet do I fear thy nature, it is too full o' th' milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way," says Lady Macbeth. "I am the milkman of human kindness, I will leave an extra pint," sings the ever-inventive British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg.

5. "Get Over It" – The Eagles

Lawyer jokes go back a lot further than contemporary times. In this song about confession culture and victimization, Don Henley nods to Shakespeare with a nickname, then quotes from Dick The Butcher in Henry VI: "Old Billy was right / Let's kill all the lawyers tonight."

6. "Sister Moon" – Sting

"My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun," Sting sings in this torchy ballad. The phrase is borrowed from Shakespeare's sonnet #130. Sting liked it so much that he even used it for the title of his 1987 solo album, Nothing Like The Sun.

7. "Limelight" – Rush

Rush made one of Shakespeare's most oft-quoted lines (from As You Like It) into a centerpiece of this 1981 song about the difficulty of balancing our private and public selves: "All the world's indeed a stage, and we are merely players..." Five years before, Rush used the phrase All The World's A Stage for a title of a double live album.

8. "Bye and Bye" – Bob Dylan

Dylan winks at Shakespeare in several songs, from "Highway 61 Revisited" (there's a nod to Twelfth Night) to "Desolation Row" (Romeo and Ophelia are both name checked) to "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" (the striking image of "dragon clouds" is borrowed from Antony and Cleopatra). In "Bye and Bye," the line "I'm not even acquainted with my own desires" is lifted from As You Like It.

9. "Ariel" – October Project

Sung from the perspective of the spirit Ariel in The Tempest, the song is a farewell to his magician master Prospero: "And I want to be free / It is your sorrow / That has made a slave of me."

10. "Sigh No More" – Mumford & Sons

The title comes from Much Ado About Nothing, and many of the lines in this eerie folk song refer to dialogue between Benedict and Beatrice from the play.

11. "Hey There Ophelia" – MC Lars

Even rappers find inspiration in Shakespeare. This fast-paced retelling of Hamlet references the Prince, Claudius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern, but centers on the play's tragic heroine. Sample line: "This girl's got more issues than Amy Winehouse."

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July 11, 2012 - 5:11am
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