Shakespeare, Showman or Shaman?

Ted Hughes grasps for the words to describe the sublime nature of Shakespeare and his mastery of the world:

"But it is not so easy to say anything about just what gave his [Shakespeare's] inner illumination, that peculiar, not to say extraordinary, power, scope and depth, or just why it expressed itself in poetry, or why his poetic, dramatic activity was of that particular quality ... and embodied the climactic struggle of the day, it was, as I say, also prophetic."

One would think it enough to have placed Shakespeare solidly in the company of Bruno, Dee, and Bacon. But, no, Hughes goes even further by raising Shakespeare's work to the realm of the Supernatural!!


Shakespeare, Hughes now acclaims, was a type of otherworldly shaman figure who only appears in rare and extreme situations and by the deadly compulsion of an ancestor spirit! Shakespeare, according to Hughes, must have been sent to help deliver the English Catholics from oppression. Yet, it is a mission he cannot complete despite his brilliance and spirit guide. As Chapter 1 comes to a close (p102), Shakespeare is dubbed The Shaman of Failed Catholicism.


Hughes does not mention Edmund Spenser's "Fairy Queen", which exalts Queen Elizabeth as a goddess and was much appreciated by her. He does mention (p58) a precursor to Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis called Narcissus that was written by Lord Burghley's secretary John Clapham. This work was directed squarely at the Elizabethan Adonis, Henry Wriothesley (Lord Southampton), who had rejected the will not only of Lord Burghley but that of the "Goddess", Queen Elizabeth herself, for him to marry and begin producing heirs.

The teenager Lord Southampton was Queen Elizabeth's darling and it was her wrath that the man-child was risking by his persistent defiance. Hughes recognizes that Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis was a reworked version of Narcissus aimed at persuading the same recalcitrant aristocratic bachelor Southampton to perform his noble duty. However, Hughes reasons that the Goddess rejected by Southampton was not in fact Elizabeth or even Elizabeth de Vere (his proposed young bride), but the Catholic Church!

The bitter conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism cannot be overestimated. Elizabeth was herself a type of Adonis in the sense of her grave peril of being torn apart by these rival and supremely jealous forces. However, Elizabeth was first and foremost concerned with the survival of her royal throne and not the espousing of common agendas. This required carefully weighed policymaking aimed at off-setting rival political, religious, and philosophical factions, the subtle practice of which is so completely reflected in the Shakespeare canon.

The embattled Queen needed a clever, potent, and comprehensive defense. Literary propaganda was an indispensable element of the strategy. It began with her typecasting as the Great Goddess, who had killed Adonis with impunity. In truth Elizabeth had killed the royal familys beauteous Catholic Church, but this could be rationalized as part of her divine role. She should not be condemned for fulfilling it. The flip side of that typecasting is that the sacrificed Adonis was to be reborn as a new hero, and one that would be the Great Goddess final undoing (as the Sphinx was subdued by Oedipus). However, Elizabeth was equally determined that this champion (her successor) would not be a prince of the Roman Empire, but a son of her own choosing, James, the Protestant king of Scotland.

No significant hope for the return of Catholicism is offered by Elizabeth via Shakespeare. Her creation, Shakespeare, was not the voice of a suppressed Catholic underground as Hughes imagines. Shakespeare was instead very much a spokesman for the nominally Protestant Queen Elizabeth. He was a soothsayer ordained to ease her trials and confound her enemies, Protestant and Catholic alike.

Hughes writes (p99), The great shaman, typically, gathers up the whole tradition of the despairing group, especially the very earliest mythic/religious traditions, with all the circumstances of their present sufferings, into a messianic, healing, redemptive vision on the spiritual plane.

However, we neednt resort to such a desperate explanation of a prophet crying in the wilderness (of the Trans-Thames) when the royal family was so close at hand. The royal family represented the memory of all mythic/religious traditions. It was Queen Elizabeth that summoned the spirits of her royal ancestors (and their big bag of tricks), and for the support of her cause. Elizabeth also "conjured up the literary brand of Shakespeare, into said writing she poured the residual wisdom of the ages. Queen Elizabeth was capable of divulging far more secrets if Rome and the Empire did not relent, and this may well have been Elizabeths most dangerous weapon. If Elizabeth could not win, she might become a very damaging spoiler.

The second poem of Shakespeare, Lucrece, complemented Venus and Adonis as a literary defense for Elizabeth (as did the Shakespeare plays produced afterwards). Elizabeth was calling down the strongest curse available to her, the curse that befell the Roman rapist Tarquin, who forfeited not only his own kingship but kingship itself in Rome because of his willful, devilish, and pointless rape of the chaste Roman wife Lucrece. The contemporary Roman Emperor would risk the same fate if he abused his own powers, or so threatened the voodoo-like curse invoked by Elizabeth, if he should act treacherously and vengefully toward her! Elizabeth's hope was that the Empire and its Pope would be contented with a vicarious rape of England and Elizabeth offered up by the poem Lucrece, and would thereby cease and desist in consummating the evil it had already determined to do to Elizabeth in its heart with such extreme prejudice.

If anything Shakespeare should be called the Shaman of Failed Reason. The Enlightenment got off to a rocky start and never did fully dispel the darkness of either flavor of Christianity, Catholic or Protestant. The Shakespeare corpus was supremely successful in keeping the external threat of the Papacy and Empire at bay, even if it did not ultimately prevent English civil war. The revived spirit of old Athens in England did not save Bruno, and it would have to endure much more Persian-style abuse from religion. It was destined however to bless clerics with the world of automobiles, airplanes, cell phones, and Dan Brown documentaries that even they partake of today.

Hughes is confused about the nature and motives of Shakespeare, but possibly there is more we can learn from his daring book. For example, he states (p99), the Ass, as the Egyptian Set, who was also Typhon, is another form of the Boar, in a mythical system to which, as I hope to show, Shakespeares tragic myth is intimately connected. This sounds promising! So lets read on. Maybe we will somehow come to understand how the product of a mother-son union could be called Heracles, Glory of Hera. Maybe we will somehow, someway comprehend an ancient Goddess figure that was celebrated and worshipped for having the sexual drive and ambition of a God. Or, maybe we cant know the truth much less handle it!

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