Friday, May 8, 2015

Shakespeare & Sons

A few years ago I discovered this really great group called Mumford & Sons. I was awed by the blue-grassy sound to their music and the fact that they were so popular; I love music that has a blue-grass/folk sound to it, but generally find that that isn't what gets played on the radio. Being the avid Shakespeare fanatic that I am, I immediately connected the title of their debut album Sigh No More with the song "Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more" from Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. I wondered if the reference had been intentional, or if Mumford & Sons had just hit on the name themselves and the album had nothing to do with Shakespeare.

However, in a recent performance of Shakespeare's play that I attended, I recognized the line "man is a giddy thing" as being quoted in the title track of Sigh No More. After that I returned to the song, convinced now that Mumford & Sons had been fully intentional in quoting Much Ado. What I found this time around was very exciting for the English Major in me: The song "Sigh No More," after which their first album is named, quotes about six lines from Much Ado About Nothing. And it gets better. Mumford & Sons quotes lines from other Shakespeare plays in at least two other songs on the album. At this point, my literary analysis brain had gone into fifth gear and my esteem for Mumford & Sons had gone through the roof. It isn't everyday you find out one of your favorite bands quotes Shakespeare in three separate songs. I don't know how many people have noticed this; maybe I'm just a latecomer to the party and everyone is laughing at me right now because they all figured this out years ago. But I'm going to assume that the average casual listener hasn't noticed this trend in Mumford & Sons, so join me, if you feel inclined, as I delve a little more deeply into the content of Mumford & Sons' poetic masterpiece Sigh No More.

The opener: "Sigh No More"

Firstly, consider the first stanza of Shakespeare's poem of the same name, which appears as a song in his comedy Much Ado About Nothing:

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more.
    Men were deceivers ever,
One foot in sea, and one on shore,
    To one thing constant never.
Then sigh not so, but let them go,
    And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
    Into hey nonny, nonny.
(As a side note, we might ask ourselves how the Mumford & Sons' song would have turned out differently if the band had decided that the line "hey nonny, nonny" was a must have.)

A little background

This is not the time or place for an in-depth summary of Much Ado About Nothing, but the play centers on two of Shakespeare's most beloved characters, Beatrice and Benedick, who have forsworn love and engage in witty and insulting repartee whenever they meet. At one point, Benedick exclaims that marriage is like "thrust[ing] thy neck into a yoke, wear the print of it and sigh away Sundays" (1.1.). As you've probably already guessed, the two end up falling madly in love and declare their intent to marry each other at the play's conclusion. When his friends tease him for entering into marriage after he has spent his whole life bashing it, Benedick protests that "man is a giddy thing" or rather, man is changeable, and his past opinions should not be held against him. (5.4.)

The song

Mumford & Sons' "Sigh No More" opens with the line "Serve God, love me, and mend," a direct quote from Much Ado About Nothing. About mid-play, when things are at their darkest, Benedick asks Beatrice how she is holding up. When she replies that she is "very ill," he replies, "serve God, love me, and mend" (5.2.). 

The rest of the verse proceeds:
This is not the end
Live unbruised we are friends
And I'm sorry
I'm sorry
 In the final scene of Much Ado, Benedick and his best friend, Claudio, make up after having been set at odds through a miscommunication. Benedick tells Claudio that he would have beaten him if the duel they previously scheduled had taken place, but as it is, he tells him to "live unbruised." The two have a bit of sporting repartee after which Benedick exclaims, "Come, come, we are friends" (5.4.).

Though I'm not sure that any of the characters in Much Ado ever utter directly the line "I'm sorry," it applies to at least half of them and is implicit in many of the things they say in the play's final scenes. This apology could be that of Claudio and Don Pedro, who suspected the innocent young Hero of being untrue to her fiance; or that of Benedick and Claudio to each other after a turn of events renders their previously scheduled duel irrelevant. Possibly Benedick and Beatrice speak it to each other when they agree to put their history of quarreling and insulting behind them. There are multiple other characters who stand in a position to apologize as well, but the point is that the line is very fitting where it stands in the song.
The second verse runs:
Sigh no more, no more
One foot in sea, one on shore
My heart was never pure
You know me
You know me 
The first two lines may sound familiar, and if you take another look at the Shakespeare poem I've quoted above, you'll see why:
Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more.
    Men were deceivers ever,
One foot in sea, and one on shore,
    To one thing constant never.
 Obviously, the first two lines of this verse borrow from Shakespeare's poem. But I think the lines that follow are also very apt in the context of Much Ado. I like to think they could be spoken by Benedick to Beatrice - she knows him well, and in knowing him perhaps knows that his heart was never pure. As Benedick says to Beatrice in the play, "Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably" (5.2.).

The song continues:
And man is a giddy thing
Oh man is a giddy thing
Oh man is a giddy thing
Oh man is a giddy thing
Continuing the theme of the preceding verse, this line isolates and calls attention to the changeability of man and his opinions, "to one thing constant never." If the speaker is the same as that of the previous verse, he seems to be apologizing for his past behavior, citing his fallible nature - which was never wholly devoted to one thing - and man's tendency towards inconstancy. And, of course, this line comes directly from the play (Act 5. Scene 4.).

But the line "man is a giddy thing," standing as it does at the crux or turning point of the song, could also signify the speaker's changing attitudes towards love, especially since this line transitions us from a tragic apology to a more upbeat celebration of love. "Man is a giddy thing" might mean that man is capable of changing his behaviors and attitudes; hence this line moves us out of the speaker's apology for his past behavior and into a declaration that he is now putting all that behind him.

If you were wondering when the song was finally going to pick up - it's now. We have the characteristic Mumford & Sons decisive plucking of a chord followed by a slow upward swing in tempo, and that moves us into the chorus, or climax, of the song:
Love will not betray you
Dismay or enslave you
It will set you free
Be more like the man
You were made to be.
There is a design
And alignment to cry
Of my heart to see
The beauty of love
As it was made to be.
I think the subdued but heartfelt opening of this song followed by the exuberant climax makes this possibly Mumford & Sons' most rousing song. And by rousing I mean it takes the listener on a journey that begins in fallibility and regret and ends in jubilation and freedom. At least, it has that effect on me; call me melodramatic if you like, I don't care. If we return to Much Ado for one final moment of analysis, we might note that the song's climax mirrors Benedick's and Beatrice's transformation in the play. Though initially scorning marriage and fearing that it will "enslave" or "betray" them if they give it rein, the lovers find in the end that love, far from enslaving them, has set them free.

Other tracks on the album

Needless to say, I was pretty ecstatic when I figured all this out, but that's just a beginning. I'd long suspected that the title of the song "I Gave You All" on the same album was borrowed from Shakespeare's King Lear, but I couldn't find any other lines from the play in that song (I'm still hopeful - I just haven't found them yet). However, when I discovered a direct quotation from Macbeth in another song on the album, I figured I had proof enough to decide that "I Gave You All" was in fact a reference to Shakespeare.

"I Gave You All" is, with the exception of "Dust Bowl Dance" - which can be truly scary and always seems to come on whenever I'm in a particularly stressful situation, or maybe it's just that the song renders everything stressful (don't get me wrong I love it) - the most "angry" song on the album. But it's not just a screaming rant; it's a brilliantly crafted song that moves the listener through a series of emotions and leads her gradually up to the song's high point and then back down, and it ends with a low moan of loss and betrayal. The song's lyrics and structure seem to echo Shakespeare's great tragedy King Lear, in which the title character divides his kingdom up between his two older daughters, who proceed to misuse, abuse, and abandon him. Exasperated, Lear cries to his daughters, "I gave you all!" (2.4.) When his daughters refuse to invite him into the house in the wake of nightfall and a coming storm, Lear rages upon the heath in the midst of thunder, lightning, and rain. The scene upon the heath seems suggested by several lyrics in Mumford & Sons' song, such as the opening, "Rip the earth in two with your mind," which seems especially apt since Lear begins to lose his sanity at this point in the play. The song thus draws from the tragedy, anger, and bewilderment of King Lear in order to tap into the play's moments of darkness and tempest and achieve a deeper sense of loss. One final observation: the line "your tears feel warm as they fall on my forearms" from the song seems to echo the moment when Lear, towards the end of the play, awakes to find his young and faithful daughter Cordelia at his side. In the initial confusion of waking, Lear states, "mine own tears / do scald like molten lead" and when he recognizes his daughter Cordelia he asks, "be your tears wet?"

The quotation from Shakespeare's Macbeth appears in the song "Roll Away Your Stone" on the same album (Sigh No More). In Act 1, Scene 4, Macbeth, the title character, states, "Stars, hide your fires; / Let not light see my black and deep desires." Similarly, Mumford & Sons' song states, "Stars, hide your fires / These here are my desires / And I won't give them up to you this time around." The rest of the song, with its emphasis on darkness and man's inner character, or soul, seems particularly relevant to Macbeth.

The rest of the songs on the album are spectacular, but I have yet to discover any more Shakespeare lyrics in them, and I don't think there are any on the band's second album, Babel, which is, nevertheless, brilliant. I'll be on the lookout, however, and if you happen to find any, let me know! Their newest album, Wilder Mind, was just released earlier this week, so there's plenty more opportunity for analyzing Mumford and Sons' lyrics.

Thanks for taking this ride with me, and here's to lots more Mumford & Sons listening - and Shakespeare reading/watching - in the future!