The song title “The Evil that Men Do” (Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, 1988) is a quote taken from Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar (1599). The full quote goes as follows: “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them, The good is oft deterred in their bones; So let it be with Caesar” (III,II, 81-82). It it thus part of an obituary. Caesar has just been murdered for the general good.
Yet, things are not quite as solemn as they may seem; this quote is part of a cunning strategy of Marc Anthony, who wants to turn Rome’s citizens against Caesar’s murderers. The major strategy to achieve this goal is pointing out Caesar’s testament – Caesar has left his gardens to the public. The quote in its original context points towards unjust murder, false accusations, and defamation.
As this has clearly no relation whatsoever to the song, we may be inclined to dismiss any Shakespearean connection all together, except for a random quote perhaps. However, I argue, that the quote has been put into a new context – now it is in a dialogue with three (or even four) other Shakespeare plays.
Retelling a Shakespearean Pattern
The song more or less clearly tells the story of a love gone wrong, of the qualms of a man who has wronged a woman (considering that we are talking about “The Evil that Men Do” I assume that the narrator is a man and not a woman, otherwise the refrain wouldn’t make much sense). Now he would do anything to reverse the deed. He wishes to meet her again, showing remorse.
This is a pattern found in several Shakespeare plays: Othello (1603), The Winter’s Tale (1623), Cymbeline (1623) and a play that at least partly befits the required pattern: King Lear (1608/1623). The first three more or less follow the same pattern: the king (or in the case of Othello, a statesman) accuses his wife of infidelity and demands her death, despite her innocence. Providence mostly means well for those wronged women and finds various rather miraculous ways to save them. Later, they are re-united with their all too regretting husbands. Why they would ever want husbands back who have demanded their execution is a question which cannot be answered here. In the case of Othello, however, the heroine has to die – and so has her remorseful husband who cannot undo the deed.
In the case of King Lear, the same plot-line unfolds for a tragic father-daughter relationship. King Lear intends to divide his kingdom among his daughters and to help him decide which daughter gets which portion of land, they are asked to express their love for their father. Whereas the older sisters make use of shameless flattery, Cordelia remains honest stating that her love will be divided between her father and a future husband. Enraged, Lear disowns her, marring her off without a dowry. Things end well for Cordelia at this end, as she finds a husband who treats her honourably despite the lack of a dowry (probably moved by the vow of love to a future husband). Yet, as the older sisters soon enough turn against Lear once they have inherited the power, displaying their false and cunning natures at last, Cordelia has to come to the rescue of her father – an undertaking which she will not survive. Lear dies of grief holding Cordelia’s body, uttering the famous five “never” – never will she become alive again. This story does not fit in quite as neatly as the others, but the parallels are strong enough so that I want to mention it nevertheless.
In sum, we have three husbands who want the deaths of their innocent wives and a callous father who disowns and more or less dishonours his daughter. Although the assault of the woman is clearly sexually connotated in the song, I cannot help bu associate it with the pointed out murderous husbands and the cruel father. We have three husbands bitten by remorse who wish to undo their deeds and a father who dies of a broken heart when he realises that the only daughter who had truly loved him has just died. Yet, (at this point) the reunion is out of reach.
The song thus clearly re-tells this pattern without revealing its Shakespearean origin. Love has brought doom, not just for the man who feels so deeply troubled that he decides to kill his wife (or to dispose of his daughter), but also for the woman who has to suffer from it. Our narrator has done something else, he has committed another wrong to a woman. Yet, the result remains the same, he feels remorse.
Creativity in Shakespeare Reception
Thus, the quote taken from Julius Caesar now forms the backbone of another Shakespearian narrative pattern. A quote which was meant to turn the hearts of Romans against the murderers of Caesar and thus belongs to a political context has been used for a different, but just as Shakespearian context. Here, the “the evil that men do lives on” because at least some of the men cannot undo their deeds. This is a re-combination and subsequent re-interpretation of Shakespeare’s work.
“The Evil that Men Do” is much more than a random quote of Shakespeare – it combines different aspects of Shakespeare’s work to form something new. It is a creative adaptation of Shakespearean material as well as a disregarded example of Shakespeare reception. Shakespeare is not something chained to dusty lecture halls and strict universities. Shakespeare is not only read by the academics, the pretenders, the flatterers, and those driven by blind ambition. And for my money, this Shakespeare adaptation rocks.
- “Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter” (No Prayer for the Dying, 1990) was banned by the BBC – probably missing out on the fact that the title is a quote of King Lear: “Such a daughter should sure to the slaughter” (I, IV, 343-344)
- No less than three titles of Maiden songs are more or less accurate Shakespeare quotes: “The Evil that Men Do”, “Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter” and (indirectly) “Brave New World” (Brave New World, 2000). “Brave New World” is an adataption of Aldous Huxley’s novel of the same name (1923). But the novel, in turn, was named after a quote taken from The Tempest (1610-1611): ” O brave new world, That has such people in’t.” (V, I, 205-206)
- Shakespeare’s work is frequently recurring in the solo projects of Bruce Dickinson, be it his autobiography (What Does This Button Do?, 2017), the film script of The Chemical Wedding (2008) or his solo albums. Coming back to the examples discussed in this post, “Taking the Queen” (Accident of Birth, 1997) mentions a winter’s tale. As mentioned before, in The Winter’s Tale the queen is seemingly killed. Taking the queen recounts the killing of a queen, creating a direct link to the Shakespearean play.
- Dickinson, Bruce, Harris Steve and Adrian Smith, “The Evil That Men Do”. Iron Maiden, Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, EMI, Capitol, 1988.
- Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. (Ed W. J. Craig). London: Henry Pordes, 1984.
- Shakespeare, William. Othello, the Moor of Venice. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. (Ed W. J. Craig). London: Henry Pordes, 1984.
- Shakespeare, William. The Winter’s Tale. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. (Ed W. J. Craig). London: Henry Pordes, 1984.
- Shakespeare, William. Cymbeline. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. (Ed W.J. Craig). London: Henry Pordes, 1984.
- Shakespeare, William. King Lear. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. (Ed W. J. Craig). London: Henry Pordes, 1984.
- Dickinson, Bruce, “Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter”. Iron Maiden, No Prayer for the Dying. Emi, 1990.
- BBC ban on “Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter”: https://www.bbc.co.uk/music/reviews/qjqv/ (2007) [09/19/18]
- Dickinson, Bruce, Harris Steve and Dave Murray, “Brave New World”. Iron Maiden, Brave New World, EMI, 2000.
- Aldous Huxley. Brave New World. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1959.
- Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. (Ed W.J. Craig). London: Henry Pordes, 1984.
- Dickinson, Bruce. What Does This Button Do: an Autobiography. London: Harper Collins, 2018.
- The Chemical Wedding. Dickinson Bruce and Julian Doyle (screenwriters). Bill&Ben Productions, Focus Films, 2008.
- Dickinson, Bruce. “Taking the Queen”. Bruce Dickinson. Accident of Birth. CMC International, Duellist Enterprises Ltd. et al., 1997.