Sir Robert Dylan And William Shakespeare


By Larry Fyffe

There is, as already pointed out, a school of academists who maintain that a goodly portion of Bob Dylan’s song lyrics are actually written by Christopher Marlowe. This error stems from the fact that a number of themes in Dylan’s tales of love do show the influence of Marlowe’s ‘Hero And Leander’.

According to other academics, it’s Ovid to whom Dylan alludes:

Now I wish Daedalus might give me bold wings
(Ovid: Heroides XVIII – Leander To Hero)

To wit: it’s a dark and stormy night on the Hellespont, and Leander wishes hat he had wings so he could fly over the rough waters to Sestos and Hero, a theme echoed in folk song:

If I had wings like Noah’s dove
I’d fly the river to the one I love
Fare thee well, my honey
(Bob Dylan: Dink’s Song~traditional)

Allusions to Ovid (from ‘Tristra’ mostly) abound in Bob Dylan’s song lyrics:

Ain’t Talkin’ – ‘Every nook and cranny had its tears’
Beyond Here Lies Nothing – ‘Beyond here lies nothing but the moon and stars’
Spirit On The Water – ‘Can’t believe theses things would ever fade from your mind’
The Levee’s Gonna Break – ‘Some people have hardly enough skin to cover their bones’
Working Man’s Blues#2 – ‘No one can ever claim/That I ever took up arms against you’

The school of academics that contends most of Bob Dylan’s song lyrics are outright penned by William Shakespeare (whom Dylan says he met) have firm ground to stand on. Any tributes paid by Bob Dylan to Ovid’s ‘Leander To Hero’, or Marlowe’s ‘Hero And Leander’, they say are actually written by none other than the Bard himself – as evidenced by:

Leander, he would have lived many a fair
year, though Hero had turned nun, if it had not been
for a hot midsummer night; for, good youth, he went
but forth to wash him in the Hellespont and being
taken with the cramp was drowned and the foolish
coroners of that age found it was ‘Hero of Sestos.’
But these are all lies: men have died from time to
time and worms have eaten them, but not for love.
(William Shakespeare: As You Like It, Act IV, sc.1)

Hero commits suicide in the Greek myth when she learns of her lover’s drowning. However, the dark attitude expressed by the Bard matches more the cynicism that runs throughout many of Dylan’s song lyrics. That is, Dylan satirically piles up dead lovers on top of one another due to love gone wrong like Juliet who stabs herself after Romeo poisons himself upon thinking that she is dead:

She touched his lips and kissed his cheek
He tried to speak but his breath was weak
‘You died for me, now I’ll die for you’
She put the blade to her heart and she ran it through
(Bob Dylan: Tin Angel)

According to these academics, when Shakespeare writes song lyrics for Dylan, the Bard goes out of his way to cover up his tracks:

Othello told Desdemona, ‘I’m cold, cover me with a blanket
By the way, what happened to that poisoned wine?’
She says, ‘I gave it to you, you drank it’
(Bob Dylan: Poor Boy)

In ‘Othello’, after he’s deceived into smothering Desdemona, Shakespeare has Othello stabbing himself to death, but in the above lyrics, it’s Othello who drinks poison as does Romeo. It’s very confusing, but all’s well that ends well – Shakespeare’s fingerprints are left all over the scene of the crime.

Noted elsewhere and by others are lyrics that Shakespeare pens especially for Dylan, but puts in his plays as well:

Well, I’m scufflin’ and shufflin’, and walkin’ on briars
And I’m not even acquainted with my own desires
(Bob Dylan: Bye And Bye)

As in:

I do beseech your grace
Let me the knowledge of my fault bear with me
If with myself I hold intelligence
Or have acquaintance with my own desires
(William Shakespeare: As You Like It, Act I, sc.3)

Missed by all and sundry readers is that Shakespeare even smuggles Bob Dylan as an actor into one of his own plays under the name of Sir Robert (Brakenbury), the Lieutenant of the Tower:

Sorrow breaks seasons and reposing hours
Makes the night morning, and the noon-time night
(William Shakespeare: Richard III, Act I, sc. 4)

In a song, Dylan more or less repeats the same line given to him as Sir Robert to speak in the aforementioned play:

She can take the dark out of the night-time
And paint the daytime black
(Bob Dylan: She Belongs To Me)

Dear reader, remember, you can only learn secrets like this about
time-travelling Robert Zimmerman on the Untold Dylan site.

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One comment

  1. ‘ Beyond here lies nothing but chilliness….’ so goes Peter Green’s translation of Ovid’s ‘Tristia’, translations that Dylan also makes use of in ‘Ain’t Talking’ lyrics

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