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Pop Goes Shakespeare... The Bard in Modern Music

William Shakespeare's plays and sonnets have been a rich source of inspiration to other art forms for hundreds of years, and Rock and Pop music is no exception - perhaps no surprise as music featured so heavily in his own work.

Whether it’s direct quotes, themes, characters or the Bard himself, mentions crop up in lyrics and titles from acts as varied as The Beatles to Taylor Swift. We’ve scratched the surface by pulling out some of our favourites...

Taylor Swift - Love Story

Balconies, a remonstrative father, star-crossed lovers... this is a love story unmistakably based on Shakespeare's most famous tale of teenage love. "You were Romeo, you were throwing pebbles, and my daddy said, 'Stay away from Juliet'" clearly draws parallels with Romeo and Juliet, with suggestions of tensions and hostility between her lover and her family. However in this re-telling, Taylor Swift opts to end her version of the tragic tale with a happy conclusion.

Elvis Costello - Miss Macbeth

Could we ever see the ruthless and powerful Lady Macbeth in a different light? Elvis Costello tries his hand at making this happen. His ode to the modern day Miss Macbeth, complete with lyrics including "And everyday she lives out another love song, it’s a tearful lament of somebody done wrong, well how can you miss what you’ve never possessed, Miss Macbeth?" is his attempt at humanising one of the most villainous females in literary history, making her a more likeable character.

Supergrass - Richard III

More than a decade before the rediscovery of the car park king, Oxford Indie-Rock band Supergrass had paid homage to Shakespeare’s portrayal of a scheming, underhand monarch in their second single from their album 'In It For The Money'. There’s no reference to Shakespeare’s work, or indeed Richard III other than in the title, but the band has been quoted as saying the evil reflection of the Head of State in the Bard’s play compliments the dark and menacing tone of the song.

Billy Bragg - The Milkman of Human Kindness

When Lady Macbeth says "yet do I fear thy nature, it is too full o' th' milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way" she says it with a distaste, accusing her husband of being too soft and unambitious; and not made of sterner stuff like herself. Billy Bragg has embraced this sentiment but has managed to turn it on its head by weaving its meaning into a love-letter, almost worthy of being read at an altar, offering himself as the deliverer of an "extra pint" to a loved one.

Arctic Monkeys - I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor

Electro-Pop in the early 80's and a coded reference to Duran Duran’s 'Rio' feature in the Arctic Monkeys frenetic UK number 1; surely not much room left for the work of Shakespeare, but again his most famous love story pops up. Rather than Romeo or Juliet being named themselves, it’s their warring families that get a name check: "Oh, there aint no love no, Montagues or Capulets, just banging tunes and DJ sets and dirty dance floors and dreams of naughtiness." Well, quite.

Dire Straits - Romeo and Juliet

Inspired by his failed romance with singer Holly Vincent, the unmistakable opening arpeggio on lead singer Mark Knopfler’s shiny metal guitar heralds a sad tale of unrequited love between our two protagonists on this beautiful track from the Dire Straits album 'Making Movies'. Shakespeare might not have written the lines "Juliet says hey it's Romeo, you nearly gimme a heart attack", but the similarities between a tale of two young lovers growing up "on different streets" is obvious.

The Lumineers - Ophelia

The first single from their album 'Cleopatra' (oh, hang on…) The Lumineers say 'Ophelia' is a vague reference to people falling in love with fame. "That spotlight can seem like an endless buffet, but in reality, you’re just shiny, bright, and new to people for a quick moment - and then you have the rest of your life to live." In Hamlet, Ophelia is herself touched by madness and assumed to be bewitched by people she thinks are in love with her. That sounds a lot like fame to us.

The Beatles - I am the Walrus

"Oompah, oompah, stick it up your jumper" - not one of Shakespeare’s lines but the final lyrics sung in The Beatles psychedelic song from 'The Magical Mystery Tour'. The Bard’s words do however make a direct appearance at the close of the song with "Oh untimely death..." featuring through the crackle as John Lennon flicked through an AM radio and accidentally stumbles across a broadcast of King Lear on the BBC Third Programme, which went on to become BBC Radio 3.

Iron Maiden - The Evil That Men Do

This UK Top 5 hit from Iron Maiden borrows its title from Mark Antony's famous "Friends, Romans, countrymen..." speech from Julius Caesar. The specific line "The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones," would sometimes be repeated by singer Bruce Dickinson, sometimes reversing the words, before live performances of this Heavy Metal track - a genre you might not consider going hand-in-hand with Shakespeare's works.

Radiohead - Exit Music (For A Film)

After seeing Claire Danes' Juliet holding a gun to her head in Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of Shakespeare's most tragic love story, Radiohead instantly began working on their masterpiece that would appear during the end credits. With lyrics including "Pack and get dressed before your father hears us, before all hell breaks loose. Breathe, keep breathing, don’t lose your nerve," this beautiful effort urges the doomed romantics to "run away before all the bad stuff starts”.

Metallica - King Nothing

The fourth and final single from Metallica's album 'Load' is filled with indirect and subtle nods to Shakespeare's King Lear and Macbeth. 'King Nothing' suggests a strong sense of an unhealthy greed and a relentless desire to seek power and status, with an inevitable fall from grace as a repercussion of a lethal obsession: "All the wants you waste, all the things you’ve chased, then it all crashes down, and you break your crown."

Elton John - The King Must Die

Opening with "No man’s a jester playing Shakespeare, round your throne room floor, while the juggler’s act is danced upon, the crown that you once wore", Elton John goes as far as name dropping the Bard in this gloomy, downcast effort. With various nods to an assortment of characters, including Macbeth, Julius Caesar and King Lear, 'The Kind Must Die' is a pensive look at how the mighty can fall from their pedestals and the consequences that follow.

Elbow - My Sad Captains

Mark Antony's dialogue inspires once again, this time with the line "Come, let's have one other gaudy night; call to me all my sad captains; fill our bowls; once more, let's mock the midnight bell," from Antony and Cleopatra. Elbow rework this for their lyric "Another sunrise with my sad captains, with you I choose to lose my mind", a nostaligic, yet slightly sad, hint towards getting on and not being able to drink with your friends every night like in days gone by.

Sting - Sister Moon

Taking inspiration from one of the Bard’s poems rather than his plays, Sting builds the song 'Sister Moon' around the lines "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun" from Sonnet #130, which he used as a response after an encounter with a drunk asking him "how beautiful is the moon?" This ballad is said to be "for all those whose sanity is dependent on the phases of the moon." Sting must’ve been touched immensely by this sonnet, as he went on to title the album “Nothing Like The Sun”.

Rush - Limelight

Rock band Rush lean on the play As You Like it not once, but twice in their back catalogue of music. A live double album titled 'All the World’s a Stage' was followed five years later with the song 'Limelight', centred on the lyrics "All the world’s indeed a stage, and we are merely players…", a reworking of that famous speech uttered by Jaques in As You Like It. The track featuring the themes of the difficulties of balancing our private and public lives and the challenges of success.

2Pac - Something Wicked

With performances in Shakespeare's plays during his arts school days and the parallels he drew between the Bard and gang wars and cultural conflicts, 2Pac was most definitely influenced by Shakespeare's works. References appear throughout his music, with the most obvious on his debut album '2Pacalypse Now' with the repetitive chant of "Something wicked this way come, something wicked this way come..." directly from the mutterings of one of the eerie witches in Macbeth.

Spandau Ballet - Through the Barricades

The Bard's greatest love tragedy is referenced once again in Spandau Ballet's 'Through the Barricades', the story of a relationship between a Catholic and Protestant set around the backdrop of troubled Northern Ireland in the 80's. Guitar player and the main songwriter for the band Gary Kemp told The One Show, "It's a Romeo and Juliet song - two people trying to have a relationship that wasn't really allowed." Lyrics like "Hearts go to their graves" suggest this track had an equally tragic ending.

Mumford & Sons - Sigh No More

Mumford & Sons take inspiration from Much Ado About Nothing in the powerful title track from their debut album. The lyrics refer to a conversation between characters Benedick and Beatrice, with the line "Serve God love me and mend, for man is a giddy thing," reworked from the play itself. The band are influenced on many of their tracks by the Bard, with frontman Marcus Mumford mentioning in an interview "You can rip off Shakespeare all you like; no lawyer's going to call you up on that one."

More Shakespeare and music...