Dylan’s “Tempest”; the Beggar’s Banquet; the Threepenny Opera and “The Tempest”

Bob Dylan: Tempest
by Larry Fyffe

The Rolling Stones update and pastiche the Threepenny Opera, a mock-opera that equates the amoral behaviour of Mack The Knife with the legalized greed of the captains of industry under the capitalist system:

Waiting for girl and her knees are much too fat
Waiting for a girl who wears scarves instead of hats
Her zipper’s broken down the back
Waiting for a factory girl
(Rolling Stones: Beggar’s Banquet/Factory Girl)

Humour, rather than sympathy, directed at the factory girl in the lyrics above; otherwise, in the not-so-Cinderella-like lyrics below:

No it won’t be a primrose path for me
No, it won’t be diamonds and gold
But maybe it will be
Someone who’ll love me
Someone who’ll love just me
To have and to hold
(Threepenny Opera: What Good Would The Moon Be)

Singer/songwriter Bob Dylan, takes his cue from poet William Blake, playwright William Shakespeare, and the books of the Bible. He focuses on balancing conflict between inherent virtue-and-vice urges operating within human nature itself, rather than on the struggle imposed by class structure, as the means of achieving a morality that benefits all of humanity.

In ‘The Tempest’, William Shakespeare, as its wizard-like author, achieves a magical ending, as happens in ‘The Threepenny Penny Opera’.

King Alonso, after a ship wreck, mends his differences with Prospero, whom he had helped Antonio to usurp, and likewise Prospero makes amends with his enslaved native Caliban and with his air-water-fire-and-earth sprite Ariel. But the power-hungry Antonio, Prospero’s brother, and the would-be usurper Sebastian, the King’s brother, recognize not the errors of their ways. The over-all happy ending is solemnized by the marriage of the King’s son to Prospero’s daughter.

And then we have Bob Dylan’s song “Tempest” which, like Shakespeare’s play, involves a ship wreck, but with no nearby, albeit troubled, island to give shelter from the storm:

The watchman, he lay dreaming
As the ballroom dancer’s twirled
He dreamed the Titanic was sinking
Into the underworld
(Bob Dylan: Tempest)

Prospero, the thoughtful wizard, and Shakespeare’s persona, has an actual spirit world at his command:

While you here do snoring lie
Open-eyed Conspiracy
His time doth take
If of life you keep a care
Shake off slumber, and beware
Awake! awake!
(Ariel’s Song: The Tempest)

There’s no magic to invoke in order to save the passengers of the Titanic; certainly no spirits:

The veil was torn asunder
‘Tween the hours of twelve and one
No change, no sudden wonder
Could undo what had been done
(Bob Dylan: Tempest)

The wizard, were there one, who authors the original story of the iceberg-wrecked ship, no Prospero is he:

Petals fell from the flowers
‘Till all of them were gone
In the long and dreadful hours
The wizard’s curse played on
(Bob Dylan: Tempest)

And that there be no intervention on the part of the Lord, Dylan ponders as well in another song on the same album:

I touched the garment, but the hem was torn
In Scarlet Town, where I was born
(Bob Dylan: Scarlet Town)

Likewise, writes another poet, it seems that Christ no longer cares:

And, weak and troubled, envy them
Who touched His seamless garment’s hem
(John Whittier: Chapel Of Hermits)

A sentiment expressed again by another poet:

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving
hearts in the hard ground
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been
time out of mind
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely
(Edna St. Vincent Millay: Dirge Without Music)

Not only is Scarlet a town without pity, but God’s without mercy:

He read the Book of Revelation
And he filled his cup with tears
When the Reaper’s task had ended
Sixteen hundred had gone to rest
The good, the bad, the rich, the poor
The loveliest and the best
(Bob Dylan: Tempest)


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