‘WITH HIS POINTED SHOES AND HIS BELLS’: Review of: Andrew Muir, ‘The True Performing Of It: Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare’

Review of:

Andrew Muir, The True Performing Of It: Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare

Penryn (UK): Red Planet Books, 2019, paperback, 368 pp., ISBN 978-1-9127-3395-8

**

This was a book waiting to be written. With Bob Dylan’s literary credentials burning bright since his 2016 Nobel, and with the man from Minnesota now being increasingly acknowledged as one of the greatest artists of modern times, it is entirely apposite that a study like this should bring Dylan into direct comparison and interaction with another figure considered among the key creators of his time (if not all time), William Shakespeare. The author, Andrew Muir, is more than qualified for the endeavour, having already published on both to the tune of one book on Shakespeare and three on Dylan, the latter including in particular, Razor’s Edge: Bob Dylan and the Never Ending Tour (Helter Skelter Publishing, 2001) and Troubadour: Early and Late Songs of Bob Dylan (Woodstock Publications, 2003).

Muir’s self-defined brief is nothing if not ambitious (the title too – The True Performing Of It – aims high, being a direct quotation from A Midsummer Night’s Dream). The volume is, approximately, structured as follows: Dylan and Shakespeare as parallel cultural figures and as performing artists or ‘bards’; ‘Shakespeare in Dylan’ (Shakespearean quotations and references in Dylan’s work); ‘Dylan in Shakespeare’ (use of Dylan’s work in Shakespeare performances’); issues of use of sources, biblical allusions and plagiarism/intertextuality in both; and, finally, an extended compare-and-contrast exercise on The Tempest, Shakespeare’s late-period gem, and the similarly titled Tempest, to date Dylan’s last self-penned album.

The author commences by affirming that ‘Bob Dylan has been regularly compared to Shakespeare for many years’, both for the ‘scope and depth’ of his work and its ‘style and quality’ (5). He also recalls that Dylan said in 1998: ‘Have you ever seen a Shakespeare play? … It’s like the English language at its peak’ (6), and stresses how the son of Duluth, like the Swan of Avon, has enriched the English tongue with numerous unforgettable phrases that, as Muir puts. it, are now ’embedded in our language’ (242). For Muir, both are bards in the sense of a lyric poet who stands as the ‘voice of a people’, be it of a nation or a group (13), with the capacity to  ‘influence the language, and therefore the minds, of their and future generations’ (14). In this context, he takes for both Shakespeare and Dylan the line that both are fundamentally performance artists, with live performance (Shakespeare’s plays on stage, Dylan’s songs in concert) having priority over the published play or the lyrics on the page. Muir thus comes down on the performance side in the ‘poet versus performer’ debate in Dylan studies, while in no moment negating the singer’s immense poetic gifts (he includes a useful account of Dylan’s Nobel and its vicissitudes, bringing to the fore inter alia the enthused reaction of Kazuo Ishiguro, the Anglo-Japanese writer who would prove to be the following year’s laureate (55-63)).

Regarding the Shakespearean presence in Dylan, Muir duly notes a whole series of instances, in both prose and verse. For Dylan’s prose writings, Shakespearean allusions in Tarantula (163) and Chronicles Volume One are credited and there is a useful if non-exhaustive list at the end of Shakespeare references in Dylan’s miscellaneous prose (interviews and speeches), the Nobel lecture included (356-359).

What matters most, however, are the Shakespeare quotations and allusions in the songs. Muir reminds us that Dylan mentions Shakespeare by name on Blonde on Blonde, as a character in ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again’ (‘like one of the court jesters from his plays’ (143). He also notes that on Highway 61 Revisited, ‘Desolation Row’ showcases the love-lorn Ophelia from Hamlet with a whole stanza to herself (143-146), though curiously Muir does not mention the appearance in the very same song of a lovestruck Romeo (but with Cinderella rather than Juliet). Properly logged, however, is Romeo’s return – this time alongside Juliet – on “Love and Theft” in ‘Floater (Too Much to Ask)’, as well as the fact that on the same album ‘Po’ Boy’ features the husband and wife protagonists of Othello, the eponymous hero and Desdemona, with their roles reversed (146-147).

Muir also points out how a number of the Basement Tapes songs (‘Too Much of Nothing’, ‘Nothing Was Delivered, ‘Tears of Rage’, ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’), even if not quoting directly, are infused with the themes (anger, filial ingratitude, nothingness) of King Lear (154). As Muir notes, ‘Tears of Rage’ asks: ‘Oh what dear daughter   ‘neath the sun / Could treat a father so / To wait upon him hand and foot / And always tell him no ?’ (157), while ‘Too Much of Nothing’ points back in its title to Lear’s ’Nothing will come of nothing: speak again’ (154). The author also reminds us that, still on King Lear, ‘Handy Dandy’, from Under The Red Sky, echoes in its title a line from that play (indeed, a remarkably Dylanesque Shakespearean line, namely ‘Handy-dandy: which is the justice and which the thief?’) (162).

The above quotations and allusions are picked up and commented on by the author. However, he has not cottoned on to a number of additional, and important, Shakespeare-in-Dylan quotes. In ‘Forgetful Heart’, from Together Through Life, the image of the ‘walking shadow’ comes direct from the famous ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’ soliloquy in Macbeth. Shakespeare also strikes twice on the Tell-Tale Signs compilation (The Bootleg Series Vol. 8), in the outtake version of  ‘Ain’t Talkin’’, which returns to Hamlet (and Ophelia) as it evokes ‘the primrose path’ [to hell], and in ‘Can’t Escape From You’, which tellingly quotes the famous aphorism from As You Like It, ‘All the world’s a stage’.

More quotations and more allusions are no doubt waiting to be unearthed; and if Muir has not located every Shakespeare quote in the Dylan canon, he has certainly whetted scholars’ appetite to track down more (he also sensibly rules out some potential connections as far-fetched – as with the phrase ‘twelfth night’ from the title track of Highway 61 Revisited, which, indeed, would not seem to have much to do with Shakespeare’s play of that name (135)).

The theme of Shakespeare-in-Dylan is balanced by that of Dylan-in-Shakespeare, and here Muir, as an avid follower of Shakespeare performances, provides information on theatre and cinema versions of Shakespeare that include Dylan material and may not be widely known among Dylanites. He cites, among others, a production of Hamlet (directed by Robert Icke at London’s Almeida Theatre in 2017) (181-189), which incorporated extracts from numerous Dylan songs, as well as a film version of Cymbeline, directed by Michael Almereyda in 2014, which features Dylan’s song from Empire Burlesque, ‘Dark Eyes’ (178-181). These phenomena reinforce the connection of the two bards and provide further evidence, were it needed, for the universality of Dylan’s work.

On more general matters relevant to both Dylan and  Shakespeare, Muir’s study pays close attention to textual issues of sources and intertextuality – an issue which has of course come to the fore in more recent times with (readers will recall the well-known cases of Junichi Saga, Henry Timrod and Ovid).  On the vexed subject of ‘intertextuality versus plagiarism’ in Dylan’s work (243-266), our author comes down firmly on the side of the former (i.e. Dylan does not steal, he transforms), thus aligning himself with the likes of Richard Thomas and Stephen Scobie rather than taking the Joni Mitchell ‘thieving’ line. Indeed, Muir compares Dylan’s creatuve incorporation of source material with Shakespeare’s similar practice, quoting at length the famous speech ‘The barge she sat in’ from Antony and Cleopatra and its source in Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives (243-244). Here Muir shows how Shakespeare enriches and transforms the source material even as he incorporates it (as, be it added, Dylan does with Ovid in the Modern Times version of ‘Ain’t Talkin”).

With regard to the specific nature of Shakespeare’s and Dylan’s sources, Muir stresses how both have in common the large-scale mining of the Bible and the Greek and Latin classics.  Dylan’s use of biblical material – not only in his ‘Christian period’ but right across his career before and since – has received much attention, and comparing it with Shakespeare’s can only help deepen the study of this vital aspect of the Dylan œuvre. Regarding the Greco-Roman classics, Muir amply shows – especially in his chapter comparing Tempest and The Tempest, and acknowledging and drawing on the recent groundbreaking work of Richard Thomas in this field -– how these foundational texts of Western culture have left their traces in the more recent Dylan, not only in the by now well-worn case of Ovid, but also for Homer, Virgil and more – Homer, for example, being echoed in a number of songs on Tempest (305).

Andrew Muir’s volume ends with him reiterating the importance of ‘tracing the parallels between these two giants of performing and literary arts’ (354) and recalling with a devotee’s force how ‘Shakespeare and Dylan have been central to my adult life’ (362). All in all, it offers a highly convincing case, spelt out with the requisite textual detail, for the importance and fertility of the Dylan-Shakespeare connection on both causal (source-oriented) and qualitative (comparative) grounds. Where the book does to a certain extent fall down is concerning presentation. The font, it has to be said, is small, and the index is a shade chaotic and, above all, incomplete. Both those cavils would of course be answered should an electronic version be made available. For the moment, Andrew Muir deserves to be congratulated on marshalling so much persuasive evidence in defence of linking the work of the two vital bards, in such a way as to disarm the sceptics and mark a further step forward in the constantly expanding world of Dylan studies.

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