Elvis and Shakespeare

Nick Walton on Shakespeare and the King of Rock n’ Roll

‘Romeo loved Juliet
Juliet she felt the same
When he put his arms around her
He said ‘Julie, baby, you’re my flame
Thou giv-est fever when we kisseth
Fever with the flaming youth
Fever I’m afire
Fever yea I burn for sooth’

Elvis Presley would have sung these lyrics about Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers hundreds of times when performing ‘Fever’, a song written by Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell and first recorded by Little Willie John in 1956, then by Elvis himself in 1960. Had Elvis ever seen a production of Romeo and Juliet? Did these lyrics have a particular association for him – could he put a face to Romeo and Juliet in his mind’s eye? It would be another eight years before Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey entered the popular imagination as Shakespeare’s tragic couple via the success of Franco Zeferreli’s Academy Award winning film of the play. As Elvis sang this song night after night, it is possible that the lyric became tinged with a sense of personal regret and frustration.

Elvis had been approached to play the ‘Romeo role’ of Tony in Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s filmed version of the musical West Side Story, which went on to receive 10 Oscars in 1962. Elvis’s agent, Colonel Tom Parker had denied his star the opportunity of performing in this Shakespearian offshoot, fearing that the film’s depiction of gang warfare and knife crime would damage the artist’s career and reputation. He thought little however of allowing Elvis to sing “Yoga is as Yoga does” while assuming the ‘downward facing dog’ pose in the film Easy Come, Easy Go, or singing ‘Old Macdonald had a farm’ with accompanying animal impressions in Double Trouble. Had Elvis taken the role of Tony in West Side Story he could have earned the Oscar award he so desired –the films Colonel Parker chose for his star such as Clambake, Girl Happy, Harum Scarum, and Tickle Me did little to delight the judges in Hollywood.

It was in fact an acclaimed Oscar winning actor, and notable Shakespearian, who had first introduced Elvis to the television watching public on September 9th, 1956. Charles Laughton had won an Oscar in 1933 for his performance in The Private Life of Henry VIII, and in the same year had starred as Macbeth, Prospero, and Angelo in Measure for Measure at the Old Vic in London. Laughton would also record a scene between Cassius and Brutus from Julius Caesar with Orson Welles for his radio programme ‘Almanac’ in 1944, and would close his career in Stratford upon Avon playing the roles of Bottom the Weaver in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and King Lear. On the night of Elvis’s first television appearance Laughton was standing in for Ed Sullivan on the popular Sunday night CBS show – Sullivan missed hosting his own show that night due to a car accident. Elvis appeared on a live link from a Hollywood Studio where he was filming Love Me Tender and performed the title track, as well as ‘Don’t be Cruel’, ‘Teddy Bear’, and ‘Hound Dog’. The show aired to 72 million viewers, and Laughton closed the entertainments by quoting a line that is often misattributed to Shakespeare from William Congreve’s play The Mourning Bride – “Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast”.

Elvis’s own soothing tones would help ‘Are You Lonesome To-night’ become the biggest selling single of 1960. Like Shakespeare, Elvis often used material that was familiar and well known to audiences, but gave it his own special treatment. ‘Are You Lonesome To-night’ had been written in 1926, and had been recorded by various artists, including Al Jolson who had added a spoken monologue making loose reference to Jacques ‘All the world’s a stage’ speech in As You Like It:

‘You know someone said that the world’s a stage
And each must play a part
Fate had me playing in love with you as my sweet heart
Act one was when we met, I loved you at first glance
You read your line so cleverly and never missed a cue
Then came act two, you seemed to change, you acted strange
And why? I’ve never known
Honey, you lied when you said you loved me
And I had no cause to doubt you
But I’d rather go on hearing your lies
Than I go on living without you
Now the stage is bare and I’m standing there
With emptiness all around
And if you won’t come back to me
Then they can bring the curtain down.’

As Elvis became familiar with performing this song live in concert he would begin to ad-lib to comical effect as some believe Shakespeare’s clowns would have done on Shakespeare’s stage. The lyric “Do you gaze at your doorstep and picture me there” in performance would often transform into the line “Do you gaze at your bald head and wish you had hair?” Like Shakespeare before him Elvis found different ways to connect with his audience, and there is a tragi-comic quality to the fact that the singer could find himself in fits of laughter while performing this song later in his career despite the fact that he was enduring a painful divorce at the time.

While Elvis did not write any of the songs that he is known for today, he chose to record and perform songs at the end of his career that expressed his deep sense of spirituality and apparent love of richly textured verse. Just in the way that Shakespeare would bring variety into his plays to aid their appeal to the widest possible audience, Elvis would perform gospel songs alongside the rock n’ roll classics that had launched his career. While as a young man Elvis was content to please crowds with lightweight lyrics such as ‘I just wanna be your Teddy Bear’, in later life gospel songs such as ‘How Great Thou Art’ reflected the performer’s own biblical reading and spiritual development:

‘Oh Lord my God when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds thy hands have made
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder
Thy power throughout the universe displayed
When Christ shall come
With shout of acclamation
To take me home
What joy shall fill my heart
Then I shall bow in humble adoration
And there proclaim my God how great thou art.’

Like Shakespeare, Elvis was deeply familiar with biblical writings – Shakespeare would have heard readings from the Bishops’ Bible on a weekly basis – and Elvis developed his affinity for gospel singing when attending bible study at church on Sunday’s in his hometown. Later in life Elvis kept a copy of the King James Bible (written during Shakespeare’s lifetime) in each room of his mansion ‘Graceland’ – and in 2011 his own copy of the 1611 bible was shown as one of the exhibits at the Folger Library in Washington as part of their 400th anniversary exhibition entitled ‘Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible’. Like a writer or dramatist Elvis would underline extracts in the bible, and copy out phrases that held significance for him. In one of his editions he highlighted – “What is a man advantaged if he gain the whole world and lose himself or be cast away” from the gospel of Luke 9:25. Elvis is said to have thought a great deal about his own fame and to have sought answers to his questions about his place in this world. Presley had an enquiring mind and would no doubt have felt much sympathy for the presentation of the tortured thoughts of Hamlet, Lear, and Macbeth had he spent time with Shakespeare’s works.

Elvis Presley and Shakespeare’s names have rarely appeared in the same sentence, but it feels to me that at the height of their fame both writers were concerned with a world elsewhere, and matters beyond their own creative output. Elvis like the character Prospero in The Tempest recognized the potent power of his art, but also acknowledged its power to transform and pervert the individual. In his final epilogue to The Tempest, which some have liked to read as Shakespeare’s own farewell to the stage, Prospero states that his “project was to please” and that he will face despair unless “relieved by prayer”. Throughout the 1970s Elvis’s live concerts were closed with an epilogue of their own – a disembodied voice would be heard over the sound-system announcing “Elvis has left the building”. Having delighted his audiences, the performer would slip into the shadows and be whisked away from the concert venue. With the performance over the ‘magic’ disappeared from the stage, and Elvis was left to contemplate his own reality away from the applauding crowds. Shakespeare put words into the mouths of many Kings in the form of soliloquy, and I find it intriguing to think about how (given the chance) Shakespeare would have presented the inner thoughts of the King of Rock n’Roll. “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”.

Dispatched by Dr Nick Walton, The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust as we pass through Memphis….

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