Andrew Muir. The True Performing of It: Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare. Red Planet Music Books: 2019. Pp. 368. Paperback UK £15.99. US $24.95. ISBN 978-1-9127-3395-8.
REVIEW BY Stuart Hampton-Reeves, University of Warwick
At one time it was fashionable to compare Dylan to John Keats, so it is a measure of how Dylan’s stature in Western culture has grown over the decades that he is now more likely to be compared to the greatest of all Western writers, William Shakespeare. What links a sixteenth-century Warwickshire playwright to a twentieth-century Minnesotan singer-songwriter? The answer, of course, is virtually nothing, and neither writer benefits particularly from the comparison. Dylan’s work owes more to Ginsberg, Eliot and Pound than it does to either Shakespeare or Keats. There is something mischievous in the way that the question tends to be posited. In the days of “Dylan and Keats”, the conjuring of names was meant as a way of starting a conversation about poetic excellence: quite simply, was Dylan as good a poet as Keats? “Dylan and Shakespeare,” on the other hand, tugs in a different direction. This comparison is more about cultural status: will future generations see Dylan as important as Shakespeare? Ennobled by a clutch of literary prizes, and possibly at the end of his career as a songwriter, Dylan may be our culture’s best offering to the ages.
I prefer “Dylan and Shakespeare.” Although as different as they can be as writers, they do share a similar place in their prevailing culture. Both started their careers as performers rather than writers—Shakespeare as an actor, Dylan as a folksinger. When they wrote, they were fiercely conscious of the live audiences they would be performing to. Although many of us encounter Shakespeare in books, he always wrote with performance in mind. Dylan never just sings his songs, he performs them, and he strives to find some new angle that makes the song unique to that moment. Bob and William share an investment in popular culture; they both care about their audiences enough to give them something of what they want. Yet while respecting and admiring popular entertainment, they both transcend it. In Shakespeare’s case, he started writing straight-forward plays and enjoyed a parallel career as a poet. His poem “Venus and Adonis” was the big hit of his early career, his “Blowin’ in the Wind.” At some point around 1595, perhaps less than five years into his writing career, Shakespeare seems to have had some kind of epiphany, because he starts bringing poetic language into his plays. A Midsummer Night’s Dream and its companion play, Romeo and Juliet, have a poetic intensity missing from earlier plays, as if Shakespeare had decided to bring his skills as a poet to the then somewhat disreputable form of the common play. This is the closest Shakespeare came to “going electric.”
Andrew Muir’s The True Performing of It: Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare is an admirably exhaustive study of the two writers. The ordering of the names on the title page suggests that Dylan has some kind of precedence, although Muir’s previous work was a fine study of Shakespeare and Cambridge. Muir and I share an admiration for the Cambridge schoolteacher H. Caldwell Cook, who is a central character in Shakespeare in Cambridge (Amberly Publishing, 2015), and who makes a somewhat implausible cameo in this study of Shakespeare and Dylan. Cook’s appearance is indicative of the level of detail that Muir marshals in his forensic, side-by-side dissection of the two corpuses. As Muir himself notes, “it is not difficult to build correspondences between any two artists” (9), particularly when their body of work is so large. Muir is acutely aware of the dissimilarities between Dylan and Shakespeare, but he does not want to write about those: instead, his interest is in the intersections between their “working practices.”
Indeed, this is where the comparison starts to get interesting. Few writers in history have been accused of plagiarism as much as Dylan and Shakespeare. Many of Dylan’s tunes are borrowed from folk songs, there are whole websites devoted to his selective “quoting” of (for example) Henry Timrod, and even his Nobel prize acceptance speech has since been exposed as riddled with “similarities” to other texts. Shakespeare, too, was an adapter. Despite what one may have seen in the film Shakespeare in Love, he did not invent the plot of Romeo and Juliet (he based it on a popular poem by Arthur Brookes). He drew heavily on Plutarch and Holinshed for his Roman and History plays, sometimes word-for-word; he raided Cinthio for Othello, Boccaccio for Cymbeline, Chaucer for Troilus and Cressida—and so on. There are few truly original plays in Shakespeare’s canon. As Muir points out, both the legal and cultural context for authorship was very different in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Adaptation and imitation were a respected part of the creative process in Shakespeare’s time, whereas Dylan has faced greater scrutiny and even mockery for his many borrowings. Here, it is useful to call Shakespeare as a witness for the defense. If Shakespeare can create great art that is a creative and transformative assemblage of other writers, then why not Dylan? Part of the way both writers have been able to create such a rich and diverse canon is through their extensive assimilation of other writers. The young Dylan was notorious for spending hours in listening booths absorbing hundreds of folk songs which he had an uncanny ability to pick up after only a few hearings. Shakespeare too seems to have been something of a cultural sponge, absorbing, recycling and recreating classical and contemporary sources and turning them into remarkable works which transcend their origins.
Muir is also interested in the social and cultural contexts for his chosen subjects. Chapters on religion and political contexts bring into focus the way that writing and music interact with the world around them, and occasionally have an impact on the way people think. It is a valuable exercise to put Dylan and Shakespeare into context, especially as we are now at a point where we have enough distance to start to see Dylan as a figure of history rather than as a contemporary. However, Muir is on noticeably thinner ground here than elsewhere in the book, as contexts tend to separate artists out rather than flatten the distance between them. Shakespeare lived in the fraught aftermath of a tremendous religious schism. Born in 1564, Shakespeare would have been old enough to have remembered the old morality and mystery plays which were later banned by Elizabeth’s government, nervous of the potential those plays had to incite religious division. Shakespeare was effectively banned from writing about religion and contemporary politics, and when he did so, he did it in allusive and subtle ways, which means scholars are still arguing about Shakespeare’s religious and political beliefs centuries later. Dylan has lived through some interesting times and his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s helps to mitigate some of his less politically acceptable speeches during his “born again” phase in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Shakespeare is a natural reference point for any writer, especially one whose cultural knowledge is as expansive as Dylan’s. Dressed in a jester’s outfit and talking to a French girl in an Alabaman alley, Shakespeare is a character in “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” His own characters also appear from time to time in Dylan’s work: Ophelia sits beneath a window peering into Desolation Row; in “Po’ Boy,” Desdemona gives Othello poisoned wine in an odd conflation of Othello and the denouement to Hamlet, an image which Muir intriguingly links to carnival burlesques and minstrel shows Dylan recalls seeing as a boy. Muir’s chapter on “Shakespeare in Dylan” may prove to be the last word on the subject, for Muir offers many examples of ways in which Dylan has quoted, reshaped, or simply reflected Shakespeare. Sometimes he over-reaches. Metrical similarities between Feste’s song in Twelfth Night and “Percy’s Song” may simply be the result of both drawing on the ballad tradition. I’m not overly convinced that the “painted face on a trip down Suicide Road” is Ophelia, but I accept that this is the sort of creative and subtle borrowing that Dylan is good at. In a witty move that I suspect both Dylan and Shakespeare would approve of, Muir follows this with a chapter on “Dylan in Shakespeare,” which reminds us that, because Shakespeare’s plays are constantly being performed and filmed, he exists very much in the present as a contemporary writer. For example, Michael Almereyda’s 2000 film Hamlet includes an excerpt from “All Along the Watchtower” in its soundtrack, and the man who digs Ophelia’s grave also sings the song. Muir goes on to discuss Dylan references in Almereyda’s 2014 film Cymbeline and Robert Icke’s 2017 theater production of Hamlet.
Muir’s survey of Dylan and Shakespeare is so broad that there are, inevitably, mistakes and misconceptions. For example, he misleadingly compares Shakespeare’s collaboration with Thomas Middleton to Dylan’s collaboration with U2 on the track “Love Rescue Me.” Although we know very little about how Shakespeare collaborated, few if any scholars believe that he and Middleton sat down together to compose plays: more likely, Middleton was asked to dust down plays Shakespeare had already written for fresh performance, possibly years after Shakespeare had written them, which makes Middleton more of a script editor than a co-writer. I am not sure that it can be said that Shakespeare did not care about the printing of his plays given that almost half of them appeared in print during his lifetime (Muir’s claim that “Shakespeare’s plays in quarto format had nothing to do with him” (29) is unprovable and seems unlikely). Shakespeare’s early retirement from the stage suggests otherwise—it seems likely that he was spending at least some of his time in Stratford preparing his works for publication, as several of the ones that appeared in his posthumous complete works, known to the ages as the “First Folio” and published in 1623, were so long that they would have been unlikely to have been performed in the “two hours traffic” of the early modern stage. Muir is on better ground with Dylan, although I am not sure I can agree with his claim that “it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there” has entered the English language as a commonplace.
Dylan has almost written Muir’s conclusion for him by titling his 2012 album Tempest. As many newspapers were quick to notice, the title appears to be a reference to Shakespeare’s last play (at least, the last that he wrote solo), The Tempest, which is arguably about the “magic” of theater and poetry, and ends with the magician breaking his staff and abjuring his magic. The temptation to see Prospero as a cipher for Shakespeare has proved irresistible to even the most cynical scholars. Could Tempest be Dylan’s last album? Dylan’s people were quick to refute that suggestion, but as we enter into 2020 (at the time of writing), with no new material from Dylan for the best part of a decade, one begins to wonder if Tempest will prove to be his final artistic statement. The dark is drawing closer: Dylan does not have long to capstone his career with new work. Muir’s finale, then, is a spirited comparative analysis of The Tempest and Tempest with some nice observations about the way Ovid and Homer influence both.
What, then, is to be gained from over three hundred pages of side-by-side comparison between the two Bards? Perhaps very little in truth: the book serves to remind us how different Shakespeare and Dylan are, both as men and as writers. The book is at its most persuasive when it uses one to frame the other: that they are both performers who write for performance seems to me to be a useful way of de-mythologizing both of them. The contexts of their work were both highly charged politically and socially, but in very different ways. That Dylan was influenced by Shakespeare is hardly surprising, since all writers in English are whether they know it or not—if anything, Muir’s study here highlights how infrequently Dylan has turned to the other bard for inspiration over his long career. And one might have expected a cultural figure as influential as Dylan to have intruded on modern performances of Shakespeare many more times than the three somewhat obscure examples that Muir finds. None of this detracts from the book’s achievement. Muir has synthesized an impressive amount of detail which he marshals in an intriguing way. As the “long twentieth century” draws to a close and we look at the cultural achievements which our times offer up to the centuries, it may well be that Bob Dylan’s work is one of those, but only time will tell if the people of the twenty-fourth century revere his work as much as we do the plays of William Shakespeare.