So wherefore art all the songwriters willing to take the characters of William Shakespeare and adapt them into the rock and roll idiom? Well, it’s obvious why some would be reluctant to try it. Willy Shakes wrote so lyrically and nimbly that any imitator might come off sounding like fortune’s fool.
It takes a firm hand at the tiller to attempt something like that. Mark Knopfler, the songwriter, singer, and lead guitarist for Dire Straits, pulled off it off with no sweat on 1980’s “Romeo And Juliet.” To be fair, Knopfler just used those iconic names as a jumping-off point for a portrait of a modern romance that turns out to be just as star-crossed as the one by that pair from Verona.
“Romeo And Juliet” is the centerpiece of Dire Straits’ 1980 album Making Movies, a classic LP which featured Knopfler writing songs as effortlessly evocative as the finest cinema. Though he may have borrowed a bit from Shakespeare for this particular song, he spoke in an interview with Bill Flanagan about the commonalities of the characters in his catalog. “It wasn’t conscious, but I see the Sultans, Les Boys, the roller skate girl, and Romeo all change disadvantage into advantage,” Knopfler said. “Rather than leave it they make something with it. I’m not advocating adverse circumstances, but if they come you have to create from it.”
In the case of Romeo, he certainly has a lovely soundtrack for his late-night serenade, as Knopfler picks out an unforgettable riff to anchor the song. Our hero is out on the street beneath his ex Juliet’s window, attempting to win her back with his humble verses. She taunts him with snippets of 60’s songs (“Hey la, my boyfriend’s back”) and warns him that he shouldn’t be “singing up to people like that.”
Yet Romeo sings on, reminiscing about his past with Juliet and comparing it to the cold reality of their present. His hurt is palpable: “How can you look at me as if I was just another one of your deals?” He intimates that, although both came up from hardscrabble beginnings, Juliet has now moved beyond all that: “You promised me everything, you promised me thick and thin, yeah!/Now you just say, “Oh Romeo? Yeah, you know I used to have a scene with him”.
In the chorus, Romeo admits that maybe it wasn’t all Juliet’s fault, that maybe those pesky Fates had something to do with unraveling the happy ending the movies promise. The song ends where it began, with Romeo once again hoping against hope for reconciliation with a question that is as profound in its uncouth, direct way as any of Shakespeare’s sonnets: “You and me, babe, how about it?
Dire Straits’ version of “Romeo And Juliet” doesn’t end with a pile of dead bodies like the famous play. It does end up with a wounded but resilient heart though, and that’s something to which Shakespeare and all of his plays’ lovers can certainly relate.