shakespeare's skeleton-key fable

Ted Hughes - Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being

Something unheimlich, something obscurely offensive to the sentinels of the British literary establishment, about Ted Hughes... Academic managerialism with its Gradgrindian literal-mindedness gibs at this shaman-poet, as the broad response to his critical epic Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being illustrates. A batch of letters fired off by Hughes after the first reviews appeared in the spring of 1992 insist on his anger at the obtuseness of the response: the Cambridge don Eric Griffiths (a 'taught starling', 'straightjacketted in the English Tripos') is swatted aside, John Carey snubbed for the rest of Hughes's life. The 'scholarly howl of indignation' now seems to reflect worse on the reviewers.

Hughes had had the effrontery to stray into their kitchen garden and do something indelicate among the kohlrabi. Perhaps only in Coleridge's Biographia Literaria do we have a work of sustained criticism that succeeds in beating the bounds of discourse and in augmenting its subject. The critical endeavour is so much more than the sum of its footnotes. And perhaps only a poet could have written Hughes's Shakespearean study. It incarnates an intuition central to his work as a whole: that the creative imagination can be engaged with only as something untameable, unsocialised, as a bodily imperative than leaps beyond fashion and taste; that it somehow actuates the deepest – preverbal – impulses of the human.

Hughes was fascinated by dispatches from the outer reaches of psychology and anthropology; he was a student of Frazerian mythography, and it was in Robert Graves's The White Goddess that he found his first sacred book. Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being invites its reader to undertake a thought experiment – to read against the grain, counter-intuitively, even – and allow, for a while, that the plays and poems share a common psychic germ-cell, one that can be lain bare and sketched out in a kind of extended metaphysical écorché: an ur-narrative, a 'skeleton-key fable'. Hughes wrote elsewhere (in the long essay 'Myths, Metres, Rhythms') of the “gulfs of emptiness that [can] open up beneath very slight frowns of bafflement”, as two conceptual systems (think Stephen Jay Gould's 'nonoverlapping magisteria') graze their flanks against one another, generating only mutual friction and discomfort.

Hughes's Shakespeare gestated over a period of decades, emerging, as the Letters show, from discussions with the director Donya Feuer, and later still, in the Introduction to a Faber selection of the poetry. The fable – the Great Theme – of Shakespeare's drama is “a perfect example of the ancient Universal shamanistic dream of the call to the poetic or holy life”; and little wonder that the academic lictors have no time for it. Hughes trespasses and expropriates Heritage Shakespeare, transforming him, electrifyingly, into the high priest of a blood cult and witness to the apocalyptic rupture of the Reformation. History, for Hughes, is not a chronicle of diplomacy and statecraft, but a cockpit in which deep, autochthonous forces struggle to the death. At the heart of Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being burns the 'seismic response in suppressed Catholicism .. to the Elizabethan nightmare'. Hughes vigorously points up Shakespeare's peculiar sensitivity to the religio-political climate. Quite aside from the constant quest for preferment and professional recognition, catching the eye of a powerful patron, another impulse is at work, shaping and energizing the central nervous system that runs beneath the mere dramatic apparatus, the equipage of plot and character.

Shakespeare's entrepreneurial brilliance – in both the creative and practical sense – extends, for Hughes, into the wholesale plundering of the myth-kitty, not simply for decorative purposes, but for the deeper spiritual matrix it opens up. Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being proves a frightening book, massy and dense and obsessive: a 'sort of musical adaptation, a song', with the plays 'a single titanic work, like an Indian epic, the same gods battling through their reincarnations, in a vast, cyclic Tragedy of Divine Love'. It takes a certain magnificent brazenness to suggest that Shakespeare's Complete Works operates on the scale and complexity of the Mahabarata. Hughes was an eagle among the dovecots, indeed.

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