Shakespeare as shaman

by C.H. Sisson (from The New Criterion, December 1992)

Shakespeare_HughesA review of Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being by Ted Hughes

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:

It can be seen here … that in divining just how the second myth erupts from the first, in other words just how the man who rejects the female, in moral, sexual revulsion, becomes in a moment the man who assaults and tries to destroy her, Shakespeare has divined a natural law. One that presents no mystery to post-Freudians. It is so natural, in fact, that the inevitability of the tragic dramas which follow is based precisely on that law.

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.

Read the complete review

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