How Shakespeare's 'blood cult’ became Ted Hughes’s fatal obsession

He believed he’d found the secret key to unlock all of Shakespeare’s work. Twenty years after Hughes’s death, this is the story of the lifelong fixation he feared would destroy him

Ted Hughes, who quarried much of his life and work from myth and folklore, was hyperconscious of literary tradition. In a 1995 interview with the Paris Review, he identified his “sacred canon” as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, Coleridge, Hopkins, Eliot and Yeats. This sombre obeisance to his lyric forebears is dignified and appropriate, but slightly misleading. Hughes had grown up with Yeats and Eliot, and was often linked with Wordsworth, but there was one writer with whom he was particularly obsessed: Shakespeare. Indeed, in the year that he died he confessed to a friend that he believed this lifelong fixation to have been fatal.

Hughes, in his 20s, never ceased reading and rereading the playwright’s work. The spell it cast over him goes back to his Cambridge days, and predates his meeting Sylvia Plath. In February 1952, he described his undergraduate routine to his sister Olwyn: “I get up at 6, and read a Shakespeare play before 9 … That early bout puts me ahead all day.” Five years later, he confided to a friend that he was “reading all Shakespeare in what I consider the order of their being written.”

This, he declared, in slightly ominous tones, was “a deliberate project”, which came to a kind of interim fruition while he was completing work on his Crow poems. In 1969, he wrote to Charles Monteith, his Faber editor, asking if he could make an anthology “of Shakespeare’s shorter pieces”. Monteith thought this “a very exciting idea indeed”, and immediately commissioned Hughes for £150. No one could have predicted the strange outcome of this transaction.

Barely six years after the death of Plath, Hughes’s contract for a Shakespeare anthology gave him a rare moment of fulfilment, at a time when his relationship with his lover Assia Wevill was going badly. His Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse, he declared, would be “the best book of poetry in English”.

But then, on 23 March 1969, Wevill shockingly killed herself and her daughter, Shura, who was Hughes’s child. In his letters, he describes himself as “Absolutely smashed … I feel now that my life has gone completely empty.” But he continued to work on the anthology, which became implicated in a crisis of excruciating darkness. Hughes had hardly begun to recover from this traumatic loss when, on 13 May, the news came that his mother had died in the night. And yet, weeks later, on 23 June, as if galvanised by grief, he delivered the typescript of his Shakespeare anthology to Faber. In these terrible months, it seems, he had glimpsed something in the Collected Works that offered a kind of personal redemption.

Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in 1958.
Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in 1958. Photograph: Courtesy of The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.

We know this because the anthology came with an introduction, in many versions. Enough drafts, said Hughes, “to fill a small suitcase”. He had plucked out “Shakespeare’s heart”, he said, and identified “the myth” within the poet’s work – the religious and psychological conflict caused by the Puritan suppression of old Catholicism in which the goddess of pagan beliefs still flourished. It was a metaphor for Hughes’s struggles with Plath’s memory after her suicide; now his writings on Shakespeare began to elucidate the “tragic equation” in which the love goddess, enraged by the Puritan suppression of sexual energy, becomes the “Queen of Hell”, and eventually the demonised boar who destroys the hero.

His conviction that he had unlocked the secret to Shakespeare’s work, one that would reconcile the war inside himself, was an idea he was determined to prove by an even closer reading of the plays. Writing to Monteith, he confided: “I was fiercely bitten by my Hypothesis Bug, and could not not do it.”

This bug, which became a full-blown fever, was the idea that Shakespeare was “hammering at a particular knot of obsessions” in 14 of the mature plays, culminating in The Tempest. The great/tragic equation “seemed to operate at the level of the poetic vision itself, almost like the DNA of his poetic organism” and motivated Shakespeare’s single fundamental idea that “each of his plays tells over again”. This, Hughes wrote, “was the way Shakespeare presented the mystery of himself to himself”. In so doing, he had cracked a profound creative conundrum. “Most poets never come anywhere near divining the master plan of their whole makeup.” If he followed Shakespeare, perhaps he could achieve the same inner reconciliation.

During the next two decades, from 1970 to 1990, through an obsessive rereading of the First Folio, the “Great Equation” became an algebraic certainty in Hughes’s mind, based on his love of myth and the creative unconscious. In 1978, his obsession received a powerful endorsement when the Stockholm-based American theatre director Donya Feuer dramatised the equation in a one-woman show based on Hughes’s selection of Shakespeare’s texts. Soon after this, Hughes began a correspondence with Feuer. By 1990, it had morphed into a magnum opus, entitled Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being.

Hughes had discussed every nuance of the “Great Equation” with Feuer. At Faber, there was nothing but the highest optimism about a new book on Shakespeare by the poet laureate. This was a subject to which Hughes had devoted 20 years of thought and reading. What could possibly go wrong? The publisher’s archive, properly scrutinised, reveals a darker side.

The documents show Hughes wrestling with the manuscript as if with an inner demon. The Yeats epigraph to the typescript – “I have often had the fancy that there is one myth for every man which, if we but knew it, would make us understand all he did and thought” – indicates Hughes’s ambitions for the book. As well as plucking out Shakespeare’s heart, he saw this work of prose criticism as a way of redeeming himself.

From this perspective, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being offers the reader a sort of musical adaptation, a majestic song in which the plays become, as Hughes writes, “a single titanic work, like an Indian epic”. Here, we find Shakespeare’s characters battling their way through various incarnations in “a vast cyclic Tragedy of Divine Love”. Read in this way, the First Folio functions on the scale, and with the complexity, of the Mahabharata.

A generation after its first publication, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being remains an extraordinary one-off: the record of an obsession, a would-be cult and an incipient nervous breakdown.

The thrilling effrontery of Hughes’s vision has three outstanding and transcendent qualities. First, it hot-wires the reader into the wild voltage of his fascination with myth, language and folklore. Taking us deep into Hughes’s imagination, it functions as a strange kind of therapeutic autobiography. Second, it evokes his student reading of Robert Graves’s The White Goddess, an anthropological cult text Hughes had devoured at Cambridge. Here, he transforms Heritage Shakespeare into what he describes as “the high priest of a blood cult” in a strikingly original attempt to out-Graves Graves. Third, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being is possibly Hughes’s most sustained prose work, and an occasionally brilliant one. In these nearly 600 pages of literary cadenzas it’s as if “the lunatic, the lover and the poet are of imagination all compact”. A celebrated footnote about the boar that gores Adonis in Venus and Adonis gives a flavour of the whole:

The Boar’s peculiarly hermaphroditic nature is almost universally recognised in mythology … But the sow’s combination of gross whiskery nakedness and riotous carnality is seized by the mythic imagination …

Most alarming of all is that elephantine, lolling mouth under her great ear-flaps, like a Breughelesque nightmare vagina, baggy with overproduction, famous for gobbling her piglets, magnified and shameless, exuberantly omnivorous and insatiable, swamping the senses. The sow has supplanted all other beasts as the elemental mother …

As a country-boy Shakespeare enjoyed a familiarity with pigs that is not irrelevant to this myth … The male, aphrodisiac, pheromone scent spray, sold in modern sex shops, is commonly based on a hormone extract from the wild boar.

The prepublication life of Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, a short introduction that had become a doorstop, shows the poet at a molten point of creativity. His publishers struggled to keep pace. At first, when one editor, Craig Raine, delved into an early draft of the manuscript, he described it – in awestruck, mildly baffled tones – as “something so brilliant it gives you a headache”. Later, when the task of supervising the text had passed to Christopher Reid, Hughes confided his sense of liberation: “I had the feeling that writing out [the hypothesis] this time, I was making my Appeal from twenty years in the dungeon.”

Finally, it was complete, with a great mythical boar on the book’s cover. “It’s a strange experience,” he wrote, “to have such a 24-hour preoccupation suddenly evaporate, as if it had never been.” After consulting his astrological chart (Hughes’s habitual practice), Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being was launched on 9 March 1992.

“Exit, pursued by a boar,” was the Observer’s headline above Anthony Burgess’s mystified review. In the Independent, the poet Lachlan MacKinnon declared the book to be “egregious twaddle. The poet laureate has written a barmy book in which his project of making Shakespeare a writer of mythic significance fails.” Terry Eagleton expressed the scholarly consensus in the Times: “The Shakespeare who emerges from this book is uncannily familiar. He is a poet of primitive violence, animal energies, dark irrational forces and incessant sexual strife – a mirror image of the poet laureate.”

Some more positive reviewers glimpsed Hughes’s larger ambition, notably Michael Hofmann and Tom Paulin, who hailed “an unprecedented act of critical witness”. They were joined in the TLS by Marina Warner who saluted a “high-wire performance” and declared: “The readings Hughes offers are dazzling.”

The labour of completing Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, followed by its widespread rejection, exacted a fearful toll on Hughes. Writing to his friend Keith Sagar, he describes two years of “staying up to 3am and 4am”, which he believed had destroyed his health. Elsewhere he asserts: “Writing critical prose actually damaged my immune system.” His Shakespeare book had nearly killed him, he was “not sure I’ve ever got over it”.

Failure and redemption can be twins. In the aftermath of this debacle, Hughes put “critical prose” behind him, and returned to his muse. In January 1998 he published his award-winning poetry collection Birthday Letters to near-universal acclaim. Released from the psychic prison of the equation, he was now writing with a zest and a clarity that recalled his best work. The failure of the one had fuelled his determination to complete the other. Birthday Letters, he confessed to a friend, “was a thing I had always thought unthinkable … so dead against my near-inborn conviction that you never talk about yourself in this way, in poetry.”

He had taken his cue from Shakespeare, the master of reconciling candour with jeopardy. Having failed to articulate his personal myth through the code of the Great Equation, he turned to writing in his own voice, not another’s. As Ted Hughes he spoke triumphantly, and for all time •

• Robert McCrum delivered the Ted Hughes Memorial lecture earlier this year.


Robert McCrum

The GuardianTramp

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