Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Historical Background of Shakespeare's Tragic Equation by Ted Hughes

In the turmoil of sixteenth and seventeenth century England one broad pattern emerges which will help lift into relief Shakespeare's tragic myth and which may, to a degree, validate it.

Such a vast complication as the crisis of religious belief at this time, which was also a crisis of political, intellectual, economic and social life, can be spoken of only in the largest kind of generalization. But it can perhaps be said that between the Catholic regime (repressive terror, executions, martyrs) of Queen Mary, who died six years before Shakespeare was born, and the Puritan regime that executed Charles I thirty-three years after Shakespeare died, England went through the final phase of its Reformation and was transformed.

These two historical points were extreme opposites in that events immediately preceeding Mary's reign pushed her Catholic fanaticism to a ferocity beyond anything that England had ever suffered before, while the momentum of the passions of the Civil war carried Cromwell's victorious Puritans to a severity beyond what the country would ever tolerate again. The conditions that prevailed, between these two episodes, were also, at every point, one way or the other, extreme. And peculiar- in being so uniquely productive.

It is not really possible to seperate, except artificially, this energy wave from the convergence on England of various other tidal global movements, from Europe and America, over and above the tectonic shifts of the Reformation, that lifted everything from its old foundations and simultaneously opened all horizons, physical and mental. But the decisive factor in England- the factor which perhaps more than any other determines the nature and evolution of Shakespeare's Tragic Equation- was that the process of religious change was arrested, or rather held in suspense, by the historical accident of Elizabeth I. Those two savage competitors for the English soul, which were the new Puritan spirit and the old Catholic spirit, each intending to exterminate the other, both uncertain of the outcome, were deadlocked, and in a sense spellbound, by her deliberate policy throughout her very long reign. They were not openly deadlocked, as on the Continent, with the embattled cities and occasional massacre of populations. They were deadlocked out of sight, forcibly disarmed, and forbidden any physical, direct expression whatsoever, inside Elizabeth's crucible.

As the daughter of Henry VIII she had no alternative but to keep them there. The Papacy had already condemned her as 'the bastard of a heretic", and denounced her claim to the throne as illegitimate. The revolutionary Puritan doctrine, that had so frightened Queen Mary, ultimately opposed monarchy and pressed towards what could only be civil war. Elizabeth's solution, reaffirming her father's ideal of a middle way between two extremes, was to outlaw and suppress both.

She needed a police state to do it. Even so, though she could anchor her ship of state she could not anchor the tides beneath it. Behind the new Puritan, the tsunami of the Continental Reformation piled like a tidal bore into the narrow haven of England. And it carried with it the frenzies of a jihad. And behind the old Catholic, in an intermittent campaign of war that lasted through Elizabeth's life, the international might of the Catholic Empire went on gathering itself to bring England back into the fold by any means. The ghostly front line of the deadlocked spirit armies of these two giant historical forces was drawn through the solar plexis of Elizabeth's subjects.

What she suppressed, then, when she suppressed those furies in England, was virtually an internationalized civil war. She pushed it down into that subterranean region as a controled explosion, and sealed it there, in the black hole of the Englishman's nervous system, for the forty-five years of her reign. And after her death in 1603 King James contrived, by one accident or another, to raise the pressures and temperatures inside it even further.

Down there it became the inner life of that epoch. It created the psychodrama, the international proscenium of a struggle- civil war conducted by other means- that forced England through what has since turned out to be her decisive mutation, towards the day, twenty-six years after Shakespeare's death (during the lifetime of his daughter), when it would erupt into the apocalypse of the actual war....

One can imagine the nightmares of these ( the Shakespeare's ) Catholic sons. One hardly needs to imagine them: they parade the Elizabethan stage in a dense gas of suspicion and guilt. During that reign every man knew himself to be, or could suspect his neighbor of being, at heart, officially a traitor. Elizabeth could reasonably persuade herself than any of her subjects- even her nearest and dearest such as Essex- was her potential assassin. The theatre itself had materialized ( only fifteen years or so before Shakespeare had found it) from the sheer uncontainabble excess of this national struggle of conscience, this internal Inquisition in perpetual session. Even Ralegh, at his trial, was accused of having 'the soul of a Spaniard'. And though he was reprieved for a few years, he was sentanced to the death of a Catholic activist and traitor, to be half-hanged, castrated, disembowelled and the rest, his only consolation being that his rank would limit the even to simple beheading.

Flashes of this sort give a taste of the paranoia that served for air in the crucible. But Shakespeare's phantasmagoria is the thing itself. His suspectibility to large, cataclysmic visions, and the fact that his plays emerged as poetry, inspirationally, suggests how much of his life, too, was underground, and concealed, perhaps even from himself, as with the poet who planned a work on a life like Timon's:

the fire i' the flint
Shows not till it be struck.

And that is what I would like to bring into alignment: The Elizabethan/Jacobean dream not as it appears in the historian's archive, but as it appeared- the 'form and pressure' of the 'very age and body of the time'- in the tragedies. Not the mirrored image of the civic procedures, but the processes of the inner explosion, behind the faces of both judges and accused- the controlled slowness of that explosion. First, the religious substance of it, the mass, depth and pressure. Then the retardation, the deferred release, as everything inched towards a conclusion that could only be frightful.

Since Shakespeare was born, lived and died within the crucible, his art evolved as a kind of salamander. It had time to develop the means to so thrive on and to deal with the conditions and forces that had brought it into being. The elements of the creative chemistry did not blow off in a single blissful dawn, as with most revolutions, leaving him and a few other lyrical prophets to make what they could of the ringing in their ears. Within that crucible, the conditions and forces that shaped him were also, inevitably, the very substance of his vision. What I want to suggest is that the equation of his tragic myth was, in a real sense, the equation of the chemical process within that 'controlled explosion'.


  1. "in other words, Shakespeare was a shaman, a prophet, of the ascendant, revolutionary Puritan will (in its Elizabethan and Jacobean phase) just as surely as he was a visionary, redemptive shaman of the Catholic defeat. As the prophetic shaman of the Puritan revolution, in opposition to his role as the shaman of Old Catholicism, he experienced a second initiation dream, opposite of the first,and enshrined in his second long narrative poem " Lucrece". That is presumably how he came to possess the extraordinary faculty of dealing with the visionary revelation of each side of the conflict from the point of view of the other. He was on both sides, simultaneously a major shaman of both types."

    "Shakespeare and The Goddess of Complete Being" by Ted Hughes; Faber and Faber, 1992/ pages 74-78. 92

  2. Probably there were some English who lived during this epoch that did not feel a strong sense of being in the crucible of a 'controlled explosion' but existed during the brief course of their lives in a kind of neutral state, without much bother, simply following the simple conventions of everyday life, much like many Americans do today, at least until the actual civil war spred hardship, devestation and desperation through-out the land.

    With that caveat, I would still prefer that more historians were poets like Ted Hughes!