Protestant Guilt

Tom Paulin

  • Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being by Ted Hughes
    Faber, 517 pp, £18.99, March 1992, ISBN 0 571 16604 0

There is a particular type of literary criticism – these days very rare – that aims to exist intensely as bravura performance, dramatic spectacle. It would be pointless to object that the performing critic is merely a rhetorician engaged in digging and falling into a subjective pit of empty images, further descriptions, meaningless or questionable value-judgments. If we admire the critic’s imagination then we are bound to attend to the performance – a performance that lives only, of at least most intensely, in a first reading. Go back over the text and much of it seems to have melted into a series of repetitive rhetorical gestures that are all dead letter, not living spirit.

This is Hazlitt’s point in a little-noticed passage in an essay called ‘Whether genius is conscious of its powers’, where he argues that ‘the stimulus of writing is like the stimulus of intoxication’: ‘While we are engaged in any work, we are thinking of the subject, and cannot stop to admire ourselves; and when it is done, we look at it with comparative indifference. I will venture to say, that no one but a pedant ever read his own works regularly through. They are not his – they are become mere words, waste-paper, and have none of the glow, the creative enthusiasm, the vehemence, and natural spirit with which he wrote them.’ Though it lacks Hazlitt’s momentum and flexibility, Ted Hughes’s prose has a similarly vehement enthusiasm, a pulsing directness that makes him testify to ‘the simple immediacy and as it were natural inevitability’ with which his idea of Shakespeare’s Tragic Equation grew in his mind, ‘and which is no small part of what I would like to communicate to my reader’. Rooted in Yorkshire Nonconformism, Hughes’s prose is every bit as urgent as his poetry – it crackles like his thistles under a frosty blue-black pressure.

In this type of criticism, the reading process becomes more than analogous to the act of writing: reading fuses with writing because it empathises in a dramatic manner with the critic’s struggle to express ideas, a struggle that resembles an actor’s total expressiveness in relation to an audience. Such writing is conspicuous for its puritan theatricality – the term is not self-contradictory – for it carries always the preacher’s sense of speaking to and through a deeply attentive audience. Both critic and preacher demand complete attentive assent, an act of faith. Once that assent is given, the performance can begin, but it can continue only if the audience’s attention is held. Like Emily Dickinson, Hughes aims to push writing beyond writing, towards free expressive performance, but unlike Dickinson he doesn’t – at least in this study – know how to employ formal brevity as the ground of unconditioned Being. Like his admired Cromwell, he sees the formal and the free way as opposites, not synergies.

Yet despite the length of the performance, this is mythic criticism issuing from a marvellously intuitive historical sense, and no matter how fixed, reductive, tedious and obsessive the applied template of the myth eventually becomes, it is the relentless hurrying drive of its communication – its ‘pure, naked expressiveness’ – that counts above all. What matters is less the figure in the carpet than Hughes’s figuring out a pattern he discerns in many but by no means all of the plays. It’s therefore essential that we attend a show which features the poet laureate on the national bard, partly because Hughes has a sense of his country’s history that goes much deeper than that of any other living English writer. His huge study of Shakespeare, more than ten years in the making, is an unprecedented act of critical witness that spills out of an energy – a tragic energy – which has all but disappeared from current professional critical practice.

This tragic witness springs from Hughes’s way of shouldering England’s history as a burden of desperate Protestant guilt. He is haunted by a sense that not so very long ago this was a Catholic country which ‘hardened into Protestantism’. The phrase occurs in a review of Max Nicholson’s The Environmental Revolution which Hughes published more than twenty years ago, a brief essay that links the ‘fanatic rejection of Nature’ with the ‘subtly apotheosised misogyny of Reformed Christianity’. He describes the attraction of its ‘underground heretical life’, a life ‘leagued with everything occult, spiritualistic, devilish, over-emotional, bestial, mysterious, feminine, crazy, revolutionary and poetic’. For Hughes, the Reformation is the Fall, a gut belief he articulates in the brief essay which concludes his selection of Shakespeare’s verse published in 1971, where he remarks on the ‘flukish character’ of the Restoration, which disastrously imposed the ‘mid-century tastes of the French Court’ on the literacy and manners of a nation ‘whose radical Englishness it had every reason to fear’. The prose of Milton was replaced overnight by the prose of Addison, which in all essentials is ‘still our cultivated norm’. The full-stretch, vehemently unAddisonian muscularity of Hughes’s prose is a protest against civility that announces its pedigree – Bunyan, Milton, Lawrence – in an impulsive vernacular. It lacks subtlety, but it always confronts us with a bloody and engaged directness.

The tragic ground of Hughes’s vision is his honest, agonised perception that Protestant England has as its national poet and prime cultural icon a poet and dramatist who he believes was a deep, secret, committed Catholic. Drawing on a study by a Jesuit academic which ought to be better-known, Shakespeare’s Religious Background by Peter Mil-ward, Hughes probes Shakespeare’s Catholicism. Following Milward, he notes that his mother’s family, the Ardens, were strongly Catholic, and that the head of the Warwickshire branch, Edward Arden, was first implicated in a plot to assassinate Elizabeth I, then tried and executed. As a result, official persecution of Catholics in the area was renewed. Hughes notes that Shakespeare’s father, John, was a recusant, and he also accepts as genuine a Spiritual Testament, found in 1784 and signed by John Shakespeare, which was a declaration of loyalty to the Catholic faith (Milward makes a convincing case for the document’s authenticity).

Hughes’s very sensitive feeling for the Catholicism of Shakespeare’s family is the mainspring of his interpretation of the plays. He identifies Shakespeare’s Venus with ‘the archaic Goddess of the Catholic world’ and with Mary Arden, his mother, arguing that Shakespeare was a shaman who witnessed to the ‘prolonged, savage persecution and threatened extermination of the old Catholic tribe’. This tier of his argument leads Hughes to suggest with uncharacteristic hesitation that ‘in so far as he was a shaman of that type ... he was indeed not merely crypto-Catholic but committed to Catholicism with an instinct that amounted to fanatic heroism.’ Shakespeare the secret Catholic, the Stratford burgher who, according to a tradition Hughes doesn’t mention, ‘died a papist’ – the insight may not be original but it needs restating forcibly in a culture where Shakespeare is so often treated as a piece of Anglican heritage or as a second-rate Tory dramatist. It’s an applied insight which gains authority not just from the active excitement of Hughes’s prose, but from the puritan cast of his temperament, its Faustian agony. That agony is his enactment of what is essentially a buried national neurosis, a hang-up, that is the result of the damage done to Catholic England by the Reformation.

It’s here that Hughes has a problem with his subject. If Shakespeare was a committed Catholic, ever and always, then the modern history of Britain looks from that point of view like a terrible series of violent suppressions and official lies where the English Catholics, like the Palestinians today, are the victims of a punitive nationalism. Hughes the primitivist visionary believes that in many ways it has been downhill all the way since the Reformation, but his admiration for Milton’s prose binds him to ‘radical Englishness’ and to many of the values unleashed by the break with Catholicism. However, he also supports things as they are, and rather like Lord Denning on the need to accept the guilty verdict on the Birmingham Six, he can’t face the ‘appalling vista’ of a whole system – the culture that made and empowered him – which is built, from a Catholic point of view, on systematic lies and injustice. Yet he believes, as he says in the essay accompanying his selection of Shakespeare’s verse, that the ‘Shakespearean fable’ is really the account of how ‘in the religious struggle that lasted from the middle of the 16th century, to the middle of the 17th, England lost her soul. To call that event a dissociation of sensibility is an understatement. Our national poems are tragedies for a good reason.’ But the difficulty is that Milton embodies radical English nationalism, while Catholicism is identified, Hughes notes, with treason.

The association of Catholicism with active disloyalty to the state haunts Hughes’s powerfully atavistic imagination, for at some level he believes in gunpowder, treason and plot. But as he worships Shakespeare he must work hard to exonerate him of treachery.

Hughes therefore recreates Shakespeare as another shamanic type who rises, not out of the defeat of ‘some ancient, rooted culture, some humiliated nationalism’, but out of what he terms ‘a historically new spirit’. This revolutionary spirit is incarnated, he states, in Milton, Blake and Wordsworth, and at this stage in the critical rite Shakespeare begins to materialise as a prophet of the ‘ascendant, revolutionary, Puritan will’. At the very end of Chapter One, Hughes announces: ‘As a prophetic shaman of the Puritan revolution, in opposition to his role as the shaman of Old Catholicism, he experienced a second initiation dream, opposite to 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.’ This double-shaman is not so very far from Shakespeare the balanced Anglican, the multivalent consensus liberal able to see all sides of any argument, but it has the merit of being intensely felt within the raging hell of Hughes’s Nonconformist conscience. Shakespeare’s simultaneity allows Hughes to announce that the Complete Works are ‘modern England’s creation story, our sacred book, closer to us than the Bible’. This sounds positively Victorian in its ringing sense of manifest destiny, but in the context of Hughes’s urgent prose style it comes across as authentic, immediate, like a voice crying out in the wilder spaces of exhaltation. A voice anxious for reassurance of a sacred text and lacerated by its sense of complicity with state crimes.

Central to Hughes’s reading of Shakespeare is his interpretation of ‘The Rape of Lucrece’ and ‘Venus and Adonis’, and although the reading later degenerates into a locked mythic patterning of boar, goddess, flower, storm, it is compelling and ought to be treated seriously. Arguing that in so far as it is a theological work ‘Venus and Adonis’ seems to favour ‘a Protestant (actually a Puritan) idealism’, Hughes asserts that when it is read in the light of the later tragedies, the poem becomes a judgment, not of Venus, but of Adonis. Adonis’s rejection of ‘the Great Goddess of Divine Love turns out to be an error, for which he pays. Eventually, say the tragedies, it turns out to be an error that brings down the kingdoms of both Heaven and Earth.’ This sounds like Lawrence out of the Book of Revelation, and it must be seen as a late example of rhapsodic criticism, the critic as prophet witnessing in anguish to the ills of his society. By contrast, ‘The Rape of Lucrece’ is a deeply Catholic poem which exposes the violent and violating nature of Protestantism. Lucrece is a figure Shakespeare’s Catholic contemporaries ‘would recognise without difficulty’, while Tarquin is the imagination which despoils traditional holy places.

If Lucrece is the Virgin Mary – and I think she is – then we need to attend to the lines where the ‘fair temple’ of Tarquin’s soul is ‘defaced’ by the rape he has carried out. Troops of cares ‘muster’ to the ‘weak ruins’ of his soul and ask ‘the spotted princess’ – i.e. the soul – how she fares:

She says her subjects with foul insurrection
Have battered down her consecrated wall,
And by their mortal fault brought in subjection
Her immortality, and made her thrall
To living death and pain perpetual ...

Hughes quotes from this passage, but he does not give it any detailed analysis. What he does instead is to offer a provocative and enabling interpretation of Shakespeare which hopefully will inspire scholars to apply it.

If we consider that image of a battered ‘consecrated wall’ in the context of Shakespeare’s Catholicism, it has to carry a historical memory of the dissolution of the monasteries, and the judicial murder of monks and abbots during the reign of Henry VIII (after the rebellion known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, for example, Henry ordered that the chief monks at Sawley Abbey were to be hanged ‘out of the steeple’). The consecrated wall is similar to the multitude of examples which Milward lists where Shakespeare applies the word ‘holy’ to material objects ‘in the sacramental sense used by Catholics and often ridiculed by Protestants’. The battered wall is linked in the poem to the image of the dead Lucrece’s blood-surrounded body which ‘like a late-sacked island vastly stood/Bare and unpeopled in this fearful flood’. This is an image out of the Henrician reign of terror and it anticipates many images in Macbeth – for example, Duncan’s ‘gashed stabs’ that look like a ‘breach in nature’. As Milward suggests, this is a probable allusion to Thomas Cromwell’s ‘ruthless spoliation of the monasteries’. Again, I would suggest that when Shakespeare speaks of ‘key-cold Lucrece’ bleeding stream’ he means to activate a Papal reference within the proverbial application of the term ‘key-cold’. And I would further suggest that by making Richard III habitually swear by St Paul, Shakespeare aims to identify him as a cruelly vindictive Puritan. Hughes and Milward promise a welcome counter--reformation in Shakespeare studies.

Because Hughes feels English history intensely as myth, he is not much interested in detailing events, and this partly explains the narrow, tunnelled quality of his critical vision. He has a unique sense of this period of English history and of the theatre it inspired – a theatre that materialised from ‘the sheer uncontainable excess of this national struggle with conscience, this internal Inquisition in perpetual session’. But he tends to begin the historical myth with Queen Mary and end with the execution of Charles I. Hughes shies away from Henry VII. Only in an appendix that discusses Shakespeare’s and Fletcher’s Henry VIII does he consider the founding monster of the English state: ‘In so far as Henry’s rejection of the Papal Authority introduced the Reformation to England, his divorce from the Catholic Church was the act which begot the Tragic Equation within the English psyche. And as such it became the creation story – in its immediate, non-mythic, realistic terms – of Shakespeare’s dramatic universe.’ After five hundred pages we return to the myth’s beginning in the ‘realistic terms’ of actual history, but by now it is too late. Hughes cannot bring himself to examine the historical record and contemplate a monarch whose Stalin-like actions Jasper Ridley and other present-day historians detail. Even so, what is remarkable about Hughes is that he lets his imagination rip along the interface of two opposed ideas about the Reformation. The first idea, as J.J. Scarisbrick expresses it in his biography of Henry VIII, is that during Henry’s reign ‘a people accomplished what was, by any standards, a radical breach with its past and a remarkable act of national amnesis.’ Hughes is tormented by this great forgetting, because he knows that enormous wrongs were committed and that the population was not a unified ‘people’, as Scarisbrick suggests. But Hughes also knows that Henry had led England back into European affairs and exposed the country to what Scarisbrick calls ‘the immense creative energies of Continental Protestantism’.

Hughes’s entrepreneurial imagination responds eagerly to those energies – indeed they flex continually in his prose. Noting this, we can begin to see that early in Thatcher’s Administration Hughes was drawn to Shakespeare because he knew that the British people were going to be subjected to a rerun of the Reformation, and that even the Shakespeare whose ‘flexible opportunism’ was ‘nimbly attuned to market forces’ would have hated the angry deconstructions that were to take place. In a sense, this is an epic prose poem born out of the experience of Thatcherism. Its batty syncretism will be much mocked (‘It is not impossible that Shakespeare knew, through the Occult Neoplatonist route, the legend of Buddha’s enlightenment,’ Hughes opines in a typical footnote), but for all its shamanic obsessions Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being testifies to a horrible decade. I admire the stink of its Protestant guilt.