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!


  1. I visited Stratford upon Avon today. I am a big fan of Mumford and sons, however, I have never had the chance to read Shakespeare in great detail. I saw a group performing the poem Sigh no more in Shakespeare's birthplace, and it clicked that the song from Mumford and Sons is somehow related. I started searching on the web and landed on your page. Thank you for writing the detailed analysis. I appreciate the album even more. And I have ordered my first Shakespeare book to read - Much Ado about Nothing :) Cheers, Mukul

    1. Wow! I'm so glad you enjoyed this! Sometimes I think no one's reading my random analyses on here. (: Enjoy Much Ado About Nothing! That's a great one.

  2. This was lovely to read! I had found four of the six quotations and am very pleased that there are more!

  3. I just got home from a production of Much Ado About Nothing that was performed at Kansas City's annual Shakespeare in the Park. Two things caught my attention - the words Sigh No More in the opening passage of the song, and the phrase "Man is a giddy thing" towards the end. I felt that Mumford and Sons MUST have borrowed those from Much Ado. If it had been just one thing, I may have not given it another thought. But, since there were TWO things I felt compelled to check it out when I got home. I was delighted to find this site and shocked at how many more references there were that I missed. Thank you so much for this great analysis!

  4. Thank you so much Erin! Despite having heard the song a ton of times, the lyrics struck my heart in a glimpse of emotional alignment today. I have been on the verge of tears all day, listening to the lyrics over and over again. Without knowing what I was searching for, I googled it, and came across your blog. Thank you in particular, for putting some very meaningful words to the sentence 'man is a giddy thing'. I feel a powerful connection to the crux you describe (how an opening to my heart very litterally changes me), and a heartfelt re-discovery that I truly can be more like the man I was meant to be.
    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, so I could find them today, and pour a little bit of myself to a perfect stranger.

    1. You're welcome! So glad you enjoyed it and yeah, it's an amazing song.

  5. Hi Erin. I really enjoyed your analysis. I will definitely listen to the whole album more carefully! Thank you for sharing. -Paola

  6. I just started reading a book called “The Soul of Shame” after getting midway through the book “Anatomy of the Soul,” both by Curt Thompson, and both mind-blowing to me. Suffice it to say, I am currently very much IN MY HEAD, realizing that shame permeates much of me, and I face what I perceive to be the hard work of undoing myself:) ANYWAY, this morning I heard “Sigh No More” sung by Audrey Assad; I had not heard of the song and was blown away in how it spoke to me - like a whispered, “I know you, and I love you.” My google search for the lyrics and to figure out what “an alignment to cry” meant led me to you and this fascinating read. I love words but am terrible at poetry, or really any kind of abstract literary interpretation, so thank you for this little treasure! You were a small part of my undoing;) the best of ways!

  7. Thank you for sharing this! We're finishing up MAAN in my literature class, and I'm making one of the essay options a song analysis of Sigh No More. I did a quick search to see if anyone had written on the song in light of the play and was delighted to find your post!

    If you're interested in other literary references and allusions in the album, I've stumbled upon a few over the years. You may have already recognized the allusion to The Odyssey in The Cave "Tie me to a post and block my ears," but there's another reference just after in the line about coming out of one's cave walking on their hands. This is from the biography of St. Francis of Assisi written by G. K. Chesterton where he describes Francis after his conversion as like coming out of a cave of selfishness walking on your hands, seeing the world upside-down, and seeing a theme of dependence because no longer are the trees standing, but they are grabbing onto what is now the ceiling. The other reference, and probably my favorite, is the whole song of Timshel. It's taken from East of Eden by John Steinbeck/Genesis 4 in the Bible. It's a Hebrew word and it's translation is the subject of some debate. How you translate the word 'timshel' has theological and philosophical implications. In Genesis 4 before Cain kills his brother Abel, but after his offering is rejected, God tells Cain that death is at his doorstep (i.e. nearby) and its desire is for him (i.e. to dominate and master Cain), but timshel overcome it. The word can be translated as 'you will,' 'you can,' or 'you may' overcome sin. Ultimately the most accurate rendering of the mysterious Hebrew word is the last one: "you may overcome sin" that is to say you have to want to be good. The song Timshel is beautiful on its own, but knowledge of the brothers in East of Eden makes the song richer, and that killer line sums up that 500 page masterpiece by Steinbeck, "And you have your choices, and this is what makes man great, his ladder to the stars."

    I realize that I'm commenting on this post years after it went up, so if in the meantime you've discovered more clever literary references in the album, please let me know

    1. This is fascinating! I'm so glad you shared. I know Mumford & Sons use a lot of Biblical allusions in their songs, and I'd read that Timshel is inspired by the Bible, but I didn't really know much more than that. The East of Eden allusion is also fascinating. Thanks for your insights!