Wednesday, 26 May 1999

Ted Hughes: Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (1992)

Edition: Faber and Faber, 1993
Review number: 258

One of the last books written by Ted Hughes, this monumental piece of literary criticism aims to show connections between the plots and imagery of many of Shakespeare's plays. These connections are based around what Hughes calls 'the Tragic Equation', derived from the two early poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. The supposed fascination of Shakespeare with this theme is based on Hughes' reading of the spirit of the Elizabethan age, with the barely suppressed warfare between Catholic and Puritan reflected in the unconscious of a sensitive man like Shakespeare. (The two poems are explained as expressions of the central 'myths' of Catholicism and Puritanism respectively, Venus and Adonis dealing with the power of the Goddess - whether the Virgin or the Church is intended, Hughes doesn't say, and The Rape of Lucrece the downfall of the Goddess at the hands of Yahweh. The fact that these interpretations of the poems would be deeply offensive to both devout Catholics - the idea of the Virgin or the Church as a sensualist! - and evangelical Protestants - God as a rapist! - is not even considered.)

The Tragic Equation synthesised from these poems' themes goes something like this. The tragic hero falls in love with the pure woman; a moment of double vision means he sees her also as the faithless "Queen of Hell"; in rage, he destroys her, or himself; sometimes he or she returns to fuller life to end the play on a note of redemption.

There are, I think, many problems with Hughes' general idea. The major problems seem to stem from his own captivation with it, which makes him rather unwilling to consider other possible interpretations of the plays. The offensiveness of his Catholic and Puritan interpretations of the poems which has already been mentioned is a good example of this.

Hughes develops the Tragic Equation from play to play as he sees Shakespeare's use of it growing in understanding (which may be - probably to Hughes should be - unconscious); however, from a sceptical point of view, he ends up tailoring the details of the Equation to fit the play. The play that his analysis illuminates most is Othello, which is probably not coincidentally the play which the bare version of the Equation given above fits best. (The moment of double vision, caused by Iago's false but convincing accusation of Desdemona, and its expression by Othello, is the basis for one of the best sections of the book.)

There is a tendency to argue without supporting evidence, as when Hughes takes the view that the plays Pericles Prince of Tyre and The Tempest, which he views as the culminating use of the Tragic Equation, reflect Shakespeare's integration of mystical Gnostic parables with the equation. Hughes takes the popularity of the philosophical ideas of the Gnostics among the Jacobean intelligentsia on the one hand and Shakespeare's use of similar imagery and themes (to do with rebirth and a spiritual journey to enlightenment) on the other, and says the two must be connected. But, like the Equation itself, there is a lack of evidence that Shakespeare was really doing this. The connecting themes are sufficiently vague - and certainly part of the orthodox Christianity which every Elizabethan and Jacobean was taught as a child - that it would be possible to see them in just about any work of art; and to see a connection in the use of flower imagery is to my mind just silly.

Hughes is strongest, as you would expect from a poet of his calibre, when analysing Shakespeare's language in detail. His linked discussions of Shakespeare's use of neologisms and of the word "and" to create poetic effects are particularly interesting. ("And" is often used to connect two contrasting ideas, instantly creating a vivid picture in the imagination.)

Other than his eye for detail, the strongest points in the book are the analyses of the lesser known plays, such as Troilus and Cressida, Timon of Athens and Pericles. In general, Hughes' ideas are interesting and thought provoking, but just not convincing.

A final, minor, point: a book of this length and complexity should really have been given an index.

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