Shakespeare’s Sister is a blog about “Shakespearean Fictions:” those works (films, novels, art, news, etc.) that are inspired by Shakespeare’s characters and plots.
To discover more about me, click here.
Shakespeare’s Sister is a blog about “Shakespearean Fictions:” those works (films, novels, art, news, etc.) that are inspired by Shakespeare’s characters and plots.
To discover more about me, click here.
In the first installment of this series, I showcased some of the most compelling pop songs inspired by Romeo and Juliet and discussed how each song seeks to revise Shakespeare’s play as a successful romance, as opposed to a tragic tale that ends in death and despair.
In this installment, I’m going to discuss two songs– both solo projects by Velvet Underground members– that do not attempt to modify Shakespeare’s themes, but rather emphasize them.
To pick up where I left off last week with our “star-crossed lovers,” Lou Reed’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet comes from On one of Reed’s best solo album, “Romeo had Juliette,” tells the story of Romeo Rodriquez and Juliette Bell who are “caught between twisted stars” (rather than being “star-crossed lovers”). In this urban Manhattan love story, Juliet and Romeo live on opposite sides of the city: “Betwixt between the East and West he calls on her wearing a leather vest.”
Surrounding Romeo and Juliette’s love is the decaying and dangerous city: “Outside the streets were steaming/ The crack dealers were dreaming/ Of an Uzi someone had just scored.”
In Shakespeare’s play, his lovers are surrounded by the danger of their hating families, but their love eventually transcends it all. However, in Reed’s song, the danger of their environment is beyond the power of the lovers: “Manhattan’s sinking like a rock/ Into the filthy Hudson what a shock.”
In fact, in Reed’s version Romeo and Juliet’s love does not—cannot—rise above setting of Manhattan, they are bound by it’s filth and corruption. For example, whereas earlier in the song Reed sings that Romeo smells Juliette’s perfume “in his eyes” in contrast to the wretched aroma of his room; by the end of the song “The perfume burned his eyes/ Holding tightly to her thighs/ And something flickered for a minute/ And then it vanished and was gone.”
Continuing with solo projects from the Velvet Underground, John Cale’s Paris 1919 is one of the best solo projects to come out of the VU—and happens to be one of my dessert island records, because of its literary nature. The album consists of tracks inspired by Dylan Thomas, Pablo Neruda, and Grahame Green… and Macbeth.
Written in the third person, the song is delivered by an onlooker (the witches? The audience?). The focus of the song is on what is seen and known to be true—which is also a theme of the play.Cale sings that Banquo’s “seen it all before” and that Macbeth “never saw things quite that way,” while Lady Macbeth “knew it all, and made you see things her way.” Yet, “somebody knows for sure: it’s gotta be me or it’s gotta be you.”
The song sounds like a parody of a rock n’ roll sock hop number—with snapping fingers and twirling poodle skirts—which diminishes the fatalism of the play’s plot, while at the same making it seems nostalgic. Yet, the song spins into cacophony towards the end; all the order and comfortable twelve-bar blues structure is reduced to post-punk reverb and noise. In many ways, this mimics the plot of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, when the hero’s control over what he thinks to be true spins out of his control at the end.
Both Cale and Reed embrace Shakespeare’s original plots and themes and adapt them into modern understandings of destruction, despair, and death.
Shakespeare provides a lot of inspiration to artists, especially musicians.
In this first installment of a series of posts on “Shakespearean Pop” I’m going to share and discuss some of the best Shakespearean Fiction songs. I call them “Shakespearean Fiction” because these songs do not just “replay” the plot of Shakespeare’s plays, but rather use the characters from those plays for their own ends, often revising the plot.
Shakespearean Fictions—whether in novels or songs—provide us an alternative perspective to consider the motivations of characters in Shakespeare’s plays and imagine alternative realities for them. No play is re-written more in pop music than Romeo and Juliet.
Naturally, Romeo and Juliet is a popular choice among musicians—the play’s plot centers around a young couple who are forbidden to love one another and yet do. Sadly, the play ends in tragedy as the young lovers die in each others arms, yet they live forever in the memories of others and in the message that love is stronger than hate. It’s just too good not to steal for love-song material (in fact, Shakespeare stole it himself from a popular poem at the time—what goes around, comes around Willie Shakes!).
This is first on my list for a number of reasons: first and foremost, when I was a child, my dad sang this song repeatedly… well, just the chorus, really… and I knew it before I even heard of Shakespeare. Secondly, the band is from Detroit and the song features Motown session musicians and has that stellar Motown sound.
The song re-imagines the love affair of Romeo and Juliet as a modern romance, only without the tragic dual-homicide.
No longer distressed with the generational vengeance and hate between the families, this Romeo character’s main concern is to find a job so that he buy a car to take his girlfriend to the drive-in. He wants to buy her “pretty presents just like ones in the catalog” and show her how much he loves her so that their love “will be written down in history, just like Romeo and Juliet.” The only threat to this realization is his unemployment: “If I don’t find work tomorrow it’s going to be heartache and sorrow/ Our love’s gonna be destroyed like a tragedy, just like Romeo and Juliet.”
Most songs that play with Shakespeare’s plots and characters try to re-imagine them with more positive outcomes—a world where Romeo and Juliet don’t die, but get to live happily ever after.
In 1968 Franco Zefferili released his iconic film Romeo and Juliet and British pop-psych band Toby Twirl recorded this song. Toby Twirl—named after the 1950’s children’s book character, a walking, talking, pig—embodies the late 60’s “Manchester sound.” The song opens by quoting directly from Shakespeare’s play— yet puts a modern spin on it for the modern lover with the chorus:
Hang about, hey, hey
Would we be so different today?
Oh no, you’ll hear me say,
I love you and love finds a way”
Again, a testament to how, as modern lovers, the fate of Romeo and Juliet would be different—they would run away, they would survive, they would “find a way.”
Featured in Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film Romeo + Juliet. This song also imagines an alternative reality for the lovers, one where they are able to “wake” and “escape.”
Thom Yorke told Humo magazine (July 22, 1997): “When we saw the scene in which Claire Danes holds the Colt 45 against her head, we started working on the song immediately. I had something with ‘Romeo & Juliet’ a long time already. I had a crush on Olivia Hussey, who played Juliet in the ’60s, for a long time. I first saw the movie when I was 13. I just couldn’t believe why Romeo and Juliet, after they had made love, didn’t run away together. Romeo should have packed his bags, jump out of the window and eloped with her.”
The danger (and, hence, intensity) of Romeo and Juliet’s love in Shakespeare comes from the fact that they are forbidden to each other because of the feud between their families. However, with the Indigo Girl’s cover there is another danger present in their love.
Originally, the song was written by Mark Knopfler and performed by the Dire Straits on their 1980 album, Making Movies). Listen here.
The song is a lament from the perspective of Romeo. He had lost Juliet, who has found fame, abandoned him, and moved on from the rough neighborhood where they are from.
When Knopfler sings the song, it’s rather lackadaisical, and we get a sense of Romeo’s rejection and dejection only because it is carefully hidden. The emotional components of the song are made by the backing instrumentation, which swells and wanes.
However, when Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls sings the song, it’s a very different experience:
In Ray’s version the song consists only of vocals and a lone guitar. Moreover, the guitar is an afterthought; the emotion is conveyed solely by the voice of Ray, which is raw in its energy and passion. She yells, she screams, she loses the guitar and gets breathless making the song a break-up anthem.
Beyond the basic instrumentation, we also now have a female vocalist singing the role of Romeo. The Indigo Girls (Amy Ray and Emily Saliers) have long identified themselves as lesbians and are active in LGBTQ rights movement. So, when Ray sings this song she essentially queers the song, Romeo and Juliet, and Shakespeare. For example, given the same-sex nature of this romance, these lyrics have a very different meaning:
I can’t do the talk like they talk on TV
And I can’t do a love song like the way it’s meant to be
We both come up on different streets
And they were both streets of shame
They’re both dirty both mean
And yes even our dreams were the same
Ray’s queer cover normalizes lesbian love by contextualizing it within the realm of one of the “greatest love stories ever told.”
There are a lot of songs inspired by Romeo and Juliet, and all of them re-imagine the realities of the relationship and its outcome. We want to live in a world where Romeo and Juliet live, where their love is safe. But, as Amy Ray’s cover tells us– that revision doesn’t exist for everyone.
Next week I’m going to pick up with another Romeo and Juliet song—from Lou Reed—as I feature the Shakespearean pop recorded by Velvet Underground solo projects. Stay tuned!
My favorite cover song is Jeff Buckley’s cover of John Cale’s version of Leonard Cohen’s original “Hallelujah.” Mainly because Buckley makes the song anew, transforming Cohen’s gruff dirge into a righteous and holy anthem on the pain of love.
Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time, does something similar with Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Her Shakespearean Fiction renews the play’s fantastical plot while breathing life into his characters.
Vintage’s Hogarth Press announced the Hogarth Shakespeare Series in 2013. With this series, they have commissioned several “acclaimed and bestselling novelists of today,” such as Winterson, Margaret Atwood, and to “re-imagine Shakespeare’s plays for a 21st-century audience” . Winterson’s The Gap of Time is the first to be published in the series, most likely, because she was absolutely clear which play she would re-tell: “All of us have talismanic texts that we have carried around, and that carry us around,” she has said. “I have worked with The Winter’s Tale in many disguises for many years … And I love cover versions.”
Winterson repeatedly refers to this work as a “cover version” and as a “riff” on the play—and the musical metaphors are intrinsic to the novel, as music is a constant presence in the plot as well as in Winterson’s mesmerizing narrative voice.
Like much of her previous work, The Gap of Time contains Winterson’s poetic voice and nuanced manipulation of both time and social conceptions of love. However, with this work she also more deeply examines the power and potential of forgiveness. Early in the novel she admits that, “Human beings don’t know about forgiveness. Forgiveness is a word like tiger—there is footage of it and verifiably it exists but few of us have seen it close and wild or known it for what it is” (17). The novel explores the transgressions of characters, the easy fraudulence of human beings, and how we seek forgiveness from others and ourselves. Winterson investigates the relationship between love and time, and for her that connection is forgiveness; “forgiveness and the future are tied together in both directions” (268).
Winterson sets her version of The Winter’s Tale in the seeming present, moving the action of the play from Shakespeare’s imagined kingdom of Sicilia and Bohemia to the financial world of London and the poverty of the American south (one thinks of New Orleans when reading about “New Bohemia,” where the nights are so “hot and heavy” that “your skin is shiny and your shirt is never dry”).
Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale centers on King Leontes, who viciously accuses his wife, Hermione, of committing adultery with his best friend, Polixenes. In Winterson’s novel Leontes becomes Leo, a paranoid, violent hedge fund manager, caught up corporate greed and determined to use his money to ensure his status. Hermione is re-imagined as French lounge-singer MiMi, and Polixenes is Xeno, an introverted video game designer whose uncertain sexual orientation creates much of the tension in the novel.
Yet, Gap of Time does more than merely modernize or “retell” Shakespeare’s tale. Winterson offers readers a true Shakespearean-Fiction that goes beyond dramatis personae presented in The Winter’s Tale and introduces us to them anew as fully fleshed, complex, and psychologically driven characters.
These re-visioned characters deserve our attention and elicit our sympathy, despite their flaws and transgressions. For example, Winterson crafts a sexual relationship between Leo and Xeno when they were at school, makes Leo’s raging jealousy far more credible than it is in the original play, thereby creating a more dynamic and sympathetic character out of Shakespeare’s irrational tyrant.
While the characters are updated and moved into the contemporary world, the novel closely follows the play’s plot: Leo accuses MiMi of infidelity. MiMi gives birth to a daughter, Perdita, whom Leo cannot accept as his own, so he banishes the infant to abandonment.
But more than plot, Winterson also follows Shakespeare’s own rhythm: inviting readers into the tumultuous and traumatic lives of Leo, Mimi, and Xeno; then at the climax of danger, whisking them away to warm and sunny New Bohemia to witness a grown Perdita, living a life full of love and happiness (and singing in a girl group, The Separations, which have a “Hillybilly Soul Banjo sound”). These jumps through the “gap of time” are what makes Shakespeare’s play so frustrating to some audiences, but they prove rewarding for Winterson’s readers.
Like many of Shakespeare’s plays, The Winter’s Tale presents gaps and spaces which readers and actors are forced to fill.
One of the most notable gaps comes in final act of the play it is revealed that Paulina has secretly kept a statue of Hermione—the likeness unmatched to the living woman. In a mystifying theatrical moment, Paulina conjures the statue to “strike all that look upon with marvel” and therefore brings the statue to life to rejoin Leontes and Perdita. This happy ending that declares everyone “precious winners all”—yet we cannot help to ask if it is true: is this new Hermione really a statue come to life? Is she just playing a statue? Has she been in wait throughout the entire plot?
Shakespeare’s play relies upon the suspension of disbelief of his theatrical audience, while Winterson’s fiction asserts a specific interpretation. In so doing, Winterson answers the questions Shakespeare creates for us; she fills in the missing pieces and furnishes readers with a specific interpretation of the actions and behaviors of all the characters.
While some may see Winterson’s novel as “closing the play down”—that is the entire point of Shakespearean-Fiction: to project possible interpretations of plots and provide potential motivations of characters found in Shakespeare’s work.
Winterson plays wonderfully with the challenging text of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale in terms of plot, character, and language. The Gap of Time is both a Shakespearean homage and a work that stands beautifully on its own.
 Hogarth Shakespeare series will publish three more novels this year (the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death): Howard Jacobson’s The Merchant of Venice in February, Anne Tyler’s The Taming of the Shrew in June and Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest in October. These will be joined by Tracy Chevalier’s Othello, Gillian Flynn’s Hamlet, Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth and Edward St Aubyn’s King Lear.
THE GAP OF TIME
“The Winter’s Tale” Retold
By Jeanette Winterson
273 pp. Hogarth Shakespeare. $25.
Murders, demonic visitations, ghosts (one, a noble woman who was burnt for witchcraft in the 16th century), and monstrous apparitions haunt Glamis Castle, the setting for much of Shakespeare’s bloody play, Macbeth. Glamis Castle– a real place and a popular tourist attraction located in Angus, Scotland– is infamous for its grim mysteries, all of which involve the existence of a secret chamber.
Glamis castle is the ancestral home of Shakespeare’s tragic character Macbeth and is the setting for the play’s central event: the murder of King Duncan.
Macbeth holds the title “Thane of Glamis,” but finds out from three witches that he is destined to be king. Rather than waiting for his fate to unfold, Macbeth takes matters into his own hands and– with the help of his wife– kills his king, Duncan.
Macbeth murders Duncan between acts and we do not witness the deed. We do get a description of the room from Macbeth’s ambitious wife and fearless accomplice. She even admits that she almost murdered the sleeping king herself, but couldn’t do it because Duncan reminded her of her father. So, it is Macbeth we see emerging from the chamber with blood on his hands, the “filthy witness” to his crime. After the murder of Duncan at Glamis, Macbeth takes power, kills his friends, slaughters his enemies, and begins a bloody reign of terror over Scotland—until he is eventually killed by his arch-nemesis. For her part in the crime, Lady Macbeth goes mad by sleepwalking and talking, and she eventually kills herself by jumping from the tower of palace.
There are many possible reasons why Shakespeare did not write the scene of Macbeth killing Duncan and keeps the murder hidden from his audiences’ eyes: to increase dramatic tension, to explore the characters, and even just to save his own skin from being accused of treason (it’s really not cool to show the murder of a king on stage during the 17th century!). No matter the reason, it’s clear that the chamber of Duncan in Glamis Castle holds a power over the people in the play—they enter the chamber as one character, and exit from it changed.
Shakespeare’s character of Macbeth is based upon the historical Mac Bethad mac Findlaích. Glamis Castle never belonged to the real Macbeth nor did it provide the setting for the true murder of Duncan—but a king was murdered there: King Malcolm II, Duncan’s grandfather.
It is now the ancestral home of the Bowes-Lyon family, headed by the Earls of Strathmore, who became Scottish earls in 1677 (they became British earls in 1937). The castle was originally built in 1376 and rebuilt in the 15th century.
While historically Macbeth has no association with the castle, that fact has not stopped the castle from being cursed with supernatural superstitions.
One of the earliest reports of a secret chamber came from Sir Walter Scott, who spent a night in the castle when he was 20 (in 1790) and later wrote that “as I heard door after door shut, after my conductor had retired, I began to consider myself as too far from the living and somewhat too near the dead” (Letters on Witchcraft and Demonology, 1830). The great novelist added that he knew of the existence of a “secret chamber,” which he himself could not locate.
There are several legends associated with this secret room, such as the tale of the 2nd Lord of Glamis (who died in 1486) and his deal with the Devil. According to this story, the Early of Glamis enjoyed gambling and playing cards and invited other noble lords to join him, however being the Sabbath the lords refused. To which the Lord of Glamis replied, “I don’t care if it’s the Sabbath—I will play until Doomsday or with the Devil himself!” Later that stormy night, a stranger appeared at the castle door and he was all too happy to oblige the Lord in a game of cards.
As the night wore on, and the Lord sank deeper into debt, his friend offered him the ultimate wager: his soul. The sounds of the Lord’s card game with the Devil were so loud, the sounds of his soul being dragged to hell so riotous, that the room was sealed up permanently.
But the most persistent tale is that the secret chamber houses a monstrous child.
The secret chamber and its inhabitant was explored in 1908:
“The mystery was told to the present writer some 60 years ago… The story was, and is, that in the Castle of Glamis is a secret chamber. In this chamber is confined a monster, who is the rightful heir to the title and property, but who is so unpresentable that it is necessary to keep him out of sight and out of possession” (Notes and Queries, 1908 Sept. 26).
Most tales relating the existence of the “monster” of Glamis are decidedly vague on the details of what this creature may look like. One 19th century legend includes the story of a newly hired grounds man who discovered a door leading to a long, unknown passage. When he entered the shadowy corridor he saw a figure at the far end who scattered away as he pressed forward. Upon reporting his experience to his supervisor, he was fired and his passage to Australia paid for by the Earl of Glamis.
There exists one description of the creature, however it is still vague in its details.
James Wentworth-Day, who chronicled the history of royal families of Windsor (Glamis is the childhood home of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, as she is the youngest daughter of the 14th Earl) visited Glamis Castle in the 20th century and heard this story from its current inhabitants:
“a monster was born into the family. He was the heir—a creature fearful to behold. It was impossible to allow this deformed caricature of humanity to be seen…His chest an enormous barrel, hairy as a doormat, his head ran straight into his shoulders and his arms and legs were toy-like…yet however warped and twisted his body, the child had to be reared to manhood…” (The Queen Mother’s Family Story, 1967)
The Castle of Glamis represents a living Shakespearean Fiction– people have imagined and created a number of fictions surrounding the castle that are influenced by Shakespeare’s play.
The chamber in Glamis castle where Duncan is murdered holds a special power over the characters in the play. It is here that their destinies are realized. We, as the audience, never see the actions of murder that take place in that room and we are left to ponder what happened and why.
In this way, the chamber becomes heavy with symbolic significance. So much so, that centuries later people are fictionalizing that “chamber.”
We create for ourselves a space for our secrets– secluded down shadowy corridors and populated with the demons and monsters of our shame and guilt—all of which we wish to hide.
“… Stars, hide your fires;
Let not light see my black and deep desires”
(Macbeth Act I, scene 4)
Shakespeare famously manipulated existing plots when writing his plays. He often used the work of his contemporaries—like Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd—as inspiration, as well as well known classical poets like Ovid.
So, imagine what authors can do with Shakespeare’s works? His rich characters, suspenseful plots, universal themes, and compelling settings. Thwarted love, ambition, jealously, pride, fear—if you want to write a story about a fundamental human predicament, Shakespeare has a story for it.
There are many writers who take their “cues” from Shakespeare, like John Fowles who uses the Tempest as an inspiration from his work, The Magnus. Even Melville’s Moby Dick is inspired by the male archetypes developed by Shakespeare—those over-reaching, ambitious, obsessed men who subvert the natural order of things. Men, like Macbeth and Lear, with hubristic quests that are doomed from the start.
But this blog is not concerned with fiction that is merely inspired by a Shakespearean theme or a single Shakespearean character, but is rather interested in those fictions that seek to understand the lives of Shakespeare’s fictional characters unbounded by Shakespeare’s play. Perhaps they consider the story from a different perspective with the plot, or perhaps from a different time period. Works like Jane Smiley’s award-winning Thousand Acres, which retells the story of King Lear in modern-day Iowa and re-imagines the relationships between the characters beyond what the original play gives us, or Susan Fraser King’s Lady Macbeth which imagines the story of Macbeth from the notorious wife’s point of view, or even Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius, which explores the nefarious relationship outside of Hamlet’s perspective.
This blog is dedicated to such stories and their authors. Those who are inspired by Shakespeare’s works and seek to “flesh” them out more by imagining their characters beyond the scope of Shakespeare’s plays. In so doing, they help us re-discover the richness that Shakespeare has to offer us and provide us with compelling questions—some without answers—as to the interior lives of these characters beyond the scope of Shakespeare’s circumscribed plays.
Stay tuned for future posts on Shakespearean Fictions– reviews of Shakespearean fictional works, profiles and interviews with authors, and tidbits of Shakespearean lore (both fiction and fact). If you have content you’d like to contribute– feel free to contact me at email@example.com
Let me imagine, since facts are so hard to come by, what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say. – A Room of One’s Own