Christopher Star, Middlebury College

“I and I”: Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare’s King Richard III

With the release of The Bootleg Series Volume 16: Springtime in New York 1980-1985, I’ve been revisiting tracks from my favorite album from that period, 1983’s Infidels. I’ve always thought that the song “I and I” is one of the record’s strongest. I’m not alone in that assessment. Rolling Stone classifies “I and I” as one of Bob Dylan’s best songs from the 1980s.[1] Dylan has performed this song more times than any other from Infidels: 204 times from May 28, 1984 to November 10, 1999, according to his website.[2] The title phrase, repeated several times in the song’s chorus, has long fascinated me as a pithy statement of the complexity of selfhood and individuality. How can we unpack the modalities of “I and I” both in terms of the phrase itself and the song as a whole?

The phrase “I and I” has several possible levels of significance. It is a key part of Rastafarian vocabulary. The sociologist Ernest Cashmore states that Rastafarianism’s “acknowledgement of the inherence of God in man” came to be expressed “in the principle of ‘I and I’ the unity of all people” (Cashmore 1979: 26). The song’s genesis and recording have strong connections to the Caribbean Islands. The liner notes to Springtime in New York cite several interviews from the time of Infidels’ release: “‘That was one of them Caribbean songs,’ Dylan told interviewer Paul Zollo about ‘I and I.’ ‘One year, a bunch of songs came to me hanging around down in the islands. . .’ Talking to Kurt Loder in 1984, he named ‘Jokerman’ another. ‘It’s very mystical: the shapes there, and the shadows, seem to be so ancient.’”[3] The song has something of a reggae feel and the personnel involved with the album’s recording furthers the Caribbean connection. The legendary Jamaican duo of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare play drums and bass respectively on all of the album’s tracks. It is plausible that Dylan was aware of the significance of “I and I” for the Rastafarian community. Yet this connection simply treats “I and I” alone and does not seem to me to address the complexity of the song, which is focused less on unity and more on self-division. There may be another level of significance to the title that better links up with the song’s themes of sleep, dreams, justice and self-division that may be traced back, paradoxically, to the namesake of the track’s bassist.

In an album that is largely a jeremiad on the direction of US and international politics and society, the penultimate song, “I and I,” might initially appear to be the record’s most personal track. As the title suggests, the song is an investigation of the nature of selfhood (Riley 1992: 271-2). Yet the song does more than simply offer a contrast between a false public and a pure private self, especially, if, as I believe, one of this song’s key intertexts is Shakespeare’s King Richard III. In this drama, the Duke of Gloucester and later king of England is a master at playing different roles. Throughout the play he presents one face, often of kindness, purity and concern, to other characters, while revealing his true, violent intentions in a conspiracy with himself and the audience. The possible links between Richard and the speaker of “I and I” problematize any easy notions that a purity of intentions automatically comes from listening to one’s heart. “No man sees my face and lives,” sings Dylan in the chorus. Indeed, throughout the play, seeing Richard’s true face leads to death. By the end of the play, when Richard finally confronts himself, when his criminal self and his guilty conscience come together, he too is destined to die. The justice served in this play is like the justice the speaker has learned in “I and I:” “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” This version of justice is applied to Richard when, for example, he is cursed by his mother, “bloody thou art; bloody will be thy end” (4.4.195) and by the ghosts of his victims (5.3.154-5).

William Shakespeare’s arch-villain, King Richard III, uses the phrase “I and I” in one of his most famous soliloquies after a night of horrifying dreams before his defeat and death at the Battle of Bosworth Field (August 1485). The speech comes in act 5.3, after the ghosts of Richard’s victims appear to him. Each promises that he will die in battle and that his adversary, the Earl of Richmond, the future King Henry VII, will be victorious. Richard, awaking in great fear and confusion, cries out:

Give me another horse! Bind up my wounds!

Have mercy, Jesu!—Soft, I did but dream.

O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!

The lights burn blue; it is now dead midnight.

What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by;

Richard loves Richard, that is, I and I.

Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am!

Then fly. What, from myself?


Antony Hammond comments on the significance of “I and I” in this passage: “Richard . . . is distinguishing between aspects of his personality: the clever, witty, self-reliant villain, and the conscience-smitten coward he is just now discovering. He is Legion, devil-in-man; and now the fearful self . . . surfaces and stands beside the willful Vice-demon self that rules Richard’s conscious mind” (Hammond 1981: 340). In other words, “I and I” in this play does not signify unity, either of self or between self and other. Rather, the phrase is part of Richard’s recognition of the other within the self. This recognition leads to condemnation, judgment and death.

In addition to this lexical connection, the opening of Dylan’s song “I and I” gives an ironic twist to the setting in Shakespeare’s play: “Been so long since a strange woman has slept in my bed / Look how sweet she sleeps, how free must be her dreams.” If we take the play as our starting place, the theme of self-division is already apparent. While Richard responds to his own nightmares, the narrator in the song looks at the “strange woman” and imagines that she is sleeping sweetly with “free dreams.” Of course, the narrator cannot know this about his partner, and can only guess about the interior life of another. In Shakespeare’s play, peaceful repose is granted to Richmond, who declares after Richard’s fearful monologue: “The sweetest sleep and fairest-boding dreams / That ever entered in a drowsy head / Have I since your departure had, my lords” (5.3.227-9).

The narrator of the song imagines that his “strange woman” must have been a queen in the past: “In another lifetime she must have owned the world, or been faithfully wed / To some righteous king who wrote psalms beside moonlit streams.” The “righteous king” writing psalms is likely a reference to King David, who according to tradition, had several wives and concubines and was the author of the Biblical Psalms. Dylan’s song may initially seem to set up a key contrast between two visions of kingship: the righteous King David who composes songs peacefully in the moonlight, and the iniquitous King Richard who is awoken by nightmares and engages in monologues of self-division. Yet the Biblical portrayal of King David is ambiguous. God grants David success in battle (2 Samuel 8:6, 8:14) and David rules with “equity and justice” (2 Samuel 8:15). Nevertheless, David’s familial relationships lead to crises throughout his reign. These problems begin when he has sexual relations with Bathsheba while she is still married to Uriah the Hittite. David has Uriah killed in battle, so that he may marry Bathsheba. She laments the loss of her husband (2 Samuel 11:27) and God punishes David with the death of their son, who was conceived out of wedlock. Later David becomes embroiled in a civil war with his son, Absalom. When Absalom is eventually killed, David laments bitterly (2 Samuel 18:23). While David generally has a reputation as an ideal king, his story in the Bible also presents his reign as troubled due to his relationship with Bathsheba while she was another man’s wife (“a strange woman”). This dichotomy also serves as background to the opening verses of “I and I.”

To return to the Shakespearean connections, before his soliloquy, “a strange woman” visits Richard III. The ghost of his wife Queen Anne appears as the penultimate of his victims (5.3.160-67). Anne was not “faithfully wed” to Richard. In the opening of the play Anne condemns Richard for killing her husband and his father, King Henry VI. But through his rhetorical abilities and confessions of love, Richard succeeds in convincing Anne to marry him, even as she is following the funeral cortege of her dead father-in-law (1.2). Once they are married, Anne never enjoys peaceful sleep, but is always wakened by Richard’s nightmares: “For never yet one hour in his bed / Did I enjoy the golden dew of sleep, / But with his timorous dreams was still awaked” (4.1.82-4, see also 5.3.160). Once Richard is king he starts a rumor “that Anne, my Queen, is sick and like to die” (4.2.57). Richard feels that her death is necessary. The sons of his brother Clarence must also die so that he can marry their sister, his niece, Elizabeth (4.2.60-3). Richard tells the murderer of his nephews, James Tyrrel, that the boys are “two deep enemies / foes to my rest, my sweet sleep’s disturbers” (4.2.71-2).

“I and I” also brings together several key ideas that run through Dylan’s corpus. In other writings, Dylan explores the multifaceted nature of the “I.” He does this humorously, playing on the homophony between “I” and “eye” at the end of the liner notes to Highway 61 Revisited: “I cannot say the word eye anymore….when I speak this word eye, it is as if I am speaking of somebody’s eye that I faintly remember….” Writing decades later, at the end of Chronicles, Vol. One about his early influences, such as Robert Johnson and Bertolt Brecht’s “Pirate Jenny,” Dylan notes the importance of Suze Rotolo’s introducing him to Arthur Rimbaud. Dylan writes, “That was a big deal, too. I came across one of his letters called ‘Je suis un autre,’ which translates into ‘I is someone else.’ When I read those words bells went off. It made perfect sense. I wished someone would have mentioned that to me earlier” (Dylan 2004: 288).

His repositioning and reimagining of Shakespeare is well known, from writing of the bard “in the alley / With his pointed shoes and his bells” in “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” (1966), to Desdemona giving Othello “poison wine” in “Po’boy” (2001), to “Murder Most Foul” (2020, see Hamlet 1.5.27-8).[4] “I and I” goes deep into questions of selfhood, self-dialogue, authenticity, and masks. Dylan’s polyvalent personae do not need recounting here. Already early in his career, he could joke to the audience in the Philharmonic Hall Concert on Halloween, 1964, that he was wearing his “Bob Dylan mask.” Shakespeare’s Richard III, too, is a master dissembler. In order to fulfill his plans to become king, he stages himself praying with two priests and pretends that he does not want the crown (3.7).

While I haven’t come across any direct evidence that Dylan was reading Richard III when he was writing “I and I,” in recent years, he has made his interest in the play apparent. In a 2008 interview with Eurozine, Christopher Ricks describes his meeting with Dylan in which the two discussed King Richard III:

Shortly before the concert I received word to come backstage, so my wife and I went half an hour before the show. And Dylan said, “Mr Ricks, we meet at last.” My reply was, “Have you read any good books lately.” . . . And he said, “Richard III.” . . . But Dylan wasn’t at all surprised by my question and he really did want to talk about Richard III. I think it was partly because there had been some films of it and partly because I’d mentioned Richard III in something I’d written about his song “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”[5]  

In Dylan’s Visions of Sin, Ricks identifies traces of Richard’s opening monologue not only in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” (Ricks 2003: 226, 229), but also in “Seven Curses” (Ricks 2003: 236). More recently, Dylan has slightly reworked the opening words of the play, “Now is the winter of our discontent” (1.1.1) in “My Own Version of You” (2020 “Well, it must be the winter of my discontent”). Here Shakespeare/Richard III meets Shelley/Dr. Frankenstein. This recent reference to King Richard III brings out issues of bodily integrity and deformity in the play that only remain latent in “I and I.” A central aspect of Shakespeare’s play is the conviction that bodily appearance reveals moral character. Thus, Richard III is hunchbacked, has a withered arm and a limp, the last of which may have been Shakespeare’s invention (Siemon 2009: 3). Richard himself declares that his body will not allow him to enjoy the current time of peace and so he must be a villain (1.1.14-31). Throughout the play, characters draw attention to Richard’s body, as when his future wife, Anne, calls him “thou foul lump of deformity” (1.2.57). Thus, if we connect the mysterious and bodiless speaker of “I and I” with Richard III, it is important to keep in mind the appearance of Shakespeare’s character.

The song “I and I” might seem like a simple exploration of private vs. public persona, or of the words that one says in public vs. the reality of one’s true self within. This reading might be made especially clear in the line, “Someone else is speakin’ with my mouth, but I’m listening only to my heart.” Yet the connection I have been trying to establish between this song and King Richard III troubles any simple expression of pure internal self that remains hidden behind public words. Richard III’s famous soliloquies represent a “sinister interiority” (Maus 1995: 40) that displays his desire for power, mastery of rhetoric, hypocrisy, ruthless violence, and self-referential dark humor. Richard’s dramatic self-reference and self-reliance can be traced back to Roman drama, both comedy and tragedy. Terence’s comedy Andria has a speaker declare “I myself am nearest to myself” (proxumus sum egomet mihi, 635).[6] A closer parallel to King Richard III can be found in Seneca’s tragedies, which also contain examples of similar declarations of self-reliance as well as self-division. For example, in order to punish Jason for his faithlessness, Seneca’s Medea takes her own self as a model, but also is afflicted with visions of the Furies and of her murdered brother (893-977).[7]

As his soliloquy continues, Richard brings himself before his own internal court and speaks the opposing arguments:

I am a villain. Yet I lie; I am not.

Fool, of thyself speak well. Fool, do not flatter.

My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,

And every tongue brings in a several tale,

And every tale condemns me for a villain.

Perjury, perjury, in the highest degree;

Murder, stern murder, in the direst degree;

All several sins, all used in each degree,

Throng to the bar, crying all, “Guilty, guilty!”


Richard’s “court of the self” can be traced back to the ancient philosophical practice of submitting one’s conscience before a judge each evening in order to investigate and correct the wrongs one has committed throughout the day. Here again Seneca, this time in his philosophical work, On Anger, provides the paradigmatic example: “Anger will stop and become more moderate if it knows that it must come before a judge each day.” Seneca notes that he uses this technique of self-judgment each night after his wife has fallen asleep. The sleep that follows is “tranquil . . . deep and free” (On Anger 3.36.2-3).[8]

Dylan’s song explores this idea of self-dialogue and self-judgment. In addition to the violent exchange between “I and I” (“one says to the other, no man sees my face and lives”), the chorus of Dylan’s song focuses on justice: “I and I / In creation where one’s nature neither honors nor forgives.” The third stanza points out the centrality of the lex talionis: “Took a stranger to teach me, to look into justice’s beautiful face / And to see an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” On one level, we can note an echo of Dylan’s earlier playful interest in the homophony between “I” and “eye.” On another level, the vision of justice in the song can be traced back to the Law Code of Hammurabi. “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” also appears numerous times in the Pentateuch (Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:19-21, Deuteronomy 19:21). Dylan’s song makes a significant change, however. While the ancient law codes enjoined retaliation against another, the phrase “I and I” suggests a mode of self-judgment and self-punishment.[9]

There remains, however, a major objection to my argument. If you look at the most accessible version of the play at, you come to the line under investigation and read, “Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.”[10] If you pull a copy of the play off your shelf or from your local library, it is likely that you will read the same phrase: not “I and I,” but “I am I.” And so it would seem that my entire argument about the key connection between the song and the Shakespearean soliloquy “stands on brittle glass” (4.2.61). In order to address this issue, at times this exploration must enter upon the arcana of textual variants in Shakespeare’s plays that are reminiscent of those explored by Oedipa Maas in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. The reading “I and I” is found only in the first Quarto (Q1) of the play, which was printed in 1597. When the second Quarto (Q2) was printed in the following year, the passage read “I am I.” Every subsequent Quarto (Q3-Q8) and the Folios of the complete works adopted “I am I,” and so it was for modern editions until the late twentieth century. At this point, some scholars began to believe that the reading of Q1 was correct. In 1976, G. Blakemore Evans argued that the reading was mistakenly changed in Q2 due to a typesetter’s “eye skip” (Evans 1976: 46). In other words, Evans surmised that while assembling the type for the end of line 184 (“I and I”) the setter’s eye “skipped” down to the similar end of the next line (“I am” 185) and erroneously changed the “and” to “am.” And so the error remained for centuries until the reading of Q1 was adopted with a lengthy note of justification by Antony Hammond in his second series Arden edition of 1981 (Hammond 1981: 340).[11] Thus the then-new, standard scholarly edition of Richard III was published right around the time that Dylan wrote “I and I” for 1983’s Infidels.[12] Is it too much to think that Dylan got a hold of this text soon after it was released? Was Dylan reading the then-new scholarly edition of King Richard III while writing his “Caribbean songs,” and was he struck by the return of Shakespeare’s startlingly bold description of the self as “I and I”? Admittedly, these possibilities are a stretch. Nevertheless, it is striking that this song shares this phrase.

But what if Shakespeare “really” wrote “I am I”? The scholarly debate concerning these three words from King Richard III continues today. Hammond’s restoration of the reading of Q1 was subsequently adopted by John Jowett in his edition of the play for the Oxford series (2000). Nevertheless, the reading of the later Quartos and the Folios has been adopted by James Siemon in the third series of the Arden edition of King Richard III (2009). In his note (Siemon 2009: 397), Siemon acknowledges the reading of Q1 and of his predecessors, but he does not accept the theory that “I and I” is correct and that the error possibly originated in an eye skip down to the end of the next line (“I am”) by the typesetter of Q2. He dutifully draws attention to other passages that are similar to “I am I” in the Shakespearean corpus, as well as God’s self-definition “I am that I am” in the Bible (Exodus 3.14).[13]

A crucial parallel passage for Siemon is Richard’s earlier “claim to singularity” at the conclusion of Henry VI, Part Three: “I am myself alone” (5.6.83). Yet Siemon misses a key point in the development of Richard from his murder of King Henry VI to his final impending death in his eponymous play. Richard may have fulfilled his determination “to prove a villain,” but in doing so, he eventually realizes that he cannot live up to the declaration of undivided “singularity” that he made at the conclusion of Henry VI, Part 3. Richard’s “I and I” deconstructs the divine ideal of tautological unity (“I am I”) implied by his earlier declaration “I am myself alone” to reveal the self-division and self-judgment that lies at the core of humanity. At the end of his play, Richard is not himself alone, as is implied by the reading “I am I.” Rather, in addition to being joined and judged by the ghosts of his victims, including King Henry VI, Richard is feeling the division inside of him produced by his guilty conscience. This recognition of self-division is best expressed by “I and I.” The tenets of contemporary scholarship and the often unquestioned expectation that print books offer the definitive text may make us feel that we have to choose one version over the other as being correct and genuinely authored by Shakespeare. Nevertheless, Dylan’s own composition and performance method reminds us that we need not accept one version as authoritative to the exclusion of the other.

In his acceptance speech for the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, Dylan compared his method of composition to that of Shakespeare (See analysis of Thomas 2017: 304-10). Questions of meter, music, rhythm, how a passage or line might work when performed matter more to both authors than questions of whether they were composing “literature.” The printed corpus of Dylan’s works is nevertheless very different from that of Shakespeare. We have his notebooks, we have his archives, and we can go to his website to find the copyrighted texts of his songs. We do not have any autograph copies of Shakespeare’s works. The earliest surviving print texts are individual Quarto editions of several of his plays. King Richard III has a particularly long history of eight Quarto editions, which continued to be published even after the 1623 First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s complete works. There are often great differences in the texts of the Quartos and that of the First Folio. These printed editions were likely in part put together from actors’ memories of their performances. Herein lies the problem with relying on one text as providing the “definitive” version of Shakespeare’s plays. They first lived multiple times in performance. Lines and entire scenes were added and removed from performance to performance. Sometimes we can gain a faint view of this practice when we compare different early print editions. Yet we cannot discount the fact that in some early performances the actor playing Richard III said “I and I” and in others said “I am I.” Judging from the number of Quartos produced, King Richard III was a very popular play. Performances could have varied drastically from night to night. Despite the time and effort I have spent researching and writing this piece, I find it doubtful that Shakespeare himself would have cared much whether his actor said “I and I” one night and “I am I” another. He might not have decided which version to use and might have reveled in the richness of both possibilities. In delivering the line in the middle of such a heightened and emotional soliloquy, Shakespeare’s actors themselves might not have been able to remember what exactly they said after their performance. Different members of the audience may have heard different versions during the same performance, if they were able to accurately hear the actors’ words at all. The difference of a couple of consonants likely would not have concerned Shakespeare as much as the overall effect of the play—and how full the theater was.

Herein lies the connection between Shakespeare and Dylan.[14] While we may have the official versions of Dylan’s lyrics, this does not stop Dylan the performer from changing them in concert, either intentionally or unintentionally. Sometimes, these changes are major but “authorized,” such as the versions of “Tangled Up in Blue” from Blood on the Tracks and from Real Live and More Blood, More Tracks, or of “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You” from Nashville Skyline and from the live version during the Rolling Thunder Revue. In some cases I feel that the printed version of a Dylan song does not match what he sings on the album. The controversy over “I and I” further shows how Shakespeare and Dylan are closely related when it comes to scholarly questions of performance and printed text.

It serves as testament to Dylan’s songwriting artistry that a brief song from a largely overlooked period can take us on such a wide-ranging intellectual journey. According to my reading of “I and I,” this journey takes us not only to Shakespeare’s King Richard III, but also to scholarly debates about the text of the play, to themes that run through Dylan’s oeuvre, to questions about his reading and song-writing process while in the Caribbean, to Rastafarianism, as well as to the Bible, and ancient drama and philosophy. The themes of self-division and self-judgment in the song are reminiscent of Richard III’s (or Rimbaud’s) realization that the self is an other. “I and I” contains multitudes.



Cashmore, E. 1979. Rastaman: The Rastafarian Movement in England. London.

Dylan, B. 1983. “I and I.” Infidels. Columbia 38819, released November, 1983. 

_____. 2004. Chronicles Volume 1. New York.

Evans, G. B. 1976. “Shakespeare Restored – once again!” in A. Lancashire, ed. Editing Renaissance Dramatic Texts. New York. 39-56.

Hammond, A. 1981. King Richard III. London.

Love, D. 2021. Liner notes to Bob Dylan. Springtime in New York: The Bootleg Series Vol. 16 1980-1985. Columbia/Legacy19439865802.

Maus, K. 1995. Inwardness and Theater in the English Renaissance. Chicago.

Miola, R. 1994. Shakespeare and Classical Tragedy: The Influence of Plautus and Terence. Oxford.

Muir, A. 2019. Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare: The True Performing of It. Cornwall, UK.

Perry, C. 2021. Shakespeare and Senecan Tragedy. Cambridge.

Ricks, C. 2004. Dylan’s Visions of Sin. London.

Riley, T. 1992. Hard Rain: A Dylan Commentary. New York.

Siemon, J. 2009. King Richard III. London.

Thomas, R. 2007. “The Streets of Rome: The Classical Dylan.” Oral Tradition. 22: 30-56.

_____. 2017. Why Bob Dylan Matters. New York.


[1] Bob Dylan’s Greatest Songs of the 1980s – Rolling Stone

[2] I and I | The Official Bob Dylan Site

[3] Love 2021: 19.

[4] See Muir 2019.

[5] A lesson in Dylan appreciation | Eurozine. See also Muir 2019: 165.

[6] This connection is made by Hammond 1981: 340. The translation is my own. On Shakespeare and Roman comedy, see Miola 1994.

[7] On King Richard III and Senecan tragedy, see Perry 2021: 37-72.

[8] See Siemon 2009: 398 on Richard’s “imaginary courtroom,” and Maus 1995 on the theme of inwardness in Renaissance drama.

[9] In the Gospel of Matthew (5:38-48), Jesus critiques the law of retaliation.

[10] Richard III: Entire Play (

[11] Evans, who along with J. J. M. Tobin, served as general editor of The Riverside Shakespeare. In the second edition (Boston 1997), the line reads “I [am] I.” The New Pelican Text of Shakespeare’s complete works (S. Orgel and A. R. Braunmuller, general editors, London, 2002), prints “I and I.”

[12] The 1983 BBC production of King Richard III also uses “I and I.”

[13] Simeon 2009: 397 cites the following Shakespearean parallels in support of Richard’s “I am I”: King John 1.1.175, As You Like It 4.3.134-6, Twelfth Night 3.1.142 and Othello 1.1.64.

[14] On Dylan’s links with Homeric composition, see Thomas 2007: 48-54.