Ted Hughes, Marlowe & Shakespeare

I promise that this blog will not develop into a forum for refutation of the “anti-Stratfordians” but, as with my post earlier today about early pilgrims to Shakespeare’s Stratford monument between 1618 and the early 1630s, I must correct a false aspersion cast at last night’s lively How To: Academy Authorship Debate. Someone said “Ted Hughes didn’t believe the man from Stratford wrote the plays – funny that you didn’t mention that in your biography of him.” Well, unless I missed something in the thousands of pages of letters and critical prose which I spent five archival years examining, I didn’t mention it because it isn’t true. Indeed, in Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, a book that, for all its excesses and eccentricities, I admire far more now than I did when it first came out in 1992, he makes much of Shakespeare’s rural origins, butcher’s son etc. etc.

So where has the idea come from? A single remark in an early letter to his Cambridge friend Lucas Myers: “The way to really develope as a writer is to make yourself a political outcast, so that you have to live in secret. This is how Marlowe developed into Shakespeare.” (Letters, ed. Reid, p. 120). Quoted out of context, this might appear to make Ted Hughes a subscriber to the fantasy that Marlowe didn’t die in Deptford, but escaped to Italy from where he sent his plays back to be performed and published with Shakespeare as the front man. But look at the context:

The way to really develope as a writer is to make yourself a political outcast, so that you have to live in secret. This is how Marlowe developed into Shakespeare. Think what a precise detachment this would give to all your observations – at the same time making all your life, and the only possible life, inward. This is how Dante developed into Dante, & Joyce into Joyce. The other way is to go deaf.

What Hughes meant was that Marlowe’s problem was that his political engagement (spying, professed atheism) led to his premature demise, and that Shakespeare learned from this an art of detachment – of what Joyce would have called silence, cunning and exile. By learning from the negative example of Marlowe, Shakespeare protected himself and devoted himself to his art, always hiding in the shadows. Unlike nearly all his fellow-dramatists, he was never imprisoned or censured or had a play banned after a couple of performances. No Isle of Dogs, Tragedy of Gowrie or Game at Chess for him. At the same time, Hughes is arguing – and he would develop the thought further in Goddess – that “Marlowe developed into Shakespeare” in the sense that Richard II was a response to Edward II, Merchant of Venice to Jew of Malta, The Tempest to Faustus. His gnomic remark is in fact a crystallized anticipation, 35 years early, of the argument of “Marlowe’s Ghost”, the essay that won the Calvin Hoffman Prize and was then developed into Chapter 4 of my The Genius of Shakespeare. Hughes and I both believe that Marlowe’s ghost stalks the plays of Shakespeare – but metaphorically, as literary and theatrical influence, not literally.

The combination of quoting out of context and reading against the grain of the text is, of course, typical of anti-Stratfordian method.

But of course if someone has another source revealing that Hughes really did believe the Marlowe-was-Shakespeare theory, I’d be glad to hear of it. Old Ted did sometimes go for unusual theories …

And it’s so endearing that, despite his Cambridge degree, he couldn’t spell “develop”.

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