Bob Dylan Invokes Shakespeare, Lands a Few Jokes in Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan referenced William Shakespeare in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, which was read by American ambassador to Sweden Azita Raji. Robert Galbraith/Reuters

Bob Dylan, this year's recepient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, did not attend a ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden on Saturday honoring the 2016 Nobel laureates. After he was announced as the award's winner in October, he failed to respond to the Nobel Committee's phone calls, and ultimately announced that he would not be able to accept the prize in person, citing "prior commitments." Dylan had no tour dates scheduled in December, so fans were left to speculate as to why the enigmatic icon didn't seem interested in accepting such a prestigious award.

In lieu of attending the ceremony, Dylan wrote a speech, which was read by the American ambassador to Sweden, Azita Raji. In it, he expressed his gratitude to the committee, and his admiration for writers who have won the award in the past, including Rudyard Kipling, Albert Camus and Ernest Hemingway. Like Dylan, the latter elected not to attend the cermony after he won the award in 1954.

Related: Bob Dylan isn't the only artist to ignore his Nobel Prize

The bulk of Dylan's speech, however, was spent addressing what has been the subject of debate since he was announced as the winner: Is songwriting literature? To consider this question, he invoked William Shakespeare, whom most would agree is one of the greatest titans of literature the world has ever seen. Wrote Dylan:

I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken, not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”

Ladies and gentlemen, Bob Dylan's got jokes.

His point is an interesting one, though, and it brings to mind the way in which Dylan has viewed his craft since he first started gaining attention in the early '60s. Despite the wide-ranging cultural impact of his songs, he never absorbed the many labels society, his fans and the industry saddled him with throughout his career. He was not the "voice of a generation," he was not a "protest singer," he was not some torch-bearer of the folk movement who betrayed the tradition when he "went electric" in 1965. From the very beginning until now, he's never aspired to do anything but write songs and perform them. "If I was really dreaming big, maybe I could imagine getting to make a record and then hearing my songs on the radio," he wrote later in the Nobel Prize acceptance speech. "That was really the big prize in my mind. Making records and hearing your songs on the radio meant that you were reaching a big audience and that you might get to keep doing what you had set out to do."

To close, Dylan noted how he has always found it easier to play to larger audiences rather than smaller ones, which are harder to please. There are only six members of the Nobel Committee, and so for Dylan to have "played" to them in a way that registers means a lot. Like Shakespeare, he has concerned himself with smaller, circumstantial questions related to his art, not grand ones like whether his songs should be classified as literature. He thanked the Committee not only for considering this question, but for "providing such a wonderful answer."

Though Dylan did not attend the ceremony on Saturday, he will be in Sweden soon. The new Nobel laureate has announced that he will play three concerts there in April, one in Lund on April 9, and two in Stockholm on April 1 and 2. Nobel Prize winners are required to deliver a lecture on their craft within six months of winning the award in order to reciever $870,000 in prize money. One would presume Dylan will deliver his in the days surrounding these early-April tour stops, but nothing has been announced. Once again, his fans—and the Nobel Committee—have no other option than to speculate.

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