As Ariana Grande serves to build on an old lexicon–that of love and love lost–both in pop culture and (before that came along to destroy it) literature, it bears noting that the songs on thank u, next offer certain similar thematic elements to most of William Shakespeare’s plays. He was, after all, the supposed inventor of tragedian love, and the intermingling comedy that comes with it (particularly when gender reveals are involved). That being said, what follows is a breakdown of each song on Grande’s latest record and its according Shakespearean match.
“Imagine” = As You Like It: While the Forest of Arden might not necessarily offer Pad Thai or bubbles and bubbly, it is a magical world of possibility in comparison to the duchy Rosalind flees from with her cousin, Celia. Best of all, in escaping to this land where the real duke–Duke Senior–has set up shop in the midst of his brother, Frederick, usurping him, Rosalind has the freedom that comes with a new identity. Naturally, as Ariana Grande will tell you, with great freedom comes great responsibility. And though one would think Rosalind’s life would be slightly easier as she reunites (albeit undercover) with her father, it turns out existence as a man isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Particularly when the object of your affection–in this case, the presumably dashing Orlando–starts to display homoerotic tendencies. Even so, the opening lines, “Step up the two of us, nobody knows us/Get in the car like skrrt” evoke the image of Rosalind and Celia escaping the duchy for the Forest of Arden, while, elsewhere, Grande conjures the image of Rosalind’s feelings toward Orlando and vice versa with regard to the disguise element in the form of: “Knew you were perfect after the first kiss/Took a deep breath like, ‘Ooh’/Feels like forever, baby, I never thought that it would be you/Tell me your secrets, all of the creep shit/That’s how I know it’s true.”
“Needy” = The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet: While The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet (better known as Romeo and Juliet) is frequently the most romanticized (therefore most beloved) of Shakespeare’s plays, let us not forget the grotesque codependency that our eponymous couple quickly adopts in their tempestuous quest to be with one another at any cost. As though channeling the urgency and shameless desperation of both characters, Ariana declares, “I’ma scream and shout for what I love/Passionate but I don’t give no fucks/I admit that I’m a lil’ messed up/But I can hide it when I’m all dressed up/I’m obsessive and I love too hard/Good at overthinking with my heart/How you even think it got this far?” Luckily for Ari, it hasn’t yet gotten far enough for misguided suicide to become involved.
“NASA” = A Midsummer Night’s Dream: The whimsical nature of “NASA” and the figurative and literal outer space landscape it expresses is in keeping with the fantastical tableau of Fairyland in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Grande’s expression of a need for space and room to grow that can’t occur when being stifled by a relationship comes in the form of: “You don’t wanna leave me, but I’m tryna self-discover/Keep me in your orbit and you know you’ll drag me under.” Likewise, Titania feels pretty much the same about Oberon as she wants little to do with someone obsessed with her as a result of wanting to steal her changeling for himself. The dynamic between Hermia and Demetrius is similar as well, with the latter constantly chasing after the former. In turn, Hermia’s friend, Helena, is always smothering Demetrius with her affections–the (Nick) bottom line being: if you don’t give the person you love some breathing room, they’re likely going to start despising you.
“Bloodline” = King Lear: Arguably Shakespeare’s most tragic play (which is saying quite a bit), King Lear opens with our title ruler offering a contest, of sorts, to this three daughters, informing them he will give the largest share of his kingdom to the one who can prove she loves him the most. “Prove” essentially meaning throwing out a lot of pretty words signifying nothing. Which is precisely why Grande’s insistence, though pertaining to a suitor she would rather not reproduce with and/or invite into her family through marriage, “Don’t want you in my bloodline, no,” applies all too well to King Lear forsaking his youngest daughter, Cordelia, for not quantifying her love in material objects.
Interpreted from the Electra complex lens, Lear’s desire to feel beloved by his daughters in the absence of a wife/maternal force is summed up in the “Bloodline” lyrics, “Even though you’re bad for me, I know/You’re the one that I’m thinkin’/Got me feelin’ so incredible.” What’s more, the intro featuring Grande’s grandmother, in reference to hearing aids, saying, “Because I’m trying to do the best I can and they can’t find something to satisfy me, ugh,” also applies to Lear’s inability to get the love he seeks with added urgency as he feels his life coming to an end. The misguided decision to divide his kingdom between his eldest, Goneril, and middle daughter, Regan, leads to added carnage over asserting power of the kingdom through the right of blood. Hence, all along, it was Cordelia that Lear ought to have been declaring as the sole heir to his throne, the only pure progeny of his lineage.
“Fake Smile” = The Tempest: The title of The Tempest alone is an indication of not wanting to put on a front in the face of tumultuous emotions (which, in Shakespearean plays, always manifests in certain weather patterns). But the content of the story itself also speaks to never bothering with facades, best manifested in the character of Caliban, a mercilessly visceral “native” (and yes, yet another prime example of a racist trope in a Shakespeare play) of the island where sorcerer Prospero and his daughter, Miranda, live. Prospero himself, though undercutting and conniving (especially in his machinations with Miranda), rarely puts on a fake smile to mask his mood swings. Unlike Caliban, however, the benefit of being a white man allows him to “succeed” by the end of the play. The same goes for Grande in avoiding too much flak for cultural appropriation.
“Bad Idea” = Macbeth: For can there be any worse idea than murdering the king to become his successor and thinking you’ll get away with it? And though the idea is all of Lady Macbeth’s urging (a classic example of portraying woman as the source of all evil and temptation), Macbeth can’t help but take to heart the notion of the witches’ prophecy of becoming king, seeing fit to hurry along the process per Lady Macbeth’s murderous plot. Almost as though speaking from the perspective of Lady Macbeth, Grande sings, “Even though we shouldn’t, baby boy, we will (you know we will).” And so they do, ironically leading Lady Macbeth to be the one to ultimately realize her original statement, “a little water clears us of this deed,” isn’t true when you’re too busy hallucinating bloodstains on your hands all the time. So yeah, bad idea.
“Make Up” = Much Ado About Nothing: Touting how much she loves to start fights with her significant other for the benefit of inciting better sex when they make up, this track mirrors Much Ado About Nothing in terms of gossip and hearsay fueling needless arguments. Which, at the very least, Grande might have profited from in more intense orgasms with Pete Davidson post-tiff.
“Ghostin'” = Hamlet: While Ari might be haunted by the ghost of a relationship past (and now, Mac Miller’s actual ghost), Prince Hamlet, instead, is tormented by that of his father–cut down in his prime by his own brother, Claudius, so that he can secure the throne and, in so doing, also secure Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. Setting the tone for a narrative filled with the many psychological detriments of being haunted and therefore not being able to move on, the first act of Hamlet provides a scene of two sentries, Marcellus and Bernardo, taking note of the dead king’s spectral presence lurking over the barricades of Elsinore and deciding to tell Hamlet of their sighting.
“In My Head” = Othello: Propelled by jealousy and a falsely created perception of Desdemona as Iago starts to fill his head with unshakeable images, Othello is very much the victim of the now famed intro line to “In My Head,” delivered by one of Grande’s friends, Doug Middlebrook: “Here’s the thing: you’re in love with a version of a person that you’ve created in your head, that you are trying to but cannot fix. Uh, the only person you can fix is yourself.” But it’s hard for Othello to do that when he’s being wielded like a marionette by Iago–proving, once more, that we tend to believe what we want to believe, seeing only the worst in people as a result of seeing the worst in ourselves. Delusions sowed by the planted seeds of Iago into Othello’s increasingly mistrustful mind play well against Ari’s line, “Painted a picture, I thought I knew you well/I got a habit of seeing what isn’t there.”
“7 Rings” = The Taming of the Shrew: While some might say that “Fake Smile” is the better parallel to The Taming of the Shrew, it has to be said that “7 Rings” best embodies the notion of a money-hungry, insatiable in every way cunt who can only be placated when she’s given what she wants. In Ariana’s modernized version, at least, a woman can get it for herself instead of needing to rely on a man to do so, ergo bothering even less with reining in her tantrums.
“Thank U, Next” = Love’s Labour’s Lost: Despite Grande’s assurance that each of her failed relationships have resulted in a lesson learned, one can’t help but feel a sense of sadness as she blasély notes, “Thank u, next,” in something of an updated take on Madonna’s insistence, “Don’t go for second best, baby, put your love to the test/You know, you know you’ve got to.” Accordingly, the conclusion of Love’s Labour’s Lost finds the female protagonists–the princess and her ladies in waiting–making the men they’ve ensnared beg to be taken back. If they’re lucky, in a year’s time, maybe the women will oblige.
“Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored” = The Two Gentlemen of Verona: Though Shakespeare’s version of the love triangle involves two best friends and a girl they’re both interested in, Grande’s take explores instead a sordid minx who wants the attached boy she likes to turn to her for sexual release instead (though the video tells an altogether different tale).
Hence, since Shakespeare seems to be somewhat less revered in his white maleness these days, at least we have Grande to continue to address many of his most resonant motifs. Or, as she phrases it on “Everytime” from Sweetener, “It’s like something out of Shakespeare (yeah)/Because I’m really not here when you’re not there.” One supposes that pertains to gender disguises…