From The Beatles to 2Pac — Shakespeare’s words and characters have made their way into countless songs. For your listening pleasure in this time of social distancing, we’ve rounded up some of our favorites (in no particular order)! Scroll for a breakdown of the references in each song.
1. Limelight • Rush
This song opens with a paraphrased speech from AS YOU LIKE IT. It goes on to feature the line “All the world’s indeed a stage and we are merely players.”
2. Cordelia • The Tragically Hip
Inspired by the character Cordelia in KING LEAR — this song explores the character’s ultimately forgiving nature at the end of the play. And how the singer struggles to find the same forgiveness.
“It takes all your power
To prove that you don’t care
I’m not Cordelia, I will not be there”
3. Miss Macbeth • Elvis Costello
A modern take on the character of Lady Macbeth — Costello explores the guilt the character must now be experiencing.
4. The King Must Die • Elton John + Bernie Taupin
Discussing a person falling out of power, Elton John references multiple Shakespeare works including JULIUS CAESAR (Caesar’s had your troubles) and HAMLET (Widows had to cry). He also name-drops Will in the first line of the song — “No man’s a jester playing Shakespeare ’round your throne room floor”.
5. Titus Andronicus Forever • Titus Andronicus
Although there are no direct references to our resident playwright in the lyrics of this song, the title, and name of the band are a clear connection to one of his lesser-known tragedies, TITUS ANDRONICUS.
6. Desolation Row • Bob Dylan
The character’s in Dylan’s song are pulled from Shakespeare’s works — HAMLET’s Ophelia and ROMEO AND JULIET’S Romeo.
“And in comes Romeo, he’s moaning ‘You belong to me I believe.”
“Ophelia, she’s ‘neath the window, for her I feel so afraid”
7. Ophelia • The Band
Another song referencing HAMLET’S Ophelia — this one drawing connections between the madness she goes through in the play.
“Ashes of laughter, the ghost is clear.
Why do the best things always disappear? Like Ophelia
Please darken my door.”
8. Romeo Had Juliette • Lou Reed
One of the most straightforward references to Shakespeare listed here — this song is a modern, New York-inspired look at ROMEO AND JULIET, featuring two lovers separated by families living on the East and West sides of NYC.
9. Macbeth • John Cale
John Cale swaps out a memorable line from HAMLET, “Alas, poor Yorick” for “Alas for poor Macbeth”.
“Alas for poor Macbeth
He found a shallow grave
But better than a painful death
And quicker than his dying breath”
10. Exit Music (For a Film) • Radiohead
Created for the closing credits of the modern remake ROMEO + JULIET.
11. Romeo and Juliet • Dire Straits
Another song referencing the tragic couple, we love the retelling of this story in the lyrics “Juliet the dice were loaded from the start / And I bet, and you exploded in my heart.”
12. You’ve Got Everything Now • The Smiths
Morrissey opens this song with a variation on a line from MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, “As merry as the days were long.”
13. I Am The Walrus • The Beatles
The voices at the end of this song come from a BBC broadcast of KING LEAR. John Lennon heard the radio broadcast while the group was working and decided to mix parts of it into the song.
14. The Milkman of Human Kind • Billy Bragg
An inspired response to Lady Macbeth
“Yet do I fear thy nature, it is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way,”
Singer-songwriter Billy Bragg sings “I am the milkman of human kindness, I will leave an extra pint.”
15. Get Over It • Eagles
This song features a quote from Dick The Butcher in HENRY VI: “Old Billy was right / Let’s kill all the lawyers tonight.” And references Shakespeare with the cheeky nickname ‘Old Billy’.
16. Sister Moon • Sting
“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” — borrowed from Shakespeare’s sonnet #130.
17. Ariel • October Project
Sung from the perspective of the spirit Ariel in THE TEMPEST, this song is a farewell to his master Prospero.
18. Sigh No More • Mumford & Sons
This title comes from MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, and many of the lines in the song reference dialogue between Benedict and Beatrice.
19. Richard III • Supergrass
There’s no reference to Shakespeare’s work, or RICHARD III, other than the title of this song, but the indie-rock band has said that the scheming crookback compliments the dark tone of the song.
20. Something Wicked • 2Pac
The repetitive chant of “Something wicked this way come…” comes straight from the foreboding mutterings of the witches in MACBETH. References to Shakespeare appear throughout 2Pac’s music.
21. The Evil That Men Do • Iron Maiden
This UK hit borrows its title from Mark Antony’s famous speech in JULIUS CEASAR —
22. I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor • Arctic Monkeys
By now we’ve seen ROMEO AND JULIET referenced countless times on this list — rather than Romeo or Juliet being named themselves, it’s their warring families that get named: “Oh, there aint no love no, Montagues or Capulets, just banging tunes and DJ sets and dirty dance floors and dreams of naughtiness.”
23. Ophelia • The Lumineers
The first single from the album ‘Cleopatra’ (another nod to Old Billy??), this song tells the story of a woman driven mad when she falls in love with fame.
24. Love Story • Taylor Swift
Swift’s ballad features balconies, a disapproving father, star-crossed lovers, and the lines “You were Romeo, you were throwing pebbles, and my daddy said, ‘Stay away from Juliet'”. An obvious reference to the teenage lovers! But in this version, Swift opts for a happy ending.
Bonus Album: Sound & Fury • Sturgill Simpson
Not a song directly referencing Shakespeare, but we can’t help but think album title is an allusion to the famous lines spoken in MACBETH.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,