In his seminal book, Shakespeare: Invention of the Human, renowned literary critic, Harold Bloom, makes a groundbreaking argument: that Shakespeare’s genius lies not only in his masterful ability to capture the essence of what it means to be human, but also that Shakespeare actually invented the modern concept of human nature. Be it love, betrayal, greed, jealousy, or even the paradoxical effects of alcohol on our sex drive, no one came close to capturing the angst of humanity like the bard. He was, like many great artists, ahead of his time. He was a true original.
But even if we strip away his timelessly accurate insights, we can view Shakespeare as another kind of originator. Structurally and lyrically, Shakespeare was also ahead of his time. About 400 years ahead — the amount of time that passed between Shakespeare’s creative output and the “birth” of another art form eerily similar to Shakespeare’s own: rap music. With apologies to Kool Herc and DJ Hollywood, as a lyrical stylist, Shakespeare should be considered the true o.g. rapper.
Let’s start with structure. Anybody who has read or heard Shakespeare’s words knows that he writes in a specific structure. The majority of Shakespeare’s verses are written in iambic pentameter: ten syllables per line. It is important to remind ourselves that Shakespeare’s plays (like rap songs) were not really meant for reading, but for hearing to the rhythms and cadences. So his use of iambic pentameter adds rhythm to his language. Another essential component to Shakespeare’s writing is rhyme. When Shakespeare gave his characters something important to say, something thematic, something profound, he employed rhyming couplets — two consecutively rhymed lines — like this one from Othello (spoken by uber-villain, Iago):
“I have’t. It is engender’d. Hell and night
Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light.”
Now, anybody who has listened to a rap song knows that rappers rap in a specific rhyming structure, and that the rhyming couplets of rap give the songs their distinct lyrical flow. While many musical genres rely on rhyme for a sense of rhythm, rap is unique in its total reliance on rhymed couplets. It is essential to the art of rap. And while rappers do not necessarily rap in iambic pentameter, their reliance on a specific rhyming structure dictates that they also employ a limited syllabic structure as well. One of rap music’s first forays into the mainstream came courtesy of “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five:
“Rats in the front room, roaches in the back
Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat.”
Both Shaekespeare’s and Grandmaster Flash’s verses are written in rhymed couplets, both are written in iambic pentameter, both have a similar lyrical rhythm, and both less-than-rosy in their subject matter. While the first was written in 1595, the second was written in 1982. One could easily imagine Iago’s dark lines being spit by, say, Ghostface Killah or Scarface, and no one would blink an eye.
Speaking of subject matter: thematically, Shakespeare is also more on point with rap music than one might think. Let’s look at some of the most popular themes explored by Shakespeare in his plays: love, murder, greed, betrayal, revenge. While rap has certainly evolved over the years to encompass a wide variety of styles and topics, its primary and longest lasting themes are very similar to those employed by the bard. Case in point: Othello, one of Shakespeare’s darkest plays.
Othello has more than enough to make any gangsta proud: murder, greed, misogyny, and revenge. Iago, in order to move up in the world and exact revenge on Othello for dissing him, plots the death and murder of four people, including his own wife, who he strongly suggests is a whore (“ho”): “You rise to play and go to bed to work.” That is pure gangsta.
And while 50 Cent can rap about killing someone:
“Better watch how you talk, when you talk about me
’Cause I’ll come and take your life away,”
Othello not only threatens to kill his own wife,
“Ay, let her rot, and perish, and be damned to-night;
for she shall not live,”
he actually goes ahead and commits the murder.
And while Ludacris can rap about women being “hoes,”
“There’s hoes in the room, there’s hoes in the car
There’s hoes on stage, there’s hoes by the bar,”
Othello calls his wife a “whore” three times in one conversation, including some subtle sarcasm:
“I cry you mercy, then:
I took you for that cunning whore of Venice.”
In other words, Shakespeare was calling women “whores” four hundred years before rappers were.
[In Othello alone, Shakespeare uses the word “ho” more than 15 times, but as an interjection, not a noun (“A light, ho!”).]
So the evidence is in. From his lyrical stylings and structure, to his subject matter and themes, Shakespeare can go toe-to-toe with any rapper dead or alive. He was a 16th century rapper, the original original gangsta. And that is why he is a genius, our greatest writer: he not only invented human nature, he also originated rap. The only apt response to that comes from the mouth of Othello, as he attempts to quell a violent sword fight on the streets of Cyprus with one thunderous word: