In addition to my many musical activities, I also do a bit of acting. This spring I’m acting the lead role in Macbeth. This is my third Shakespeare play I’ve done (12th Night and As You Like It being the other two). Shakespeare was to the theater what Bach was to music: The Genius. The peak of the art form. His influence is monumental, not only on subsequent playwrights, but also on the English language as we know it. He invented numerous words which we now use in everyday speech. He is more or less a god. Shakespeare not only influenced writing, but all other arts. There are so many painting that were inspired by his plays. His influence on music is also pretty substantial. According to Wikipedia, some 20,000 works are linked in some way to Shakespeare’s works. By the way, that is a lot.
The first really significant composer who was influenced by Shakespeare was the first Romantic bad-boy, Hector Berlioz. He first saw the girl that inspired his Symphonie Fantastique acting in Romeo and Juliet. He wrote a symphony based on Romeo and Juliet. His three movement Tristia is mostly based on Hamlet. Beatrice and Benedict is largely based on Much Ado About Nothing. The Le Roi Lear is based on King Lear. Being the super romantic Berlioz was, he was not content with just writing music based on Shakespeare’s plays; he decided to live it. He contrived a suicide plot a la Romeo and Juliet, complete with poison and antidote.
Verdi wrote wrote three operas based on Shakespeare: Macbeth, Othello, and Falstaff, and he also toyed with writing one about King Lear, and his librettist tried to get him to write an opera based on Antony and Cleopatra. Vaughan Williams wrote an opera about Sir John Falstaff as well as some other vocal settings of Shakespeare. Prokofiev wrote the ballet Romeo and Juliet. Shostakovich knew Shakespeare’s works, and wrote music for film adaptations of King Lear, and Hamlet, as well as two sets of incidental music for productions of Hamlet. I know I’m missing a ton, but still, that’s quite a bit.
In setting text, a composer needs to have some stimulation, and no author provides that stimulation better the Shakespeare (considering Shakespeare may have been gay, the innuendo becomes slightly more controversial). If you’re not familiar with many of Shakespeare’s works, go out and see one. He is, by far the most performed playwright of all time, so you shouldn’t have much trouble finding a production nearby. If you’re scared of Shakespeare because you had to read through Hamlet/Macbeth/Romeo and Juliet/every other play he wrote, in high school, so see it live. It is so much better than just reading it.