Shakespeare and Myth
When I was a teenager I picked up a copy of Robert Graves’s The White Goddess. I remember reading it on a bus and getting wafted along in the billowy resonances. There was John Fowles on the further fringes with The Magus and Ted Hughes, stomping across the moors of Devon, was about to give birth to his big book, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being.
I was tempted to think all this mythology a load of guff. At the other end of the spectrum was the acidic Philip Larkin. His collection High Windows was like acid etching compared to Ted Hughes’s gestural expressionism. It seemed more rooted in the common particular. On the other hand Hughes was more alive. You couldn’t imagine Larkin flouncing off to Iraq with Peter Brook for some enormous mythological spectacle in the tomb of Artaxerxes using an invented language. Was Hughes bombastic? Was Larkin mean-spirited?
I have been reading Jonathan Bate’s unofficial biography of Hughes. Bate is an excellent biographer and I recommend his books on John Clare and Shakespeare. (The Shakespeare is a must for anyone who perversely continues to trolley out the idea that Shakespeare was not the W.S. from Stratford.) The reading opens up reflections on life: ecology, privilege, cultural change, myth-making and myth-reading. How are we to take all of these things? How in particular are we to take what we have inherited from the past and pass it on into the future. Hughes, for all his self-indulgence and fawning on privilege, was deadly serious about that. What does it all mean?
My Shakespeare in the Mountains course is designed around reading plays that mythologise Englishness. It seems urgent and relevant to consider this right now with the impending exit of the United Kingdom from Europe. We do not have to go all gooey about Shakespeare to recognize that Falstaff, Puck, Lear and Caliban play powerful chords in the self-conception of the nation. There are questions that arise from these figures that continue to provoke and demand new readings. What does Brexit mean? Who takes charge of these meanings? Do you have to reject the mythologies completely when you reject the groups that have appropriated them?
In preparation for the course I will ask participants to prepare speeches for reading. The major focus will be on the speeches and dialogues that throw light on the theme of the five days: these are the speeches we perform, although we will make a continuous reading of the complete plays. There is ample time on the walks and over meals to discuss the themes that arise and I shall send out a pack of readings- including selections from Hughes and Graves- to enhance the dialogue.
In the meantime you might find this LWT programme from 1993 interesting. It seems prescient:
“This is the perennial problem: a narrow-minded home-spun view of England.”