Hughes + Shakespeare

Essential ShakespeareEssential Shakespeare by Ted Hughes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Shakespeare + Hughes = Jackpot.

This book is brilliant in its conception and stunning in its content. Part of the Ecco “Essential Poets” series, Hughes made a brilliant editorial decision: rather than simply anthologizing Shakespeare’s poetry (i.e., the sonnets), Hughes decided to de- and recontextualize passages from the plays as poetry. As he notes, speaking of Macbeth’s soliloquy, “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow…”:

[I]f one specifies that “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow” is spoken by MacBeth as he faces the leafy army that will put an end to his spellbound, murderous career (having just heard that his wife, who prompted the course of action that converted him from the king’s loyal champion to a regicidal tyrant, has died), it actually limits the use of the passage for the readers. Its relevance is then confined to Macbeth’s unique predicament in a sacrosanct, old-fashioned play rather than applied directly to our immediate plight as ephemeral creatures facing the abyss on a spinning ball of self-delusion. Obviously by reading the passage out of context, one is missing the great imaginative experience of the drama–but one is missing that anyway. The speech on its own is something else, read in less than a minute, learned in less than five, still wonderful, and a pure bonus.

This decontextualization works brilliantly. It makes Shakespeare’s language and psychology come alive in a new immediacy. All of a sudden one sees how Shakespeare is part of a lineage of English poetry, part of the stream that will give us Yeats and Eliot and Larkin and Hughes.

One has to wonder whether this work–the work of an “anthologist” now immortalized in Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist–isn’t part of Hughes lasting testament. Indeed, I found myself hearing Shakespeare anew, almost as if the language had the same broad earthiness of Hughes’ Yorkshire dialect. The very context seemed to help me hear Shakespeare anew, as a voice of England, and not just the sort of Oxford snobbery that usually accompanies his aficionados.

In sum, a marvelous little book–one of those delights to which one returns again and again, to-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow.

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