Well, Shakespeare, He’s in the Alley
Scott Newstok, author of “How to Think Like Shakespeare,” on the amazing talents that helped Bob Dylan and James Baldwin do just that.
* This post was handpicked to feature in Substack Reads, a weekly roundup of writing, ideas and art from the world of Substack. Posts are recommended by staff and readers, and curated and edited from Substack's UK outpost. Hats off to Scott Newstok and TFP! (Except for you, Bob.)
By Scott Newstok
Many have chronicled the Shakespearean echoes across Dylan’s career, whether nodding to play titles (Tempest), characters (Ophelia in “Desolation Row”), phrases (“Murder Most Foul,” from Hamlet), or more general inspiration (“I’ve been trying for years to come up with songs that have the feeling of a Shakespearean drama”).
But as both a teacher of Shakespeare and a lifelong Dylan fan looking forward to The Philosophy of Modern Song, Dylan’s first book since his 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, I remain most fascinated by his invocations of Shakespeare’s artistic process — championing the poet’s freedom to create from any source whatsoever.
In response to 2012 accusations of plagiarism, Dylan reminded an interviewer that similar charges had dogged him since 1963: “If you think it’s so easy to quote … do it yourself and see how far you can get” — a line that echoes Vergil’s response to charges he had plagiarized Homer: “And why don’t they try the same thefts? They would soon understand that it’s easier to pinch Hercules’ club than a line from Homer.”
As Woody Guthrie, Dylan’s idol from the start, once said of another songwriter: “Aw, he just stole from me, but I steal from everybody.” Dylan, to his credit, insists that quotation is a rich and enriching tradition: “It goes way back … you make it yours.” And he’s long had no problem making Shakespeare his, as in “Tin Angel,” released in 2012, where he borrows from one of the bard’s most famous creations, The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, itself borrowed from novelist Masuccio Salernitano, who first set the story down in words around 1476:
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
Dylan’s confided, in a rare speech about his own music in 2015, that “These songs of mine, they’re like mystery stories, the kind that Shakespeare saw when he was growing up. I think you could trace what I do back that far. … These songs didn’t come out of thin air. … It all came out of traditional music.”
In an interview that same year, he recounts the influence of late-night radio shows in the late 1940s and 50s: “I remember listening to the Staple Singers’ ‘Uncloudy Day.’ And it was the most mysterious thing I’d ever heard. It was like the fog rolling in. What was that? How do you make that? … I felt that life itself was a mystery.”
“With lacerating insight, Baldwin writes: ‘My relationship, then, to the language of Shakespeare revealed itself as nothing less than my relationship to myself and my past.’ I believe Bob Dylan, born Robert Allen Zimmerman in an observant Jewish family, would likely echo Baldwin’s words.”
As someone who grew up in Dylan’s Duluth and now resides in Memphis, I love that idea of the Staples’ voices reaching him across the airwaves, all the way from the Delta to the top of Highway 61. That word “mystery” recurs, referring not only to something mysterious, but also to craft, in the sense of the arcane knowledge (“mystery”) that medieval guilds would have transmitted between master and apprentice — senses that converged when those same craft guilds performed religious “mystery” plays.
That Shakespearean overtone of “making” permeates Dylan’s Nobel acceptance speech as well. “When he was writing Hamlet,” Dylan, said, “I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: ‘Who’re the right actors for these roles?’ ‘How should this be staged?’ ‘Do I really want to set this in Denmark?’ His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. ‘Is the financing in place?’ ‘Are there enough good seats for my patrons?’ ‘Where am I going to get a human skull?’ … like Shakespeare, I too am often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavors and dealing with all aspects of life’s mundane matters. ‘Who are the best musicians for these songs?’ ‘Am I recording in the right studio?’ ‘Is this song in the right key?’ Some things never change, even in 400 years.” Even this speech is another instance of Dylan’s “Love and Theft” (the title of his 31st studio album, released in 2001)—some of it, a fact that soon went viral, seems to have been cribbed from SparkNotes.
There’s nothing innate about a Jewish kid from northern Minnesota tuning in to a gospel family from the segregated south, just as there was nothing innate about a Warwickshire lad tuning in to distant peoples and distant times, nor was there anything innate about a lamed Greek slave like Aesop plucking stories and making them his own. As Terence, another ex-slave freed by his wit, has one of his characters proclaim, “I am human: nothing human is alien to me.”
James Baldwin’s writing charted the oscillation between alienation and ownership. In the autobiographical preface that precedes Notes of a Native Son, he conceded that he initially brought to Shakespeare “a special attitude: These were not really my creations, they did not contain my history; I might search in them in vain forever for any reflection of myself. I was an interloper; this was not my heritage.”
Yet he then pivots: “I would have to appropriate these white centuries, I would have to make them mine.” There’s that language of making mine again. In an edition revised decades later, Baldwin reiterates, even more forcefully: “I had to claim my birthright. I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am, also, much more than that. So are we all.”
While Baldwin’s exclusions were more brutally pervasive than Dylan’s or Shakespeare’s ever were, the refrain remains the same: becoming “the heir of a cultural birthright.” This sense of earning our—your—common cultural stock goes back through Seneca (“The best ideas are common property … whatever is well said by anyone is mine”) to Isocrates (“The deeds of the past are … an inheritance common to us all”).
Baldwin composed an essay for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth with the jarring title “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare.” Initially, Baldwin condemned him as “one of the authors and architects of my oppression.” Yet he eventually realizes that his resistance to Shakespeare was a resistance to English itself, and that living in France had given a new relationship with his own language: “My quarrel with the English language has been that the language reflected none of my experience. But now I began to see the matter in quite another way. If the language was not my own, it might be the fault of the language; but it might also be my fault. Perhaps the language was not my own because I had never attempted to use it, had only learned to imitate it.”
Baldwin saw that he must move beyond the necessary but early stage of imitation, to the stage that internalizes that exterior voice, synthesizing it into one’s own … ultimately, an act of freedom. This sense of responsibility — of responsiveness, of responding — to Shakespeare emerges in concert with Baldwin’s reflection on the blues, jazz, and the sorrow songs: “The authority of this language was in its candor, its irony, its density, and its beat: this was the authority of the language which produced me, and it was also the authority of Shakespeare.” With lacerating insight, Baldwin concludes: “My relationship, then, to the language of Shakespeare revealed itself as nothing less than my relationship to myself and my past.”
I believe Bob Dylan, born Robert Allen Zimmerman in an observant Jewish family, would likely echo Baldwin’s words. There’s a classic political distinction between negative liberty and positive liberty. It’s the difference between “freedom from” (as in, I am slave to no man) and “freedom to” (as in, I am my own master). At first, Baldwin sought freedom from having to read Shakespeare; yet he came to relish the freedom to make Shakespeare his own. In doing so, Baldwin achieved a mutual recognition in Shakespeare that few of us ever reach—“an inner freedom which cannot be attained in any other way” than through inhabiting other minds through art, according to Ernst Cassirer.
Dylan, unlike Baldwin, grew up white in America—albeit a white Jew who felt out of place, to say the least, in northern Minnesota. And his spiritual journey, which included a “born again” Christian phase, has been complicated and well documented. But, like Baldwin’s, it’s also been tireless, and holds a special place for Shakespeare and his work, which like everything else in his artistic life, he has truly made his own.
The First Person with Michael Judge is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.