Strikingly, Ellington plays down the tragic trajectories of Shakespeare’s plots, reserving indication of their fates for a single ominous final note or unresolved chord.
Emphasis falls rather on the vitality of their distinctive voices, even when, as in his “sonnets” for Othello and Kate, those voices engage in a blues-laden lament.
Ellington’s assertion of the affinity between Shakespeare’s art and the black experience also extends to artistic form.
Throughout are little musical touches that elegantly transpose Shakespearean styles and forms into an African-American musical idiom.
He conceives of his suite as a series of musical portraits of Shakespearean characters, ending coda-like with a portrait of Shakespeare himself—it is essentially a suite of solos.
The well-worn conception of Shakespeare as primarily a creator of distinctive characters accords with Ellington’s own compositional methods, for he famously used the distinctive sound of individual band members as a starting point for his compositions.
Ellington also foregrounds Shakespeare’s women in his suite, particularly those women who are verbally assertive or subversive—Lady Macbeth, Katherine Minola, the three witches, Cleopatra.
The parallel between Shakespeare’s spunky women and his black characters becomes clearest when Ellington musically quotes from “Such Sweet Thunder” in the opening and closing phrases of his “Sonnet to Sister Kate.” When he turns to “The Star-Crossed Lovers,” Ellington gives the majority of the beautiful melody line not to Romeo but to Juliet, portrayed by Johnny Hodges’s alto sax.
First, the suite is entirely instrumental, sidestepping the issue of setting Shakespearean language in an African-American idiom.
Even so, in a few cases the sections have a conversational quality, as in the opening number “Such Sweet Thunder,” which musically depicts the seductive stories Othello tells Desdemona.