John, Paul, Pyramus, and Thisbe: The Beatles performing Shakespeare

On April 28, 1964, the most famous band in the history of popular music taped a television special at Wembley Park Studios in London. The show was called Around the Beatles, and it followed hard on the heels of the Beatles’ legendary first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show less than three months earlier. This time, though, the group’s appearance did not begin with a rock and roll song, but rather with the performance of something quite different: the “Pyramus and Thisbe” episode from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

As the broadcast begins, we see three silhouetted trumpeters, followed by an artist’s rendering of the Globe Theatre, setting the scene for an Elizabethan performance. Ringo then appears in period dress, hoisting a flag bearing the name of the program and firing a cannon to great comedic effect. Shortly thereafter, the trumpeters are revealed to be John, Paul, and George, who enter onto the thrust stage to the delight of the screaming fans surrounding it. The whole thing has the feel of a Beatles concert stadium and an early modern playhouse all at once, its general raucousness and unruliness bringing those two venues into unexpected alignment.

The English actor Trevor Peacock, who would later go on to join the Royal Shakespeare Company, introduces the players: Paul and John play the star-crossed lovers Pyramus and Thisbe; George plays Moon, while Ringo takes the part of the Lion. The band members appear exceedingly well cast, even in ways that may not have been apparent at the time. Paul and John’s separation at the hands of the Wall almost seems to foreshadow their divisions in the years ahead; George takes on the role of the quiet, thoughtful character who shines light on the others. And then there’s Ringo hamming it up as the Lion: he stands onstage with the other three, but he never quite seems to be at the center of the action, as when he fires the cannon alone—or when he sits behind them at his drum kit.

At times, the four cast members look somewhat bewildered, a little like the footage of them stepping off the plane at JFK for the first time. Although by this point they were no strangers to variety shows, one gets the feeling that they’re thinking to themselves: What exactly are we doing here? The framework is decidedly Shakespearean—although the script is liberally cut, they retain much of Shakespeare’s language. The fab four are not wearing their matching suits; their mop tops are partially obscured by faux-Elizabethan headwear. (Although as Wes Folkerth observes, they are still sporting their “trademark Beatle boots.”)

Yet the whole performance is still a distinctly Beatles affair, and even though they mainly stick to Shakespeare’s script, the moments when they play with the text stand out. When Pyramus suggests to Thisbe that they meet at Ninny’s tomb, John, in his characteristically jokey tone, imagines the place as a club: “Ninny’s tomb—is that still open?” A few moments later, Shakespeare’s text demands that the Lion assure the audience that he is merely an actor—“Then know that I, as Snug the joiner, am / A lion fell”—but in the Beatles’ version, this becomes: “Then know that I one Ringo the drummer am.” And when Pyramus meets his untimely death, Paul comforts the distressed members of the audience: “It’s all right, it’s all right.” (I immediately thought of the bizarre episode a few years later when Paul, fighting a pervasive conspiracy theory, would again reassure his adoring fans that he was not dead.) At the end of his speech, Paul begins with a faithful recitation of Shakespeare’s script, “Moon, take thy flight,” before adding his own farewell: “See ya, George!”

As Louise Geddes writes, the performance represents a “high/low cultural clash”: a band quickly moving to the center of the 1960s counter-cultural movement performs a scene from Britain’s most canonical playwright. It seems on the surface a striking contradiction, one that the Beatles themselves seem tickled by as they appear to lean into the notion, ridiculous as it is, that they are somehow acting above their station. There are even hecklers planted in the audience—well-dressed boys with posh accents who were, in reality, friends and fellow musicians—who remind the Beatles throughout the performance of their supposed social inferiority, much in the manner that the members of the Athenian court ridicule the so-called “rude mechanicals” in Shakespeare’s play. “Go back to Liverpool!” they shout at one point, reminding the band members of their northern, working-class roots. The irony, of course, is that the Beatles’ newfound wealth and fame directly challenged these classist attitudes. After revealing himself to be “Ringo the drummer,” the percussionist gleefully tells the audience, “If I was really a lion, I wouldn’t be making all the money I am today, would I?”

At one point, Pyramus, upon finding Thisbe’s bloody cloak, cries out, “O dainty duck, O dear!” Immediately after Paul delivers the line, the hecklers yell “Roll over Shakespeare!” The allusion is to Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven,” a song that the Beatles covered in their early years; the implication is that Shakespeare would roll over in his grave to see their Midsummer performance. But the irony is that the alliterative line that prompts their taunt—while it might sound more like a McCartney lyric than a Shakespearean one—is in fact a line from the play. It isn’t the amateur thespians who get the script wrong. It’s the well-dressed hecklers who don’t know Shakespeare when they hear it.

This moment encapsulates precisely why “Pyramus and Thisbe” is perfect for the occasion. As Folkerth observes, we’re not watching four actors playing Bottom, Flute, Starveling, and Snout as they perform in a play; we’re watching the Beatles perform the play as themselves. This allows them a layer of comic remove that Shakespeare’s characters lacked. The Beatles slip in and out of character in a way that recalls Shakespeare’s original, but unlike the characters in Midsummer, they’re in on the joke. If the Athenian court’s mockery of the rude mechanicals makes us uncomfortable—the social elite taunting a group of laborers who have come together to perform a play—here the Beatles triumph. They even have the last word: as the performance concludes, John exclaims, “Enough of this rubbish!”

The 1964 “Pyramus and Thisbe” performance is a remarkable collision of two British cultural icons: one whose 400th birthday was being celebrated that year, another which had only recently come into existence. That collision, however, was not unique in the Beatles’ career. Hamlet is quoted in the Beatles’ first film, A Hard Day’s Night; at the end of the studio track of “I Am The Walrus,” there are audible portions of a BBC performance of King Lear. In The Lyrics, Paul McCartney’s 2021 book exploring his songs through discussions with the Irish poet Paul Muldoon, the songwriter speaks extensively of his literary influences—Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, Dylan Thomas, and Oscar Wilde, among many others—as well as his debt to his high school English teacher, Alan Durband, to whom he attributes his “love of reading.” The volume’s lone epigraph is drawn from Hamlet: “To thine own self be true.”

Shakespeare makes a number of appearances in The Lyrics, but most prominently in McCartney’s commentary on two songs released in the late stage of the Beatles’ career. The first, “With a Little Help From My Friends,” contains a line from Julius Caesar in its opening verse: “lend me your ears.” “The Bard’s four hundredth birthday had fallen in April 1964,” McCartney recalls—the same month they taped Around the Beatles—“and there’d been a production of Julius Caesar on television that year. It was still fresh in our minds.” The lead-in to the track, too, references the fictional “Billy Shears,” whose name bears a conspicuous resemblance to William Shakespeare. In discussing the second song, “Let It Be,” McCartney reminisces about reading Hamlet with Durband at the Liverpool Institute High School for Boys, noting the song’s echo of Hamlet as he nears death: “O, I could tell you — / But let it be.” “I suspect those lines,” McCartney muses, “had subconsciously planted themselves in my memory.”

One could be forgiven for thinking that there’s an element of self-mythologizing going on here as McCartney, now the elder statesman of popular music, aligns his own writing with that of England’s national poet.  But the “Pyramus and Thisbe” performance is an especially vivid example of how Shakespeare has been part of that history almost since the band’s formation. In so many ways, the Beatles turned popular culture on its head, and along the way they reimagined Shakespeare—as so many great artists have done, and continue to do—for a new generation.