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Shakespeare as shaman
by C.H. Sisson
A review of Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being by Ted Hughes.
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Ted Hughes Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being.
reviewed by C. H. Sisson
Ted Hughes tells us in his foreword to this book that his “interest in the mythologies and folklores of the world” not only “long preceded” his interest in poetry, but “in a way” led him to poetry. The sequence must be unusual, not only in poets but in anyone for whom poetry has any real importance. To be alerted by words and rhythms in hopeless conjunction, before there is anything of the analytical apprehension which passes for understanding, must be the normal condition of a child still in the world of lullabies and nursery rhymes. An “interest in the mythologies and folklores of the world” suggests an epoch considerably beyond not only that, but beyond the time when he first feels the fascination of particular folktales which may have been read to him. It suggests a young scientist at work, not among the test-tubes making a stink but with his nose inside more or less grown-up books, enquiring what thrills can be got from a chilling of the spine or a quickening of the pulse. Whether or not this portrait bears any resemblance to Hughes as a boy, here he is at the age of sixty-two, having achieved several kinds of success as a poet, including public honors, and he is offering us five hundred pages explaining Shakespeare’s plays in terms which bear the clearest marks of his early studies. The very title, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, shows them. This is no mere literary-critical work: it plunges into mythological worlds where no mere critic could survive, and in which even Ben Jonson—who spoke of his contemporary’s “well-turned and true-filed lines”
might well have been out of his depth.
In fact, Shakespeare’s lines are not themselves the primary object of Hughes’s enquiry. Nor, indeed, are such usual objects as historical background, imagery, or characters, although all these put in an appearance and have their part to play. Hughes sees Shakespeare’s task as that of a playwright who “has to concentrate on his plot and his characters, and on exploring their combined life to the greatest dramatic effect and for the most interesting and valid meaning.” This last phrase raises questions which would take us beyond the main theme of the book. Hughes thinks of his own role as seeing “through the surface glitter of the plot into the depth of the mythic plane.” To this task he brings not only a close and wide knowledge of Shakespeare’s text and a wealth of matter from anthropological sources and the like, but qualifications he owes to his experience of working at both the National Theatre in London and the international Center for Theater Research in Paris—in the latter location as “an ideas man, providing germs of plots” and “dramatic situations,” and, in both, in association with the director Peter Brook. The final fillip to the book was given by a correspondence with Donya Feuer, of the Royal Theater in Stockholm, who had earlier followed up a hint from Ted Hughes by putting together a full-length performance made of interlinked extracts from Shakespeare “in which a solo actress revived her Shakespearean earlier incarnations,” following the evolution from play to play of a figure which, on Hughes’s reading of things, lies behind all these characters and would be visible to anyone clear-sighted enough to see through differences of name, appearance, circumstance, and words to the mythic plane below.
It is this notion of the primacy of myth which dominates the present book, and it is perhaps unfortunate that the notion may seem to carry the implication that we get nearest to the truth of Shakespeare’s work by a reductive process which involves smashing the surface of it with a sledgehammer. This implication would have been less strongly marked if Hughes had conducted his analysis in such a way as to give the primacy to his theatrical interest. He is acutely aware of the importance, to the dramatist, of a “prototype plot model,” and Shakespeare’s problems with “the simple practical job of gripping the ordinary public,” and he sees the problems in a manner unlikely to be appreciated by readers who know nothing of “modern instruction manuals for professional writers, or of the actual working habits of professional writers harnessed to a demanding production line (whether in Athens’s great, competitive century or in the modern TV drama and pulp fiction markets).” One could question whether Hughes makes allowance enough for the historical differences between these markets, but it would certainly have been interesting to have seen the mythical chase this book records conducted more exclusively in practical theatrical terms, from the point of view of an ideas man in the peculiar world of contemporary producers, actors, and technical resources. This would, admittedly, have the drawback of reducing the myth to the status of a gimmick. The alternative Hughes has adopted, on the other hand, has the disadvantage of appearing to take a can-opener to Shakespeare’s mind, an operation never hitherto successfully performed.
The basic thesis of Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being is that Shakespeare had a “myth” of his own. Hughes starts his account of its evolution with the Sonnets, to make good his claim to understand “Shakespeare’s own subjectivity,” and so to render “the idea of the tragic myth as a living organism—as something that lived inside Shakespeare—more vivid and easier to grasp.” The claim is a bold one, of a kind difficult to maintain and impossible to prove, even in the case of twentieth-century writers who have left an untidy litter of evidence behind them, and it is hardly to be relied upon in the case of a sixteenth-century poet who left so few clues about himself. For Hughes, however, the Sonnets “make a simplified but strongly marked map of Shakespeare’s ‘erotic subjectivity.’” We move on to Venus and Adonis, the argument being that “the pronounced characteristics of Shakespeare’s way of loving … which he analyses in the Sonnets, are converted in the long poem” into the two mythical characters and what they get up to. Everything in the book follows from this. In Lucrece Shakespeare “inverted all the main features of Venus and Adonis in a crisply symmetrical counterpoint. … The uncontrollably passionate lover, formerly female, is now male. The sexual victim, formerly male, is now female.” This is only the beginning of the series of transformations—or more or less approximate identifications—which Hughes detects. After Venus and Adonis six or seven years passed during which Shakespeare wrote a dozen plays which failed to develop the themes which were to interest Hughes. Then something changed, and after “conscious preparation” in As You Like It, “myth, plot and drama” become one indivisible thing in All’s Well that Ends Well. Then we come to Measure for Measure, and to a crucial point in the development of that Tragic Equation which is Shakespeare’s own “myth.” “The Angelo who behaved like Adonis has somehow … been abruptly supplanted by the Angelo who behaves like Tarquin.” Hughes explains the matter as follows:
This is really the heart of the book. The sequel to Measure for Measure is Troilus and Cressida, here billed—with supporting arguments—as the first Tragedy of Divine Love.
What follows is an account of the evolution of the Tragic Equation through the seven tragedies. The process is of considerable complexity. The Equation “matures and mutates” in Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear, “makes its soul” in Timon of Athens, Coriolanus, and Anthony and Cleopatra, is transformed in the last plays and finally, in The Tempest, is dismantled. One cannot but admire the energy and persistence with which Hughes follows his chosen trail. It could hardly be otherwise than baffling at some points, and with such a long series of changes there are bound to be readers who will regard some of them with a certain skepticism. Thus: “The Queen of Hell is a variable. Her most notable variant … is the Boar,” “she is the general potential for sexual license,” “the orgiastic sexuality of the brothel city of Vienna,” “the [Trojan] war over a whore,” “the city of treacherous friends,” “the Rome of treacherous plebeians.” So the series proceeds. It is not to be doubted that Hughes is telling us something significant about the pattern of the plays, but such algebraic inventions must be treated with caution, for they encourage readers to look below the actual text for abstract meanings which are, inevitably, something poorer than Shakespeare gives us in his own words. There is no question of applying to Hughes Coleridge’s censure of the critic who “puts on the seven-league boots of self-opinion, and strides at once from an illustrator into a supreme judge, and, blind and deaf, fills his three-ounce phial at the waters of Niagara; and determines positively the greatness of the cataract to be neither more nor less than his three-ounce phial has been able to receive.” The author of Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being makes it clear that he is not providing a “general commentary” but concentrating “as exclusively as possible” on his particular discovery. The nature of this discovery is such that it involves putting his money on one view of “Shakespeare’s vision,” and he very properly insists that his account “can be no more than one attempt to describe one view of it.” In the end, the Tragic Equation is no more than “a manner of speaking.” It is worth setting beside it, for contrast, some words of Dr. Johnson, for whom Shakespeare’s words “support no opinion with arguments”—a view Ted Hughes would probably not dissent from. “His persons,” Johnson goes on, “act and speak by the influence of those general passions by which all minds are agitated”—a point entirely consonant with a “mythic” view of them. Where Johnson and Hughes might fall out is over the nature of any appropriate “mythic” view. The formula compounded from the stories of Venus and Adonis and Lucrece involves a narrowing of the vision to certain themes. “But love,” says Johnson, “is only one of many passions; as it has no great influence on the sum of life, it has little operation in the drama of the poet, who caught his ideas from the living world, and exhibited only what he saw before him. He knew that any other passion, as it was regular or exorbitant, was a cause of happiness or calamity.” And Johnson maintained that, whether in comedy, tragedy, or history, “seriousness and merriment were always intermixed.” Little enough of this intermixture is seen in Hughes’s grim version of Shakespeare’s vision.
Behind the whole of his exposition in this book is the notion, which Hughes has developed in other contexts, of the poet as shaman. “Almost all primitive groups are desperately in need of help from ‘the other side’ all the time.” Within more involved historical cultures, that happens only at certain moments of breakdown or crisis. The Reformation was such a moment and Shakespeare—no one would doubt it—was open to all the winds that were blowing about him. It may still surprise some readers that he “picked the source-myth of Catholicism for his first long poem,” then “picked the source-myth of Puritanism for his second.” The identification is surely more apt to assist the development of Hughes’s exposition than to cast light on the religious troubles of the times or their effect on the poet. Hughes claims that Eliot and Yeats were shamans like Shakespeare, if of a lesser kind, and maybe he has it in mind to reserve a place for himself in this ancient profession. Whatever the case for regarding poets as shamans, a better model for the discussion of literature would probably be Sainte-Beuve.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 December 1992, on page 63
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