This is part two of my interview with author Andrew Muir. For part one, please see Andrew Muir interview (Act I): The Bob Dylan-William Shakespeare connection.
You’ve written a well balanced essay about certain connections between Dylan and Shakespeare. Dylan’s last album of new, original material was 2012’s Tempest (but not titled The Tempest, Dylan was quick to point out), and it had a very Shakespearean feel. Recent written set lists have been divided into “Act I” and “Act II.” He’s make some references to Shakespeare in some recent (and not-so-recent) interviews. There are some obvious Shakespearian phrases in Tempest as well. “I came to bury, not to praise,” from “Pay in Blood,” for instance, recalls “I came to bury Caesar, not to praise him” from Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar. What other similarities have you noticed?
Yes, he continually makes reference to Shakespeare in interview after interview, often very insightfully, but sometimes he seems to almost crowbar the reference – or the question provoking the reference – in. He is clearly determined to make a point and, as you can see if you read the essay you refer to, there is much of interest in that point. Do you mean similarities between Tempest and The Tempest?
OK, go with that first.
Well, he is right to distinguish between the two names. The definite article makes a huge distinction, as would an indefinite – Tempest/The Tempest/A Tempest are all different. However, we have already remarked how he makes lots of references to Shakespeare and he would have been aware that this would resonate similarly, different though it is. I think he was probably irked by all the questions about it being the last Shakespeare play – which it wasn’t, in any case – and therefore “was this Dylan’s final album?”
There are connections though, firstly they both have shipwrecks, albeit an illusory one in Shakespeare’s play and an at times dream-like and fictitious rendition of a historical event in Dylan’s song. It is noteworthy that there was not a real tempest in Shakespeare’s The Tempest and nor was there one when the Titanic sank. There are deeper connections, too, religion being the main one. You will remember Dylan saying that Tempest was not the record he originally intended. He claimed that he had wanted “to make something more religious” and that he wanted “specifically religious songs.” I took this as him cutely drawing attention to the strong religious imagery and themes that run throughout Tempest. Sometimes it is quite subtle and almost “in the background”’ but at other points it is very much “in your face.” “Narrow Way,” for example, surely springs straight from Matthew. Even an unrepentant non-believer like me can’t miss that! Hold on. I’ll look it up …
- From the Authorized King James: 13 Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: 14 because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. Matthew 7:13-14
Plus there are the Last Supper references among many other biblical echoes as well, including his old friend, Isaiah (cf. “All Along the Watchtower”). It is hard to think how this is anything other than a “specifically religious song,” despite there being other facets to it. “Look down angel, from the skies, help my weary soul to rise,” sings Dylan, a sentiment he has often expressed.
As for Shakespeare’s The Tempest, it has two major strands of religious background, or fore-ground if you prefer. The first is of the Apocalypse and the New World to follow, and the second being the culmination of a multi-play meditation on the transcendent qualities of mercy and forgiveness that suffuse his “late romances.”
The Apocalypse is, as we all know, something that Dylan returns to time after time. It undoubtedly is a major theme and one of the key strands of imagery in Shakespeare’s play, though I would urge some caution over the danger of taking this too far. The dreariest expositions on The Tempest, and Tempest alike, are those that force radically unstable texts – they change in performance and both plays and songs are often amended, re-written and re-interpreted for, by, and in performance – into a straitjacket. And this fault is exponentially increased when people are proposing the play as a straight biblical rewrite, as this compels both texts, by nature open-ended, into the one, closed straitjacket. Nonetheless, you can confidently state, regarding both album and play, that the Book of Revelations has been read, and cups have been filled with tears.
It is even more apparent that Shakespeare’s play is a profound exploration of the key concepts of mercy and forgiveness. The play on one level is a deep meditation on the nature of these and their qualities of transcendence. Given his time and society, it is obvious that Shakespeare would view these primarily via Christian concepts.
All the major characters in the play have someone to forgive and/or mercy to entreat before the New World – America on one level, post the Second Coming on another, though these two interpretations do not exhaust the play’s rich possibilities – can come into existence at the play’s close.
And more generally?
Given the range and sweep of both artists you are bound to see many similarities. I would refer back to my article for many of these, but also to the warning contained in there about how easy it is to build correspondences between any two artists. Yet, I do want also to say that lengthy though the article is, it still omits many important correlations simply because I felt it was already somewhat lengthy for modern reading tastes.
Can you give us some examples?
Collaborations and the constant search for hits are two that spring to mind immediately. Due to Shakespeare’s reputation, it is nearly always thought – the early Henry VI trilogy aside – that he was the main player in his collaborations and the younger writers were benefiting from his experience. That is true to an extent, of course, but it may well be that the dynamic was very much that of an old “star” linking his name with the “latest hot hipsters.” When Shakespeare co-wrote with Fletcher at the end of his career, it is quite likely that it was Fletcher’s name was the one selling the tickets.
This was even more likely to be true when Shakespeare linked up with Middleton. We think of Shakespeare as the dominant partner, but at the time – despite writing what we now regard as many of the greatest of his works – Shakespeare was seen as “yesterday’s man.” Attendances were down, and of the “old guard” from the previous century, he was the last man standing. Audiences wanted new genres, new themes, young blood. We think of the Globe as “Shakespeare’s Globe” but Middleton had a bigger success at the Globe than Shakespeare ever did. So, when Shakespeare teamed up with Middleton, it may have been for much the same reason as Dylan teamed up with the (Grateful) Dead and Tom Petty & Co. – to sell tickets. Similarly, when he teamed up with Middleton to co-write it may have been similar to Dylan appearing on U2’s Rattle and Hum album or co-authoring a song with Michael Bolton. (Yes, gentle reader, these were crimes that our sainted Bob did commit. I’m sorry, we can’t just sweep them under the carpet.)
Both Shakespeare and Dylan were/are extremely successful. It is just that both worked/work in highly competitive markets that were/are endlessly thirsty for novelty and change and both had people working in the same field whose success was greater than theirs commercially, though not artistically.
It may surprise you to hear that Shakespeare’s biggest success in his day was the relatively little known Titus Andronicus. It is a bit like reading, as I once did some 40 plus years ago, that Self Portrait had sold double the number of Blonde on Blonde. This was one of the plays that the adolescent Middleton saw and fell in love with, determining there and then to become a playwright. He looked up to Shakespeare as a leading light in the old guard in the same way younger pop and rock people look up to Dylan. Yet he was also, later in life, a direct competitor as well as a collaborator.
In Shakespeare’s London, most plays were only performed a handful of times before being discarded and replaced with “the latest thing.” Quite a contrast to the RSC’s schedule nowadays! So, Shakespeare’s theater, just like the rock music of Dylan’s decades, was incredibly influenced by fashion-style changes. A relentless demand for novelty and producing hits drove both industries and this had an impact on our two artists in major ways. Just as Dylan went after the latest, horrific sound in the mid-80s and jumped (sank?) into the pop video market, so Shakespeare had to move into city comedies and, when they were in vogue, plays featuring prostitutes and witches. However, Shakespeare was the only major playwright of his day to avoid writing for the boys’ companies whose fashionable reign over London theaters drove him and his company out on tour as adult actors became unwanted in the capital.
Shakespeare and Dylan’s pre-eminence as writers allowed them to move from genre to genre almost gleefully, one feels, artistically topping the efforts of everyone else in all fields. You think of Dylan moving from folk to the pop charts to rock to country to gospel and excelling in each, and of Shakespeare conquering comedy, history, tragedy, horror-gore, city comedies and so forth.
There were “cover versions” of Shakespeare as well. Restoration and Victorian re-writes, performances with hugely different cast numbers and backgrounds, just like a symphonic version of a folk tune! And there were “spin-offs plays” based on his, responses to his, plays featuring his characters, parodies and so forth. You could trace lots of similarities amongst these categories.
One of my favorite all-time pieces of writing was about your encounter with Dylan in Camden Town, July 21, 1993, included as an appendix in Muir’s One More Night. Looking back more than 20 years later, what do you think of the experience now?
I am glad I captured it straight after the event as it still rings true to the feeling at the time. I ran a Dylan information line at the time – called “the warmline” – and I put the story on it that night after I got home. I was so excited that I broke down when trying to recount it and so it took me seven attempts to capture it on tape. That helped solidify the memory even in my fevered state, so I typed it up then and there.
Now? It is terribly embarrassing on one level. I did write it from the viewpoint of making fun of myself but even so, it does seem over the top and childish. On the other hand, I would love to feel that level of excitement again. The only thing I can compare it to was seeing him live for the time, at Earl’s Court in 1978, for a week. The day after those shows ended I was on a bus back to Scotland and talked all the way with two hitherto strangers who I discovered had also been to see him. This was a woman with a young child. I met them again, many years later at a Dylan convention, the young girl by now a grown woman, and the mother still remembered me as “the most excited person I have ever seen,” even though it was one of the most excited states she had ever been in herself. There was a similar hysteria to me in 1993, and I am a bit embarrassed but it was what it was and, overall, I’m still smiling when I remember it. It was wonderful to be at St Andrews to see him getting his doctorate in 2004 too, but the hysterical element had left me by then, and part of me misses that – but at least that Camden story keeps it alive, in a way.
Thanks to Dylan scholar Michael Gray for his help in making this happen.
- Andrew Muir
- One More Night – Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour Purchase.
- Shakespeare in Cambridge: A Celebration of the Shakespeare Festival Purchase (U.S. is e-book only format.)
- All Homer the sl*t and most Judas! issues are available for free download.
Of the dozens of Dylan Internet sites … Expecting Rain … and the atombash.com Bob Dylan blog by Harold Lepidus are the best places for up-to-the-minute Dylan news – David Kinney, “The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob.” (Simon & Schuster, 2014)
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