Ted Hughes and Shakespeare: “A Particular Knot of Obsessions”

Ted Hughes and Shakespeare:  <em>“A Particular Knot of Obsessions”</em>


Illustration by Lyndsey Smith, www.lyndseysmith.co.uk

Illustration by Lyndsey Smith, www.lyndseysmith.co.uk

In 1992, as I was leaving Court Green after visiting Ted and Carol Hughes, Ted suddenly ducked back into his kitchen and emerged with a handful of typewritten papers. He handed them to me, saying, rather diffidently, “You may not have seen this”. ‘This’ turned out to be a clutch of notes intended to replace about eight pages of the original introduction to Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, his great work, published only a little earlier that year. The new introduction was written, he said, because he had realised a book about “the psycho-biological/religious/mystical root-system of Shakespeare’s dramatic vision” needed readers to approach it with the “co-operative, imaginative attitude of a co-author”. It was titled A Definition of Mythic in Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being.

I was dismayed that the negative response of some reviewers to Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being should have made Ted so defensive. Sorry, too, that he planned to present readers with an abstract argument about the ‘mythic’ or ‘realist’ personalities of imaginative writers before they had even begun to tackle the book.

The trouble was, as Ted had told me when we discussed The Doorstop (as he and Carol called this book), it was clear from the reviews that very few of his critics had really read it. And academics tended to think he was encroaching on their territory: who was he – just a poet – to write about things they had spent their whole careers studying and teaching? He was challenging their fixed ideas.

In fact, Ted’s credentials for writing about Shakespeare’s work were excellent.

As an eighteen-year-old National Service conscript on night duty in an isolated location in the East Riding of Yorkshire, Ted had read and reread all of Shakespeare’s plays. And by the time he was twenty-six, Ted “literally” knew Shakespeare by heart and was shocked that Sylvia Plath had read only thirteen of the plays. Or so Plath told her mother, no doubt exaggerating somewhat in her euphoria at being newly married.

Ted’s fascination with Shakespeare never ebbed, and in 1969 he persuaded Charles Monteith (who was then his editor at Faber and Faber) to allow him to select his favourite passages from Shakepeare’s plays, together with some sonnets and short poems, to be published in a “single portable book”.

A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse was published by Faber in 1971 and Ted wrote in the introduction that the pieces he had “plucked from the body” of the work not only liberated the energy and the unique quality of Shakespeare’s language but also revealed the poet himself. He had plucked out “Shakespeare’s heart” and, he went on, “if it has a black look it is well to remember that most readers have decided the plays are healthy”.

In his long introduction, Ted outlined the religious and psychological conflict caused by the Calvinist Puritan suppression of Old Catholicism in which the goddess of earlier pagan beliefs still flourished. The religious aspect of this conflict was particularly relevant during Shakespeare’s lifetime, but the universal psychological aspect of the suppression of natural human energies, especially sexual and imaginative energies, is clear to see. It was in Ted’s writing on Shakespeare that what he called “the tragic equation” was explicated: the love goddess, enraged by the puritanical suppression of sexual energies, becomes the ‘Queen of Hell’ – the demonised boar who destroys the hero.

He had plucked out “Shakespeare’s heart” and, he went on, “if it has a black look it is well to remember that most readers have decided the plays are healthy”.

In many ways, this first essay about what Ted saw as Shakespeare’s ‘great theme’ (later published in Winter Pollen  pp. 103-121) is clearer, simpler and more powerful than the much longer exposition of Ted’s views in Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being.

What interested me, however, was that Ted noted in both essays that every poet finds metaphors for his own nature – “the master-plan of their whole make-up”   – and that this is projected into their work. So how much of Ted’s own nature was revealed by the passages he chose and, in particular, by his elaboration of the “symbolic fable” – the “particular knot of obsessions” – that he described as the single fundamental idea holding all of Shakespeare’s work together?

Another early favourite of Ted’s was Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, a copy of which was given to him by his English teacher, John Fisher, when Ted left Mexborough Grammar School. Graves introduced him to the language of poetic myth. And what young poet could not be inspired by the idea that this magical language, bound up with ancient worship of the moon goddess, was the true language of poetry? So, at nineteen, Ted addressed his poem Song to his “Lady”. And later, in 1973, after reading about the ancient vacanas (songs) of the Southern Indian poet-mystics who considered themselves ‘married’ to Shiva, he experimented with writing his own: “You snatched me up and you carry me off / O lady / To sing”, he wrote to his ”Lady of the Hill”.

Through myth, Graves also introduced Ted to the goddess in her many manifestations; not only muse, virgin, mother and goddess of hell, but also boar and serpent and many other animal forms. And he wrote of the male gods in every era who had challenged her power.

Much of Ted’s discussion of Shakespeare’s ‘great theme’ can be traced back to Graves’ arguments in The White Goddess, but the psychological aspect of Ted’s “tragic equation” shows just how much he was also influenced by the work of Carl Jung.

Jung’s writings are well represented in Ted’s library archive at Emory University. In 1977 he told Ekbert Faas that he had read all of Jung’s works as they appeared in translation but had “tried to avoid knowing them too well”. Clearly this did not work, as he frequently referred to Jung in interviews and in his writing.

Nor should we be surprised, given that Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being deals very thoroughly with the many different ways in which Shakespeare explores the workings of the subconscious, that those who are very familiar with Jungian theory are also familiar with Ted’s work. In 2006, I was unexpectedly invited to participate in a conference on psyche and imagination run by the International Association of Jungian Studies. I have only a limited knowledge of Jung’s works, mostly those associated with alchemy and symbols, but the topic interested me so I accepted. At the time, I was impressed by the frequency with which Jungian analysts and scholars referred to Ted’s work and to Shakespeare and the Goddess in particular. Frustration was also expressed that the book was no longer in print and was quite hard to obtain, except as expensive first editions offered on the internet.

Graves and Jung were seminal influences on Ted’s work but so too was his early passion for the poetry and occult interests of WB Yeats. One critic dismissed Ted’s interest in the occult as his “dotty beliefs”, and another writer described it as “endearingly bonkers”. Ted was unmoved: “You will be laughed at for your superstitions,” he wrote in the opening poem of Capriccio and, again, in the final poem of Howls & Whispers, where he added: “Let them laugh.” In a letter to Keith Sagar, he wrote scathingly of Auden’s dismissal of “the whole of Eastern mysticism and religious philosophy, the whole tradition of Hermetic Magic (which is a good part of Jewish Mystical philosophy, not to speak of the mystical philosophy of the Renaissance), the whole exploration of spirit life at every level of consciousness, the whole deposit of earlier and other religion, myth, vision, traditional wisdom and story in folk belief…” (Letters  p.426). Mysticism, magic, Occult Neoplatonism, Hebrew and Christian Cabbala, Gnosticism and the myth of Sophia: all things Ted studied seriously and understood well. He discerned all of these in Shakespeare’s work and explained why coherently in Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being.

You will be laughed at for your superstitions,” Ted wrote in the opening poem of Capriccio and, again, in the final poem of Howls & Whispers, where he added: “Let them laugh.”

Ted was well aware that Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being was a difficult book:  difficult to write and, for some readers, difficult to read. For anyone not very familiar with the plays, the “whirl of names”, he suggested, might sound like “a betting shop in the basement of the Tower of Babel”. One reader was so incensed by Ted’s re-interpretation of Shakespeare’s work that she wrote to him, and, while her original letter is lost, Ted’s reply vividly suggests the vehemence of her attack (Letters p.610-11).  “I am sorry my Shakespeare book disagreed with you,” it opens. On the other hand, five New Zealand women were so moved by the book that they wrote to Ted explaining that his interpretation of Shakespeare inspired their large and intricate tapestry of Venus and Adonis, woven to be hung in the brand new Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

Bill & Ted

Click the image for a full version of the beautiful illustration Lyndsey Smith created for this essay. www.lyndseysmith.co.uk

Ted’s own knot of obsessions meant he was uniquely qualified to recognise an underlying theme that others had never noticed. He was not just someone who knew Shakespeare’s work exceptionally well. As he was writing, he was also reading widely and discussing his ideas, as his letters to Keith Sagar and his dedication to Roy Davids at the front of the book indicate. Most importantly, he was a poet bringing his poetic sensibilities to the work of another poet; and in the whole body of Shakespeare’s work he recognised a progressive exploration of many of his own beliefs, difficulties and questions.

To return to Ted’s vision of the ideal reader of Shakespeare and the Goddess: he or she would, Ted hoped, regard his argument “as a sort of musical adaptation, a song” – an imaginative and unified restaging of the whole body of Shakespeare’s work. In 2012, the Globe staged all of Shakespeare’s plays. They were performed by different companies of actors from different countries and in different languages. I wonder what further wonders, what pan-global narrative, could have been brought forth had the directors all read Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being.

Hughes, T. Winter Pollen, Faber, 1994; Letters of Ted Hughes, Reid, C.(Ed.) Faber, 2007.


Ann Skea is an independent scholar whose work on Ted Hughes has been widely published. Her Ted Hughes webpages can be found at http://ann.skea.com/THHome.htm Her book - Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE Press, 1994) - is available on request.


  1. Ryan Williams says:

    They did read the book.

    That was why they find its content nonsensical, often contradictory, and a bit of a muddle. I believe John Carey provided some detailed quotes.

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