William Shakespeare's sonnets repurposed into pop songs

In a misguided attempt to bring the Bard's work to a wider audience, Robert Hollingworth has fashioned 11 of the Bard's sonnets into pop songs.

Shakespeare: The Sonnets
Robert Hollingworth
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If there was a moment when Shakespeare came alive for me, it was in an English classroom in the late 1960s, when I and the other 12-year-olds gazing glassy-eyed out of the window were listening to a recording of King Lear, being played for us by a trendy teacher desperate to get something into our thick skulls.

Don’t get me wrong. I was bored to tears and far more interested in the boats sailing past on the nearby river. But then I made the kind of accidental connection that can transform the ordinary by placing it into a fresh context.

It was Act 4, Scene 2, in which Gloucester’s disguised son Edgar slays Oswald, steward to King Lear’s duplicitous daughter Goneril. My ears pricked up when I heard Edgar describe Oswald as “a serviceable villain; as duteous to the vices of thy mistress as badness would desire ...”

I had heard those words before – and Gloucester’s “What, is he dead?”, followed by Edgar’s “Sit you down, father; rest you”.

To my delight I realised I was listening to words I had heard towards the end of The Beatles' song I Am The Walrus, a track on the recently released double-EP Magical Mystery Tour.

I had played the song over and over – especially the ending, with its crazy jumble of dark, hypnotic chanting – and had often wondered about those words.

There was some deliciously symmetrical irony at play here. Later, it emerged in a book by a journalist who was present while the song was being written that John Lennon had penned nonsense lyrics – “Semolina pilchard, climbing up the Eiffel Tower”, etc – with the express intention of bamboozling school teachers who obliged their pupils to seek deeper meaning in The Beatles’ words.

The version of the play I had heard in class had happened to be playing on the radio in the studio during the recording, and Lennon had tossed it into the mix for good measure.

After that, I listened to Shakespeare with different ears.

Now the Bard of Avon finds himself on record again, this time as part of a curious project that takes the words of some of his sonnets as lyrics for pop songs, played on instruments from the Elizabethan period but composed and sung in a modern, folksy idiom.

The recording of 11 of Shakespeare’s sonnets was conceived to dovetail into the Cultural Olympiad, running parallel to the London Olympics, and part of which is the World Shakespeare Festival, dedicated to bringing his work to a wider audience.

But if that is the intent, then perhaps the job would have been better left to the likes of Kanye West, Jay Z or Lupe Fiasco, rather than Robert Hollingworth.  Hollingworth, a former choral scholar at New College, Oxford, is without doubt a great musician, albeit one who, by his own admission, lives “entirely in the 16th-century world”.

His usual thing is belting out madrigals with I Fagiolini, a singing group he formed at Oxford and named as a self-mocking “student joke referring to the apparent connection in the 1980s of early music with vegetarianism”.

Who knows what possessed Hollingworth to turn his hand to writing what he calls “pop songs” – something, perhaps, to do with the sort of self-belief that is standard-issue for Oxford graduates – but turn it, he did.  “I’m not sure you ever need an excuse to work on Shakespeare, but 2012 does seem a very good time,” he said in a recent interview. “There’s a lot of Shakespeare that’s going to be happening [this year], so we thought, ‘Why not the sonnets, but with a twist?’”

Yep, it must have seemed like such a good idea: vocals written during the reign of Elizabeth 1 re-imagined for the reign of Elizabeth II. And yet ...

Turn away and cringe now. The effect is at once anachronistic, patronising and wide of the mark, the musical equivalent of a deluded middle-aged man getting down with the kids in a nightclub and thinking they are laughing with him, rather than at him. To be fair, Hollingworth's tunes are passable pastiches, sung in the main by Robin Scott, an inoffensively competent singer. The problem, however, is that they are pastiches of a long-gone musical era.

The composer’s reference point for “pop music” appears to be trapped somewhere within an infernal triangle defined by Ralph McTell (think Terminus, off the 1969 album Spiral Staircase), early Billy Joel (think You’re My Home, off 1973’s Piano Man) and The Corrs (try not to think at all). The most resonant track in this bracket is Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?, sung by Irish folk singer Cara Dillon). Not that listening to these 11 songs is without entertainment value. After all, it isn’t in every “pop song” that one hears such lines as “And nothing ’gainst Time’s scythe can make defence”, while the abundance of haths, arts, thys and thous certainly makes an interesting change to the normal pop-lyric staples of yeahs, blues, loves and babies.

Curiously, these songs are not saved by their lyrics, “the most precious words ever written about love”, which themselves are diminished by the setting – like a series of perfect diamonds set in a mediocre crown.

If nothing else, the album does offer an opportunity to look again at the British obsession with Shakespeare who, as anyone familiar with Stratford-upon-Avon and London’s South Bank will know, is today as much an industry as a real person.

We know very little about William Shakespeare – from the perspective of documentary evidence, nothing more, in fact, than that he was baptised, married, paid taxes, bought property, sued a couple of debtors and died.

There is no evidence he even went to school, one of the factors that fuels conspiracy theorists who question the authorship of the 34 plays, 155 sonnets and a handful of other poems attributed to him.

Shakespeare was born in 1564 and died in 1616. Most of his plays are believed to have been churned out in a 20-year period, after which the tap was turned off, three years before his death at what in Elizabethan England was the grand old age of 52.

Even more mystery surrounds the 155 sonnets, most of which are dedicated to a man – the “fair youth” – and the rest to a woman – the “dark lady”.

No one knows who either of them were, the identity of “W.H.” (the “onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets”, to whom the volume was dedicated) or even if the publisher, Thomas Thorpe, produced it with the author’s
permission. No matter. Whoever wrote them, these words, and the plays similarly ascribed to their supposed author, are doubtless gems of the English language – and therein lies the difficulty with mucking about with them.

For instance, pinching the odd sonnet here and there and presenting it in non-sequential isolation disconnects it from its complex roots.

Take the track Against That Time, If Ever That Times Comes. It is also known as the 49th sonnet, so numbered in strict reference to its place in the canon in homage to the Elizabethan obsession with the number seven, which was deemed to have near-magical qualities.

Forty-nine, the seventh multiple of seven, was a "climacteric", or critical, number for the Elizabethans, who were thrilled when their queen reached the age of 63 – nine times seven – and suitably superstitiously awed when she died at 70, the 10th climacteric.

In the sonnets, numbers 49 and 63 are evocatively linked, as signposted by the use of the same word at the start of each. Here, however, 49 appears alone, one half of a matching pair, stripped of much meaning.

What would Shakespeare have made of it all – of seeing his name on the songwriting credits: Shakespeare-Scott-Hollingworth?

“Give every man thy ear,” I like to think he would have muttered as he removed the headphones and tossed the iPod to one side, “but few thy voice”.

Jonathan Gornall is a former senior features writer for The National.