12 July 2006

In 'Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being', Ted Hughes tries to establish a mythological pattern which he sees driving Shakespeare's work, in the way a hack writes to a formula. It is the most basic myth, he argues, that Shakespeare strips down and utilizes, which is first recorded by the Babylonians: the myth of Tiamat, the Great Mother. According to this myth, Tiamat was the first being. She is mother of the gods; the gods try to overthrow her. She appoints one of her sons to defend her; he is defeated by another son who then cuts Tiamat into Earth and Sky and becomes the chief god. This myth then mutates. Tiamat as Sky becomes goddess of Love and Fertility; Tiamat as Earth becomes goddess of the Underworld. Sky and Earth both fall in love with the figure which was in earlier versions her defender. Sky keeps him until he is poisoned by Earth; Sky then reclaims him in the form of flowers and they afterwards share him according to the seasons. It is this dual aspect of Tiamat as Sky and Earth that Hughes sees developing in the Dark Lady sonnets. The Dark Lady, Hughes says, is two women within a single body: The beautiful woman Shakespeare's persona loves with complete abandon, and the evil of which her blackness is symbolic. It is the perception of both aspects that drives these poems, as he(the persona) tries to separate them in his own mind.

This seems like a very Jungian reading of Shakespeare, but that statement cuts five–hundred pages out of Hughes' book. It makes more sense to say that Shakespeare subconsciously tapped into the archetypes of collective unconsciousness than to say that a twenty–two year old, only fairly educated playwright was aware of and making use of such a wide range of myth in such an elaborate way. It has taken Hughes many years to piece his theory together; Shakespeare was too busy writing, I imagine, to do all the research and theorizing necessary to come up with such a scheme.

Don't talk about the purpose behind the sonnets, though. Focus on the pieces themselves. Looking at the structural and thematic unities of a particular poem gives us an insight that makes appreciating that poem, and all poetry, much easier. It helps us learn what to look for. The most interesting part of these poems is the possibility of dual readings––particularly sexual innuendo. Such innuendo is not necessarily inappropriate in tender poetry. It is a part of life, and something often either shared with or desired of the object of such poetry. It may, however, happen that such a reading was completely unintended by Shakespeare. Which is not to say that, if it was unintended, it is illegitimate(which is a perfect example of what I'm trying to say). Because of the tender nature of the poem, Shakespeare may have chosen certain words without realizing, or considering, other readings that could rise(did it again!) from their very nature as tender words.


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