soundtrack to shakespeare

John Donne wasn’t keen on setting literature to music –

‘I am two fools, I know,/ For loving, and for saying so/ In whining poetry’.

… and the man who sets this whining to music makes him a triple fool. But in my humble opinion this was probably because Renaissance music wasn’t up to much.

In relative seriousness, though, I think that a lot of modern pop songs suit the moods of Shakespeare’s plays extremely well.

If the pop literature of that day had pop songs to go with it from today – this has been my little game for the last few months – I’m sure JD would have loved it. I have studied an awful lot of Shakespeare this year.

How about:

(youtube playlist, where all the songs can be found in order)


William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Aqualung, Strange and Beautiful

It’s amazing how sweet and down-to-earth this song makes an absolute pervert seem. Or, it’s a desperate, imaginative attempt to cope with the bitterness of rejection. Both, I think, are what Oberon feels about Titania all along.

Sir Philip Sidney, The Old Arcadia – Nina Simone, I Put a Spell on You

I know, I know, the train of thought wasn’t hard from the last song to this. But try reading all these texts! The kind of spell and spellgiver this song gives is different to the last; angst is multiplied by 800 and suddenly everything is stifled by a more heavy and poisonous lovesickness, because the spells are all in the sinister, clingy spirit of GYNECIA – like all of Sidney’s lovers in this story.

Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, Book III – Kate Bush, Constellation of the Heart

My mind is humming with this backwards-playing, dizzying introspection; it’s a bit like being overcome by bees. I’m sure that’s what Spenser would have wanted with his introspective story of magical crystal balls, penetrating pens, trees growing out of women and women growing out of trees.

William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale – Tori Amos, Silent All These Years

The Winter’s Tale is the saddest of the romances, and this song is one of the saddest songs of all time – both because they don’t seem to try to be. ‘sometimes I hear my voice, and it’s been here… silent all these years’.

William Shakespeare, The Tempest – Ellie Goulding, The Writer

In truth this song could go with nearly all these romances/comedies because so much is about the male characters ‘writing’ women. Perhaps Prospero is the ultimate ‘writer’/controller figure. Ellie Goulding doesn’t seem to mind giving up her animation to a man – neither does Miranda, and maybe even Hermione. Good sports, aren’t they?



Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine (1 and 2) – Bat for Lashes, Oh Yeah

I do love the childish boldness of naming a character ‘Zenocrate’. This song rivals Marlowe in ostentatious exoticism. Mildly vulgar but deeply thrilling. Tragedy? NAAH.

William Shakespeare, Macbeth – Lana del Rey, Off to the Races

Oh all right, I’ll go with the tacky ambitious Lady Macbeth and pair her with Lana del Rey. This song does sound a bit like something between nausea and dizziness, but Macbeth is nightmarish too. The bit where Lana del Rey starts talking about ‘red nail polish’ is suitably spruce and rhythmic for Lady M. But the Macbeths would suit blues music too, softer and more vulnerable.

John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi – Jessie Ware, Night Light

Unfortunately Jessie Ware thinks that ghosts are blind – but this harsh-sounding song is, like Webster’s play, ‘Too much in the dark’, secret and frightened. She also sounds sinisterly spied-upon, like the Duchess. Is the watcher her lover or her stalker?!

Thomas Middleton, The Changeling – David Bowie, Heroes

This is a generous interpretation of The Changeling, and I did at first just want to keep it because it flows on well from the last song. But its sound does match the horrid stifledness of the play’s central relationships, its emphasis on love crossing repressive social borders, and the sense of the madhouse.

Thomas Middleton, Women Beware Women Madonna, Material Girl

Cheap, horrid and a lot of fun. I bet Bianca does have a squeaky voice like Madonna’s. Good for her. ‘Experience has made me rich, and now they’re after me’ – Livia?

William Shakespeare, Coriolanus – P. J. Harvey, The Glorious Land

This song is super-English, and Coriolanus is the most Roman of Shakespeare’s Roman plays. But still not that Roman, because this song, with its hard, militaristic beat, its patriotism, and its description of ‘our glorious country’ being ‘ploughed by tanks and feet’, ‘Not with wheat and corn’, sounds a lot like this proud lump of a warrior and his starving antagonists.

William Shakespeare, King Lear – Laura Mvula, Diamonds

Lear’s a twin with Coriolanus in many ways, I think. If both plays were a colour both would be green. Both start off hard nuts and both probably have diamonds in their hearts. But Lear goes through a specially soft, oozy bit with Cordelia that qualifies him better for this song. People are sacred, worth more than meets the eye, all over this play.

William Shakespeare, Hamlet – Kate Bush, Reaching Out

I was so pleased when I found this, late in the game – like most of my thoughts on Hamlet. I thought it reflected Hamlet’s spiritual anguish and hope when I heard the chorus at first, but the Gertrude camp would have a ball with this song too, since it ascribes much or all of this glory to The Mother. It’s not surprising that KB has a double hit on this blog. She’s definitely mad enough for the Renaissance. Legend.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s