The lyrics and milieu of the Grateful Dead evince engagements not only with diverse aspects of the musical past, but also with the literary tradition. Indeed, some elements of the band’s literary sensibilities are relatively well-documented. One thinks, for instance, of cultural histories like Peter Richardson’s No Simple Highway, which includes discussion of the band member’s intellectual debts to and personal relationships with leading figures of the Beat Generation, or of the fact that the band’s primary lyricist, Robert Hunter, is a descendant and namesake of Robert Burns. There are, as well, numerous nonfictional literary texts in which the band appears in propria persona, such as Joan Didion’s writing on San Francisco in the 1960s, and fictions in which they emblematize devotion to a certain lifestyle, as in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Somewhere in between discussions of the band’s relationships to contemporary literary figures and their appearance in literary works stand their writings, lyrical and otherwise, and it is in this territory that some of the most intriguing work regarding their literary identity has been done, in pieces like Nicholas Meriwether’s outstanding essay on the debt the song “It Must Have Been the Roses” owes to William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily.”1 This article turns to material that has been less remarked, with the goal of suggesting some of the ways our understanding of the connections between poetry and popular music can be helped by knowing more about where and to what profit the Grateful Dead’s lyrics draw on, and perhaps even participate in, the Western literary tradition. To that end, the arguments of the following pages consider some of the intertextual connections between the Grateful Dead’s lyrics and the writings of William Shakespeare. This article’s remarks are largely devoted to the song “Althea,” and its more particular contention is that the Shakespearean content of “Althea” not only allowed the songwriters, Hunter and Jerry Garcia, to explore deeper reaches of the lyric’s thematic mixture of love, fate, and betrayal, but also provided terms on which the band could self-reflexively evaluate itself during a transitional period in its career.
Before turning to “Althea,” consideration of two explicit references to Shakespeare in the Grateful Dead’s performance repertoire, both of which appear in songs penned by Bob Dylan, is worthwhile, for both illustrate something of the manner in which the Grateful Dead employ allusions to Shakespeare’s works in their own songwriting. The Grateful Dead performed one of these Dylan songs, “Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” seventy-six times, beginning on Independence Day, 1987.2 After six performances of the piece as a backing band for Dylan, they made it their own during a concert on St. Patrick’s Day, in 1988. Dylan would join them for the song on stage at least once more, on February 12, 1989, although they also played it without him many times. The second Dylan song with overt mention of Shakespeare to be played by the Grateful Dead is “Desolation Row,” which they performed fifty-six times, starting on March 25, 1986. In this case, too, Dylan joined them for a handful of performances, beginning on July 7, 1986. Both of these songs remained in the Grateful Dead’s repertoire, with at least one performance per year, until their retirement in 1995. As these dates and figures indicate, they were fairly strong presences during the final third of the band’s career.
The Shakespearean content of these Dylan songs differs in degree of complexity. In the case of “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” the lyric’s reference to Shakespeare is a rather superficial blend of irony and metonymy:
Well, Shakespeare, he’s in the alley With his pointed shoes and his bells Speaking to some French girl Who says she knows me well And I would send a message To find out if she’s talked But the post office has been stolen And the mailbox is locked.
Shakespeare’s name stands in this case for a class of people who are, or who at least consider themselves, per Dylan’s rather disparaging lyric, poets.
The references to Shakespeare in “Desolation Row” are somewhat more complicated. In the second verse, Dylan combines an allusion to Romeo and Juliet with a glancing touch on his own, earlier, song, “She Belongs to Me”:
And in comes Romeo, he’s moaning “You Belong to Me I Believe” And someone says, “You’re in the wrong place my friend You better leave.”
Two verses later, the song’s cast of characters expands to include Prince Hamlet’s girlfriend, Ophelia:
Now Ophelia, she’s ’neath the window For her I feel so afraid On her twenty-second birthday She already is an old maid To her, death is quite romantic She wears an iron vest Her profession’s her religion Her sin is her lifelessness And though her eyes are fixed upon Noah’s great rainbow She spends her time peeking Into Desolation Row.
Dylan’s Ophelia at once is and is not Shakespeare’s. While the character’s name clearly evokes the Ophelia of Hamlet, Dylan’s Ophelia “stands ’neath the window.” That is to say, she is in a position most often associated with Romeo, as he stands in relation to his beloved in Romeo and Juliet’s famous balcony scene.3 The lyric thus combines a dramatic situation experienced by a female character in one play with that of a male character from another, uniting and reconfiguring materials from both of the two tragedies. Like Shakespeare’s tragic Ophelia and Romeo, the fate of Dylan’s Ophelia is hardly glorious. Yet, the differences between Shakespeare’s Ophelia and Dylan’s are not negligible. While Shakespeare’s Ophelia goes mad and dies heartbroken and grieving, Dylan’s is a young woman who has doomed herself to lonely discontent because of her unwillingness to engage with life, even as a prurient curiosity results in her hypocritically “peeking into” the abject scenes the song describes. In other words, Dylan’s refashioning of Shakespeare’s Ophelia preserves the original’s tragic isolation and distress even as it departs somewhat from her in details. This honoring of the literary source, even as it is transfigured in service of a rock and roll song lyric, very much prefigures the Grateful Dead’s own use of Shakespearean materials.
The most extended example of a reworking of Shakespearean sources in the Grateful Dead’s repertoire is the song “Althea,” which the band began performing in 1979 and of which they first released a recording on their 1980 studio album, Go to Heaven. The song stands in the tradition of the poetic dialogue, presenting a conversation between the titular “Althea” and a male interlocutor, although it also departs from that tradition in some important ways. The opening verses present an exchange in which the male speaker asks Althea for advice, for he feels adrift and betrayed:
I told Althea I was feeling lost Lacking in some direction Althea told me upon scrutiny My back might need protection I told Althea that treachery was tearing me limb from limb …………………….4
While the space given to each speaker in this opening of the exchange is relatively balanced, Althea’s response to the complaint about treachery will soon dominate most of the song. Thus, the relatively long third verse is among those entirely given over to her advice, and it begins as follows:
You may be Saturday’s child all grown moving with a pinch of grace You may be a clown in the burying ground or just another pretty face.
Lines three and four evoke the first scene of the final act of Hamlet, in which the Prince and his friend Horatio visit a cemetery, where two gravediggers are at work on a pit that will accommodate the body of Ophelia. Like a lot of other rough commoners in Shakespeare, the laborers are identified as “clowns.” Furthermore, as with other less-educated or fool characters in Shakespeare’s plays—one thinks of Touchstone in As You Like It or Feste in Twelfth Night (about which more below), but especially of the Fool in Lear—the talk of the gravedigging rustics wins our attention, not least because it includes inadvertent insights from which some of the more noble characters could benefit.5 So, we must take care to recognize that Althea’s assertion in these lines is not at all a claim that her interlocutor is the bumbling fool our contemporary sense of “clown” suggests, but that he may already unwittingly know the answers to the questions he poses.
It is possible, however, that Althea alludes not to the clowns digging the grave, but to another clownish figure central to the same scene in Shakespeare’s play. While making room for a new interment in the already-crowded cemetery, the gravediggers shovel aside older bones. Hamlet learns one unearthed skull is that of Yorick, who was the court jester for his father. The Prince calls upon Yorick to speak from beyond the grave, asking him what profit his good humor has earned him now that he is nothing more than a skeleton:
He hath bore me on his back a thousand times, and now how abhorr’d in my imagination it is! my gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kiss’d I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now to mock your own grinning–quite chop-fall’n. Now get you to my lady’s [chamber], and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come; make her laugh at that. (Shakespeare, Hamlet 5.1.184–195)6
Yorick of course does not answer, but Hamlet carries on, and commands Yorick not only to speak, but also, in the final lines of the immediately preceding quotation, to act (“Now get you to my lady’s [chamber], and tell her …”). The message Hamlet would have Yorick deliver is in a sense a mere truism: we all, even if we have the “pretty face” of an ornamented lady of the court, will look like Yorick in the end. Nevertheless, if we assume the “clown” of the third line of the third verse of “Althea” is indeed Yorick, this Shakespearean context shapes our hearing of the verse’s next line in a particular way: Althea’s assertion that the listener may be “just another pretty face” is not a thoughtless dismissal, but a remark of real weight, one that recalls to us Prince Hamlet’s reflections on the folly of human vanity. I do not mean to contend that the initial interpretation of these lines that I considered—that the clown of the song is a Shakespearean gravedigger—should be supplanted by one focused on Yorick. What I submit instead is that both of these readings are entangled in the play, and obtain at once in the song as well. Hunter thereby follows Shakespeare in interweaving intimations of wisdom uncovered in unexpected places with a sense of urgency and dread.
The second half of the song’s third verse continues mining the Shakespearean vein, with Althea proposing to her listener,
You may be the fate of Ophelia sleeping and perchance to dream— honest to the point of recklessness self-centered to the extreme.
It is important to note that Althea does not establish a neat parallel: she does not say “your fate may be the fate of Ophelia.” If she had, it would suggest an equivalence between Ophelia’s destiny and that of the song’s initial speaker. But, Althea instead says, “you may be the fate of Ophelia” (italics mine). We could hear this as Althea’s declaration that a figurative Ophelia will somehow end up tied, romantically or otherwise, to the song’s initial speaker, making him her fate in the sense that she is destined to be with him. Another possible interpretation is perhaps richer, as it accommodates better not only what is in the lyric, but what it excludes: because Hunter’s lyric resists a strict parallelism, a sort of off-kilter one emerges, one that wrenches the relationship between the song’s initial speaker and Ophelia’s fate into a stranger relation. To wit, the song’s initial speaker may himself somehow be an incarnation of Ophelia’s destiny.
As the song tells us, that destiny is, to be “Sleeping and perchance to dream.” The line is, of course, an almost-verbatim borrowing from Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, and it reminds us of a particular point with which Prince Hamlet struggles: as death is like sleep, there is a chance the next world will be nightmarish, a fact that leaves us tied to inaction.
…. To die, to sleep— No more, and by a sleep to say we end The heartache and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to; ’tis a consummation Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep— To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub, For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause …. (Shakespeare, Hamlet 3.1.59–67)
For Hamlet, meditation on this point is multifaceted: most overtly, the fear of eternal suffering encourages him not to commit suicide, but it also speaks to his general tendency to hesitation. The qualities mentioned in the final lines of the third verse of “Althea,” reckless honesty and extreme self-centeredness, likewise could describe Hamlet, who consistently treads the territory between truth and deception, and who most forcefully embodies a position of destructive self-absorption. At this point, Hunter’s lyrics reveal to just what degree the Grateful Dead will refashion the Shakespearean original, for while we can recognize that the aforementioned qualities describe Hamlet, we risk forgetting thereby that Althea is describing Ophelia’s fate, rather than Hamlet’s character. Yet, the songwriter, in allowing the characters of Hamlet, Ophelia, and Althea’s interlocutor to bleed into one another, clearly employs Shakespearean material to stage advice that will spur the song’s first speaker from dreamlike hesitation into action.7
When discussing “Althea” in an interview, Hunter points our attention to the ancient origins of the name, and also posits that she is an incarnation of the goddess Athena.8 His remarks are helpful in several ways, not least in fleshing out our sense of the character as a figure of wisdom. They also remind us of Althea’s ancient literary ancestry. We meet the classical Althaea in a Greco-Roman myth that tells of a woman who was both the mother and murderer of Meleager. The extant ancient sources for this story are several, but most, including Aeschylus’s Libation Bearers, are rather spotty on the details. This deficiency is not the case for Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which offers a version of the tale that runs roughly as follows: When Althaea gives birth to Meleager, she learns that the Fates have decreed that he will live until a particular piece of wood is burned completely by fire, so she stores the wood in a safe place. Years later, the region of Calydon, where Meleager and Althaea live, is terrorized by a monstrous wild boar. Meleager calls a hunt for the beast, a challenge that brings together several of the great heroes of the day. Among the assembled is the nymph Atalanta, who both charms Meleager and draws first blood in battle with the creature. When Meleager finally deals it a fatal wound, he pins it to the ground and yields to Atalanta the trophy of its head, in accord with the rules of the hunt, which presumably have the authority of the goddess Diana. At this point, Meleager’s maternal uncles interrupt, arguing that Atalanta should not be awarded the prize. Outraged by this affront against Atalanta, and possibly also the sacrilegious position it implies, Meleager kills his uncles. When Althaea hears of their deaths, she throws the wood preserving Meleager’s life into a fire. It burns, and he dies rather painfully, and in disappointment at his relatively ignoble end.9 Although Hunter did not mention Meleager in his remarks on the song, the tale seems to inform several of its lines, from the fourth verse’s “maybe it’s your fire / but baby … don’t get burned” to the fifth’s “When the smoke has cleared” and “This space is getting hot— / you know this space is getting hot.” In each of these cases, the literary allusions are parts of a warning, one reinforced by the repetition in the final instance: choose quickly yet wisely.
While the preceding paragraphs have suggested something of just how extensive the Shakespearean and classical sources for the literary context of “Althea” are individually, they are even more remarkable in combination. Shakespeare’s own works are deeply indebted to Ovid’s poetry,10 and the Ovidian “Althaea” is mentioned in two plays by Shakespeare, 2 Henry VI and 2 Henry IV. This article now turns to these convergences of ancient and Renaissance sources informing “Althea.”
The three plays Shakespeare wrote about Henry VI concern the collapse of England’s rule of French territories and the initiation of the War of the Roses, which was the contest between the Houses of York and Lancaster for the throne of England. As the middle play of the trilogy, 2 Henry VI shows a kingdom in discord, with various noble families bickering under the eyes of an ineffectual ruler. It also includes, in a passage spoken by Richard Plantagenet, a reference to the myth of Althaea. The most relevant context for the passage containing the allusion concerns England’s ceding of several of its provinces on the continent to the French crown in exchange for the hand of Margaret of Anjou. These political and marital arrangements were delineated in the Treaty of Tours, which ended the Hundred Years War. Prior to the marriage of Henry and Margaret, Richard Plantagenet, the Third Duke of York, and father of future King Richard III, had served as Lord Protector during periods when Henry was incapable of rule due to his periodic madness. With many friends in the court, and a legitimate, if somewhat indirect, ancestral claim to royal authority, Richard is a justified aspirant to the throne, and it is in his complaint regarding England’s loss of French territories that we encounter an allusion to Althaea and the burning log that was Melaeger’s destruction:
Methinks the realms of England, France, and Ireland Bear that proportion to my flesh and blood As did the fatal brand Althaea burnt Unto the Prince’s heart of Calydon. (Shakespeare, 2 Henry VI 1.1.232–235)
Here, Shakespeare focuses attention on the destructive, rather than maternal, side of the ancient Althaea as a way of developing our understanding of Richard’s perception of Margaret: just as Althaea destroyed Meleager, so Margaret’s appearance in England puts an end to Richard’s plans to ascend to royal power. One notes that the third line of the quoted passage, which unites the character of Althea with fate and fiery threats, resonates particularly strongly with Hunter’s lyrics, which likewise combine remarks about fate and fire.
If Richard’s reference to Althaea in 2 Henry VI is relatively straightforward, the place of Althaea in 2 Henry IV is fairly complicated. Much of the work is preoccupied with the possible moral corruption of Prince Hal (the future Henry V), who spends a lot of time carousing and little preparing for the responsibilities of the throne. At the center of the social demi-monde with which he riots is Falstaff, a roguish knight who appears in several of Shakespeare’s plays. Falstaff’s entourage includes his ensign (Ancient Pistol), a pageboy, the prostitute Doll Tearsheet, and the thief Bardolph. The Calydonian Boar of the Althaea myth is a background presence to Falstaff and his cronies at several points in the play: one of the public houses they frequent is the Boar’s Head Inn; Prince Hal refers to Falstaff as an “old boar”; and, Doll Tearsheet calls Pistol a “whoreson little tidy Bartholomew boar-pig” (Shakespeare, 2 Henry IV 2.2.146–147; 2.2.230–233). The setting of the Boar’s Head Inn may alone have been enough to earn the attention of Hunter and Garcia: prior to the formation of the Grateful Dead, the two played music, sometimes together, in a variety of folk clubs in the Bay Area. Among these early-1960s venues was “a small coffeehouse called the Boar’s Head,” which was founded in San Carlos in 1961 by George Howell and Rodney Albin (Rodney is the older brother of Peter Albin, who would go on to fame as a founding member of the rock and roll band Big Brother and the Holding Company).11 The very name of the venue implies another Shakespearean connection, for the boar’s head festival after which both the London tavern and Bay-Area folk club were named is a celebration on the final night of the Christmas season, an evening that lent its popular name to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
Such indirect allusions to Althaea’s story in 2 Henry IV are, taken on their own, perhaps dubious justification for reading the play in relation to the ancient tale, but more explicit references allay any doubt that the myth is an undercurrent throughout. The first explicit reference to Althaea appears in the second scene of the second act, at a moment when a number of Falstaff’s crowd are half-playfully arguing with one another. In the midst of their ribbing, Falstaff’s Page declares Bardolph to be “Althaea’s dream.” When Prince Hal asks the boy what he means by this, the Page declares: “Althaea dreamt she was deliver’d of a firebrand” (Shakespeare, 2 Henry IV 2.2.87–93). Falstaff’s Page is confused—the woman in ancient Greco-Roman literature who dreams she gives birth to a firebrand is Hecuba, Queen of Troy—but he is correct in recalling that a firebrand is affiliated with Althaea and her son. This merging of Hecuba and Althaea results in a figure of some wisdom, for Hecuba certainly displays that quality during and after the Trojan War. For this reason, the Althaea invoked in the Page’s comment is less harsh than the vindictive one we meet in some classical sources, although she remains closely tied to the fire that lends urgency to decisions. These references to Althaea thus anticipate the seriousness of the problems Prince Hal faces, especially the necessity of his trading the careless fun of dissipation with Falstaff for royal duty. In these senses, the Althaea of this play is an illuminating predecessor to that of the Grateful Dead song, which features an Althea that likewise offers wisdom with regard to the course of future action and to the dangers that can come with delay.
My final remarks regarding 2 Henry IV and “Althea” pertain to the play’s closing scene, in which Prince Hal, having been crowned King Henry V, repudiates Falstaff. During the coronation parade, Falstaff approaches his old friend, whom he addresses as “thy Grace,” but the king’s response to this overture is utterly dismissive:
Fal. God save thy Grace, King Hal! my royal Hal!
King. I know thee not, old man, fall to thy prayers. How ill white hairs become a fool and jester! I have long dreamt of such a kind of man, So surfeit-swell’d, so old, and so profane; But being awak’d, I do despise my dream. Make less thy body (hence) and more thy grace, Leave gormandizing; know the grave doth gape For thee thrice wider than for other men. Reply not to me with a fool-born jest, Presume not that I am the thing I was …. (2 Henry IV 5.5.41, 5.5.47–56)
These lines are at once fiercely biting and stately, delivering a message in a fashion to which Garcia was particularly drawn. In a 1981 interview, for instance, he says of one Dylan song that,
It tells that person who’s lame that they’re lame, why they’re lame, which is a very satisfying thing to do…. ‘Positively Fourth Street’ has this way of doing it where it’s beautiful, too. And ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ is basically a putdown, too. It’s one of those things like ‘you’re losing bad—dig yourself.’
Being able to say that and say it beautifully—it was the beautiful sound of ‘Positively Fourth Street’ that got to me more than the bitterness of the lyric. The combination of the beauty and the bitterness, to me, is wonderful.”12
In addition, the particulars of Henry V’s remarks return us to the parts of Hamlet most germane to “Althea.” In repudiating Falstaff, Henry positions the man as a fool, and not as a wise fool like those of Hamlet, but as a gluttonous and irresponsible figure. In rejecting his youthful recklessness and self-centered pleasure-seeking, as embodied in the figure of Falstaff, the king condemns that earlier part of his life as nothing more than a “dream,” and points to the wide grave that awaits the corpulent knight. Consequently, we are returned to the “perchance to dream” of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy and also, and perhaps more strongly, to the first scene of the final act of that play, the scene in which the Prince, Horatio, and the diggers of Ophelia’s grave ponder Yorick’s skull. Another result is that we encounter, within these fifteen lines of 2 Henry IV, a child grown into a man (Prince Hal, having matured into a king), a clown (Falstaff as “jester”), a burying ground (the “grave” that “doth gape”), “grace” (both as Hal’s new title and as a term for “soul” in his response to his former friend), and dreams (in the third line of Hal’s remark). Consider again the first six lines of the third verse of “Althea,” which follow this passage from late in 2 Henry IV quite closely:
You may be Saturday’s child all grown moving with a pinch of grace You may be a clown in the burying ground or just another pretty face You may be the fate of Ophelia sleeping and perchance to dream—
The similarities between this verse of the song and the final exchange between Falstaff and Henry IV are remarkable. Althea presents her listener a variety of identities defined on the same terms as those the young monarch uses in his rejection of all the knight embodies.
In conclusion, I want to submit three points that I think we would do well to consider on the terms of the literary context of “Althea” sketched so far. First, the song serves as an outstanding example of Hunter’s ability to interweave disparate sources from the literary tradition, uniting and refashioning elements of classical mythology, Renaissance drama, and the songs of Bob Dylan within the context of a new creation, and to do so successfully enough that we can see Hunter’s lyrics as not just deriving from the literary tradition, but also as participating in it, and in two fashions. On one hand, just as Shakespeare’s texts are not for us what they were to Elizabethan or Jacobean audiences, but what they are as filtered through Ben Jonson, Goethe, and T. S. Eliot (the latter of whom is also mentioned in “Desolation Row”), so Hunter’s lyrics influence retrospectively how we read the poems and plays that are their ancestors. This phenomenon reminds us that the folk tradition transmits in a fashion akin to the literary tradition. The Grateful Dead’s reshaping of the centuries-old ballad “The Lady of Carlisle” in their own “Terrapin Station,” for example, very much relies on folk music’s tendency to rework earlier material for particular performers and audiences, a nonlinear process echoed in the way that the Grateful Dead’s Ophelia has been mediated by works like Eliot’s The Waste Land (the “good night, sweet ladies / good night, good night” lines of which are drawn from Hamlet, 4.5.72–73) and Dylan’s “Desolation Row.” On the other hand, such examples of the Grateful Dead’s engagement with literary tradition helps us understand why they have appeared, sometimes so centrally, in works by contemporary literary figures, including James Merrill’s “Self-Portrait in a TyvekTM Windbreaker,” Richard Brautigan’s “The Day They Busted the Grateful Dead,” Douglas Coupland’s Polaroids from the Dead, and so forth.13
A second concluding observation is that the literary context of “Althea” not only enriches our hearing of the piece in the ways so far delineated, but also provides a foothold for thinking about the possible meta-function of the lyrics. Indeed, the literary context leads me to propose we regard “Althea” as a self-referential song, one that encourages listeners to reflect on the potential opportunities and certain challenges fostered by the shape of the Grateful Dead’s career at a transitional point in their development. I am not the first to suggest we hear the song as speaking to matters germane to the band itself: fans have been known to argue that “Althea” was one of Hunter’s attempts at warning Garcia off hard drugs. But, the literary context points us in the direction of a more general, and richer, meditation on the interchanges between creation and destruction—as embodied in the classical Althaea, who is both mother and killer of her child—and between hesitation and action—as Hamlet, Prince Hal, and Dylan’s Ophelia remind us. With this context in mind, we might consider that point at which the band seemed most drawn to the song. They debuted “Althea” in 1979 and performed it more in 1980 (fifty-nine instances) than in any other year. This was of course a somewhat uncertain time, in the sense that the Grateful Dead were figuring out how to move forward without the talents of the husband-wife team of Keith and Donna-Jean Godchaux, who played piano with and sung for the band from 1972 to 1979, while incorporating the new possibilities keyboardist and singer Brent Mydland brought to the stage. There is also evidence that songwriting may have become more challenging for them during this period—this is suggested at least by the rarity at the time of new songs by Hunter and Garcia. After from “Althea” and “Alabama Getaway,” both of 1979, we find nothing in 1980 or 1981, only three new compositions in 1982 (“West L. A. Fadeaway,” the unpopular “Keep Your Day Job,” and the acclaimed “Touch of Grey”), and nothing again in 1983, 1984, and 1985.14 There were, of course, many reasons for productivity to have slowed, but it is not unreasonable to hear, in Althea’s call to action and her recommendation for wise reflection on what is most valuable, a sentiment that would have been particularly appealing to the band during a transitional period, as a means to comment on the complexity of creative exercise at a moment in their career when their reputation and performances hovered between the near full-stop of their mid-1970s hiatus and the astronomical popularity they found in the late 1980s.
Finally, because we can never end our study of Shakespeare and because erstwhile Grateful Dead keyboardist Tom Constanten asserted that the band’s signature improvisational vehicle, “Dark Star,” never stops playing, I want to offer one last point that is something of an open-ended variation on what I have discussed so far.15 As fans will recall, the Grateful Dead’s repertoire includes a song entitled “Jack Straw,” a violent revenge tale set in America’s desert southwest. Among the scenes in Shakespeare’s 2 Henry VI are several related to the fifteenth-century popular uprising led by Jack Cade. That rebellion is often read by historians as a resurgence of class troubles earlier manifest in the fourteenth-century peasant revolt led by an historical Jack Straw, which personality and events were made theatrical in an Elizabethan play entitled The Life and Death of Jack Straw.16 This work is of unclear authorship, but it appears, like Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays, likely to have enjoyed some popularity on the English stage in the 1590s.17 In this sense, the historical Jack Straw’s story is one with that of the historical Henry VI, and the dramatization of Straw’s life on stage is likewise united with the performance history of Shakespeare’s texts about that monarch. The Grateful Dead’s “Jack Straw” therefore not only brings together the English historical record and murderous tales of the American frontier, but also taps into the same realm of Elizabethan theater and the literary tradition it has shaped as does “Althea.” Taken together, these and other pieces by the band offer us a picture of rock musicians as wise clowns digging in Elsinore’s burying ground, holding out for our consideration the oddities uncovered as they turn over the metaphorical ground of our cultural heritage, all the while reminding us, as does Yorick, not to overestimate the worth of our ambitions.