‘Hamlet,’ Hank and the Bard

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The Bard and country music have more similarities than you’d think — one being explorations of tragedy. Sure, Dolly sang about her ‘Romeo,’ but why hasn’t there been more coming together of the two?

A summer Shakespeare festival isn’t the first place you’d turn looking for good country music.


But L.A.’s Independent Shakespeare Co., which is in the midst of its annual run at the old zoo in Griffith Park, has inserted a surprising albeit fitting country music spotlight in its production of “Hamlet,” which continues Sundays through Aug. 28.

Without completely robbing the show of the element of surprise, let’s just say that during one pivotal scene, a gravedigger starts singing Hank Williams’ lovelorn classic “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”

Hear that lonesome whippoorwill

He sounds too blue to cry

The midnight train is whining low

I’m so lonesome I could cry

As it turns out, the song made it into the show more by happenstance than design.

“I’m pretty sure Luis Galindo, the actor, used it as sort of a placeholder one day, because we didn’t yet have the music to the song Shakespeare provided,” said the company’s artistic director, Melissa Chalsma.

“Luis grew up in Houston, and Hank Williams music is a big part of his life,” she said. “It felt right to hear those lyrics and that tune come out of his mouth. And, the theme of that song — loneliness and isolation — is a beautiful reflection of both the ultimate loneliness of a graveyard (‘all men die alone,’ and all that) and also Hamlet’s subjective experience of being alone in the world. Not to mention Ophelia’s trajectory, who literally is so lonely she dies!

“So I suggested we keep it, and we even amplified and highlighted its use.”

Indeed, the country music great was often referred to as “the hillbilly Shakespeare,” and this use prompts the question: Why haven’t Shakespeare and country music come together more often?

“Country music deals so unabashedly with big feelings — just like tragedy,” Chalsma said. “I thought the audience would connect to the song.”

Country music has long been a place where songwriters explore romantic tragedy using language as compact and colorful as the Bard of Avon’s. Clever couplets, vivid imagery and unexpected turns of phrase are the stock in trade of both.

In modern times, Shakespeare’s work is often placed among the pinnacles of high art in the Western world; just the opposite of country music, which is strongly rooted in the lives and concerns of regular folk. But the two are, historically speaking, closely connected.

“It’s always ironic to me when people start talking about Shakespeare as being so highfalutin’,” said Thomas Bradac, founder of Shakespeare Orange County and a theater professor at Chapman University in Orange. “The poetry was always considered high art, and the sonnets, but the plays themselves were the dime novels of their day. That’s why the royalty didn’t go to them, and why they got kicked out of London and moved to the South Bank, next to the whorehouses.”

Some directors have set productions of “Taming of the Shrew” in the Old West to help audiences connect better with Shakespeare’s treatise on gender stereotypes, while the Bard’s best-known themes and characters have occasionally surfaced as country song fodder.

Taylor Swift’s hit “Love Story” may be the most recent example, one in which the young singer-songwriter cast herself and her would-be love as Shakespeare’s star-crossed couple. Except she added a happy ending.

Romeo, save me, they’re trying to tell me how to feel.

This love is difficult, but it’s real.

Don’t be afraid, we’ll make it out of this mess,

It’s a love story, baby, just say, “Yes.”

Country group Diamond Rio scored a Top 20 hit back in 1993 with it’s wittily titled “This Romeo Ain’t Got Julie Yet.” That same year, Dolly Parton even threw in a bit of Shakespearean language in her playful single “Romeo,” which envisioned a woman on the dance floor looking for her ideal of romantic perfection:

Hey Romeo where art thou

Get out here on the floor

I want to dance you darlin’

‘Til you forget wherefore

In 1968, just as Jerry Lee Lewis was reviving his career with a long string of country music hits, he played the scheming Iago in “Catch My Soul,” a rock musical version of Shakespeare’s “Othello” staged in L.A. Lewis’ performance, by most accounts, was the highlight of the production.

The life of idiosyncratic producer, engineer and country songwriter Cowboy Jack Clement was explored in the 2005 documentary “Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan,” a film in which Kris Kristofferson likened Clement to Shakespeare’s larger-than-life jester Falstaff. Clement, as it turns out, also happens to be a big Shakespeare fan.

Former Columbia Records talent scout and producer and ’50a TV show host Mitch Miller, who helped launch Tony Bennett’s career by persuading him to sing Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart,” once said he thought Williams’ music could reach far beyond the country audience because “he had a way of reaching your guts and your head at the same time. No matter who you were — a country person or a sophisticate — the language hit home.”

Just like William Shakespeare.

In an essay from the early 2000s, “Country Matters: Shakespeare and Music in the American South,” writer Robert Sawyer noted significant parallels between the lives of Shakespeare and Williams and cited a number of country songs that referenced the playwright or his works.

“Like the barbed fences that separate the livestock from the farmland so often evoked in songs from the American South,” Sawyer concluded, “arbitrary barriers between country music and Shakespeare are constantly being overrun, torn down and rendered useless.”


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--Randy Lewis