Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize Speech: Literature, Art, Professionalism, Shakespeare

Bob Dylan meets fans, 1964, via © Daniel Kramer/courtesy TASCHEN from TASCHEN photo book "Daniel Kramer – Bob Dylan: A Year and a Day".

In Stockholm today, Patti Smith sang Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" (beginning at 1:02:56), and the United States Ambassador to Sweden, Azita Raji, presented Bob Dylan's acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature on his behalf.   

Dylan's full speech is available here, via the Nobel Prize Organization.  It begins:

"Good evening, everyone. I extend my warmest greetings to the members of the Swedish Academy and to all of the other distinguished guests in attendance tonight.

I'm sorry I can't be with you in person, but please know that I am most definitely with you in spirit and honored to be receiving such a prestigious prize. Being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature is something I never could have imagined or seen coming. From an early age, I've been familiar with and reading and absorbing the works of those who were deemed worthy of such a distinction: Kipling, Shaw, Thomas Mann, Pearl Buck, Albert Camus, Hemingway. These giants of literature whose works are taught in the schoolroom, housed in libraries around the world and spoken of in reverent tones have always made a deep impression. That I now join the names on such a list is truly beyond words."

He recognizes, humbly, that he is in "very rare company, to say the least," with these writers.  And then Dylan explores a connection with a writer whose works I would bet he knows in long stretches by heart, who he's mentioned often in his songs, and whose art is indeed — as many have noted — akin to his own.

"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?'"

He's absolutely right that Shakespeare was a theater owner and manager, always concerned with goings-on at the Globe and the costs thereof as well as the benefits.  Indeed, Shakespeare's words were written for the stage, and meant to be spoken.  Shakespeare never oversaw a published edition of his works during his lifetime; the "First Folio" was compiled by the actors in his theater company and published seven years after his death in 1616.  And if you don't think Dylan has a sense of humor, you neglected that next-to-last question above, about the best-known prop in all of Shakespeare, Yorick's skull.  

Minutiae of his working days fill Dylan's time, too.  This is a man who can be seen, in D.A. Pennebaker's footage of him, taping his own mic stands, and worrying about ticket sales, while on his first major world tour.  Dylan returns to Shakespeare in the last lines of his speech:

"But, like Shakespeare, I too am often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavors and dealing with all aspects of life's mundane matters. 'Who are the best musicians for these songs?' 'Am I recording in the right studio?' 'Is this song in the right key?' Some things never change, even in 400 years.

Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, 'Are my songs literature?'

So, I do thank the Swedish Academy, both for taking the time to consider that very question, and, ultimately, for providing such a wonderful answer.

My best wishes to you all,

Bob Dylan"

Graceful rather than self-aggrandizing, good-natured, appreciative, and full of self-knowledge, Dylan's speech is what a memorable soliloquy should be.  Thanks to the Nobel laureate for his lyrics that hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature, and that individually and collectively provide the abstract and brief chronicles of our times.

Floor, Shakespeare's birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon, October 13, 2016 


Thanks for this thoughtful appreciation of a masterly speech which avoided Dylan's being required to do other than let his music speak for itself. The speech is not an over-reach, it comes from the heart, and speaks to his fans as well as to those who know him less well. I was stunned, when I read it yesterday, how simple and straightforward his prose writing, in this case, is and how much I missed by not paying enough attention to him during his long and productive career. - Ted