Bob Dylan And The Sonnets: Mightier Than The Sword The Feathered Pen Is


by Larry Fyffe

The lyrics of a number of Bob Dylan’s songs reveal that the singer/songwriter is well acquainted with William Shakespeare’s sexually suggestive sonnets.

Bob Dylan bases ‘Watered-Down Love’ on a sonnet by the Bard that tells the tale of Diana’s fairest nymph trying to drown the narrator’s lust for a woman, and his desire to have her for his Muse, but the water nymph fails to dampen the narrator’s love for  creating art:

Says the narrator:

.... but I, my mistress' thrall
Came there for cure, and this by that I prove
Love's fire heats water, water cools not love
(William Shakespeare: Sonnet CLIV)

The narrator in the song below casts mythology aside, and places blame directly on any fair damsel who’d get in the way of his art:

You don't want a love that's pure
You want to drown love
You want a watered-down love
(Bob Dylan: Watered-Down Love)

The message contained in the following sonnet can be interpreted to mean that unrequited love, lust unfulfilled, can actually inspire the creation of art:

Thine eyes that taught the dumb on high to sing
And heavy ignorance aloft to fly
Have added feathers to the learned's wing
(William Shakespeare: Sonnet LXXVIII)

The narrator in Dylan’s ‘Hallelujah’ reformulates the above message – he wants both loves to be requited; he wants to have his cake and eat it too:

Tie your banner
On you well
'Cause I want you
And I couldn't wail
Stick the feather there
(Bob Dylan: Hallelujah)

Or, as it’s put in another song:

Raspberry, strawberry, lemon, and lime
What do I care
Blueberry, apple, cherry, pumpkin, and plum
Call me for dinner
Honey, I'll be there
(Bob Dylan: Country Pie)

An obvious reference to a play by the Bard:

Do you think I meant country matters? ....
That's a fair thought to lie between maids' legs
(William Shakespeare: Hamlet, Act III, Sc.ii)

Decadent writer Oscar Wilde insists that the object of the Bard’s sexual desire, his inspirational Muse, is a  young male actor who takes on the parts of women in Shakespeare’s plays.

The Wilde claim is that the actor’s name is encoded in the two sonnets that follow – it’s ‘Willie Hughes’:

A man in hue, all hues in his controlling
Which steals men's eyes, and women's souls amazeth
(William Shakespeare: Sonnet XX)

According to Wilde, the fair actor is also referred to by the narrator in the funny, and ambiguously punny sonnet below; note as well that Elizabethans have a name for the penis – it’s ‘Will’, or ‘Willie’:

One will of mine, to make thy large 'Will' more ....
Think all but one, and me in that one 'Will'
(William Shakespeare: Sonnet CXXXV)

Binging it all back home to ‘Just Like A Woman’ by Bob Dylan:

I just can't fit
Yes, I believe it's time for us to quit
But when we meet again
Introduced as friends
Please don't let on that you knew me when
I was hungry, and it was your world
Ah, you fake just like a woman
(Bob Dylan: Just Like A Woman)

Sorrowful be the conclusion of the following sonnet:

Then if he thrive, and I be cast away
The worst was this, my love was my decay
(William Shakespeare: Sonnet LXXX)

Note the Dylanesque ‘rhyme twist’ in the song lyrics below ~
‘away’/’decay’; ‘day’/’decay’:

Situation just gonna get rougher
Why do we needlessly suffer?
Let's call it a day
Go on separate ways
Before we decay
(Bob Dylan: We better Talk This Over)


  1. Thanks Larry, for taking me back to the sonnets. I always sensed some gender ambiguity in Dylan’s sixties songs, although I never believed, as some did, that Just Like a Woman was written to a man. On the other hand, Shakespeare is quite explicit:
    Two loves I have of comfort and despair,
    Which like two spirits do suggest me still
    The better angel is a man right fair,
    The worser spirit a woman coloured ill.
    (sonnet 144)

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