2 May 2023

Comparing Taylor Swift to William Shakespeare

8:46 pm on 2 May 2023
Taylor Swift arrives at the 2022 MTV Video Music Awards held at the Prudential Center on August 28, 2022 in Newark, New Jersey

Photo: AFP

What do Taylor Swift and William Shakespeare have in common? More than you might think, it turns out.

There's even a Buzzfeed quiz comparing her lyrics with lines from Shakespeare's poems.

Eminent Shakespeare scholar and former Oxford professor Sir Jonathan Bate, who is quite the Swiftie himself, got them all right.

So, who better to speak on the matter.

In a bookstore, 25 minutes south of where the Beatles were born Bate had an unexpected encounter with a modern interpretation of Romeo and Juliet.

The lyrics of Taylor Swift's Love Story, about a girl on a balcony and a boy who comes to rescue him, had captured his attention.

"I went up to the counter and said to the girl behind it, oh that's a great song, who's it by, and she said... this country and western artist Taylor Swift... so I bought the CD - those were the days of CDs - and gave it to my daughter who was nine I think and she gave it to all her friends," Bate told RNZ Afternoons.

"They sort of became lifelong Swifties so I kind of followed along."

Bate argues Swift is more than just a best selling pop star - she has a literary sensibility worthy of some of history's great writers.

"A lot of my work over the years... has been about how Shakespeare stays alive by being reinvented on all sorts of different cultural media."

The poet John Keats - also a big Shakespeare fan but who lived in the wrong century to test his loyalty to Swift - says poetry is "a wording of our highest thoughts, almost a remembrance".

"In other words, what a great poet does is they put into words feelings that we've all had but that we've not quite been able to articulate," Bate says.

"That's what Shakespeare did for his generation and it seems to me that is what Taylor swift is doing for a whole generation of young people."

There are of course areas where the pair differ.

"There's no doubt that Shakespeare was very very discrete about his own feelings and his own ideas."

Every feeling expressed belongs to a character, not to Shakespeare himself, Bate says.

Even when he wrote seemingly more autobiographically in his sonnets, he doesn't let on who he is talking about, he says.

"Maybe that is because he was bisexual because the majority of those sonnets do seem to be addressed to a beautiful young man."

It is a far cry from Taylor Swift, who has used her own life and successive heart breaks as sources for her work.

"My Taylor Swift journey took a bit of a pause when she started rocking and rapping, which isn't really my thing."

It was reignited, Bate says, when Folklore and Evermore were released.

"I started listening to the lyrics particularly of one of the songs in which she goes to the Lake District in the north west of England and actually mentions William Wordsworth, the great English romantic poet.

"That got me looking more closely at her lyrics and seeing that there's a whole set of references in her work to that romantic poetic tradition.

"There's no doubt she has a very literary sensibility."

True Swifties would have picked up on an easter egg too, Bate says - Evermore was announced on 10 Dec, the birthday of the romantic poet Emily Dickinson.

Bate says there's a famous Emily Dickinson poem about a love triangle, with the following lines:

I spilt the dew -

But took the morn, -

I chose this single star

From out the wide night's numbers -

Sue - forevermore!

"I'm pretty sure that's what inspired her to write the title song of Evermore."

The domination of visual platforms like Instagram and YouTube means in some ways, we are losing the sense of the power of words, Bate says.

"So I think when you have a popular artist like Taylor Swift who chooses words so carefully, who genuinely produces poetry in her lyrics, that's an enormously powerful, reassuring positive thing."

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