Shakespeare in the Charts

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Madonna's Cherish

I woke up singing this old song ‘Cherish‘ by Madonna. The chorus of the song, in which Madonna sings about her desire for a long term loving passionate relationship, was running repetitively though my head: “Romeo and Juliet, they never felt this way I bet, so don’t underestimate my point of view.” I started to think about how the iconic image of Romeo and Juliet was being used here. In this song it is not offered as the ideal love affair but rather one that it is possible to transcend. Romeo and Juliet may have been in love but they never felt, Madonna suggests the desire for passionate commitment that she does.

By the time I got to work I thought I would investigate some other songs that use the image of Romeo and Juliet.  One search I did suggested that there were 2,466 songs which contained the word ‘Romeo’ or were recorded by an artist or group who used the name ‘Romeo’ See here .

On of the most popular and most covered is ‘Romeo and Juliet‘ by Dire Straits (The killers and Indigo Girls amongst others). This is actually (should I admit this?) a favourite of mine. In this song Romeo and Juliet  stand for archetypal lovers, rather than the characters from Shakespeare’s play. The story of the song, about a couple who broke up but now ‘Romeo’ wants to get back together, has no relation to Shakespeare’s story. In fact the first line ‘a love struck Romeo sings the streets a serenade’ uses Romeo as a noun meaning ‘young man in love’. Romeo’s chat up line in the song is ‘something like ‘you and me babe how about it?’’ – not quite Shakespeare’s Romeo’s ‘If I profane with my unworthiest hand / this holy shrine, the gentle sin is this. My lips, two blushing pilgrims ready stand / to smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.”

Taylor Swift’s hit ‘Love Story’ seems to begin with the story Shakespeare told. We start with a girl on a balcony, her parent’s disapproval of her intended match. But Taylor re-writes Shakespeare’s tragedy into a Romance, ending with Romeo on bended knee, engagement ring in hand, marriage all happily approved by Juliet’s father.

Interestingly Blue Oyster Cult’s ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ also re-writes Shakespeare’s story to find a happy ending in which Romeo and Juliet elope together. I wonder if this is a persistent desire, to re-write the ending to give them their future together?

And finally what about ‘Fever’ – a song covered by lots of artists – which also makes mention of Romeo and Juliet:“Romeo loved Juliet, Juliet she felt the same, When he put his arms around her, He said Julie baby you’re my flame.” Here Romeo and Juliet are cited as a canonical example of a long history of lovers who have felt the fever. But once again I am intrigued by Romeo’s imagined chat up line, ‘Julie baby you’re my flame.” An interesting modern take on Romeo’s words.

Do you know any other songs about Shakespeare’s characters? Or are Romeo and Juliet the only ones to make it into the charts?

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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
  • Now that song sounds like a lot of fun! think I am going to find the rest! ^liz

  • Mark

    Tonio K mixes up Romeo and Juliet with Tarzan and Jane to get the song 'Romeo Loves Jane', a send-up of celebrity romances:

    Lyrics: i've heard of unfaithful lovers but this is outrageous / soon the national enquirer will run the front pages / i saw shakespeare and cheetah / crying in their margaritas / bad news / they said: romeo loves jane / the jungle will never be the same / and juliet's crying again / romeo loves jane

    Here's a long list of other songs: http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20070410182741AAdOQOq

  • Now I didn't know that either, clearly they did their research. But also decided not to replicate the story of Romeo and Juliet. You know what I have never seen west side story – I am so ashamed of that! ^liz

  • Yes, good point I hadn't really considered songs from musicals or films but sometimes they become very popular. ^liz

  • The interesting thing about the Dire Straits song is that it actually quotes another song – Somewhere – which, obviously, is from a show (West Side Story) also based on the play.

  • Duncan

    What about the songs “Kiss Me Kate” and “Bianca” from the eponymous musical?

  • Marvellous!!! I was just curious, I have always been interested in song lyrics, and was just musing about the connections between two kinds of 'poetry' I enjoy – song lyrics and Shakespeare. Song lyrics based on the plays or characters are also a form of appropriation which is also something that interests me intellectually. What happens when an idea, character is exported from one context and imported into another…? ^liz

  • Ruth W

    actually, does that song “Marina” they used to play over the Stingray titles count? Or “A Winter's Tale” by David Essex?

  • Ruth Waterton

    As You Like It – Adam Faith
    Oor Hamlet – Brobdingnagian Bards
    Cleopatra's Cat – The Spin Doctors
    Lost in the Post – The Wombats, including the marvellous line, “I wanted Mary Poppins but you took me to King Lear”
    Miss Macbeth – Elvis Costello (but I prefer “Beware of Witches” by Covered in Bees, I think it better captures the spirit of the play.

    My playlist is on Spotify – sensiblecat, “Your Bard” (sorry)
    Yes I am doing my dissertation on Shakespeare and popular culture – why do you ask?

  • Now I never knew that! I will go and have a close listen…. ^liz

  • I don't think I know that, I'll have to check it out. ^liz

  • Fatti Bean

    There's Ophelia by Natalie Merchant – fantastic song, one of my favourites!

  • Thanks to Greg Doran's Great Shakespeare Quiz at RSC Open Day last year, I know that there are bits of King Lear in The Beatles' I Am The Walrus. Ophelia and Cordelia get in a lot of tracks too.

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