Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

William Shakespeare. Poetry selected by Ted Hughes.

31Y7SCE3YNLThis elegant book is part of a series published by Faber, of poetry selected by poets. So, we have for instance W B Yeats selected by Seamus Heaney, Ezra Pound by Thom Gunn, Ted Hughes by Simon Armitage – and William Shakespeare by Ted Hughes. This volume is the first I have acquired, but I don’t think it will be the last, as the idea is most appealing.

Shakespeare’s poetry is generally studied outside the context of his plays – the Sonnets, The Rape of Lucrece, Venus and Adonis, The Phoenix and the Turtle and a number of other fragments make up the collected poems. Some editions would also include the songs that are set pieces in the plays: It was a lover and his lass; O mistress mine; Come away, come away Death and so on. In his short introduction, Ted Hughes explains his intention to look for poetry within the play texts and choose passages that, in his judgement, stand alone as poetry. The example he takes is Macbeth’s speech ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, …’ which he sets alongside Yeats’s poem Death and Eliot’s lines from The Waste Land ‘Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead, | Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell | And the profit and loss…’ Of Shakespeare’s lines Hughes says:

In fact, if one specifies that ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow,’ is spoken by Macbeth as he faces the leafy army that will put an end to his spellbound, murderous career […], it actually limits the use of the passage to the reader. Its relevance is then confined to Macbeth’s predicament in a sacrosanct, old-fashioned play, rather than applied generally to the reader’s own immediate plight, as an ephemeral creature, facing the abyss, on a spinning ball of self-delusion.

So, interspersed with a number of the Sonnets and songs, a few passages from the longer poems, and ending with The Phoenix and the Turtle, Hughes presents with reader with passages from the plays, without context or reference. Some are familiar, some are not. Some are passages in prose that express a poetic idea. The game for the reader is to try to read them without the trappings of the theatre and the context of the rest of the play, and look for that wider and deeper speaking to our human condition. It is a fascinating game, and one that worked better for me in some cases than others. It is definitely a game, because it is possible to cheat – at the back of the book the pieces are listed by number with their references. I have to confess I found myself cheating by peeking rather a lot, but I came to the conclusion that this might not be the most helpful sort of curiosity. It is an illuminating exercise to read these pieces with Hughes’s intention in mind, including, maybe especially, those that are familiar, such as Hamlet’s soliloquy.

The arrangement of pieces is broadly chronological, so the plethora of sonnets works its way through in the first half of the anthology. This book is a place to encounter old familiar passages and contemplate them in this new light of being a Poem – favourites of mine are John of Gaunt’s speech from Richard II, or, even better, Richard’s speech (‘For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground | And tell sad stories of the death of kings’); Falstaff’s appeal to Prince Hal; Henry V’s Crispin’s Day speech; Queen Mab; Othello’s travellers’ tales; ‘Be not afeard. The Ile is full of noises’ – and many many more. I also encountered some pieces that had passed me by on stage, or else in reading them as poems I found new meaning in them. A particular new favourite is Jaques’s speech from As You Like It:

A fool, a fool! I met a fool i’ the forest
A motley fool; a miserable world!
As I do live by food I met a fool;
Who laid him down and bask’d him in the sun,
And railed on Lady Fortune in good terms,
In good set terms, and yet a motley fool.
‘Good morrow, fool,’ quoth I, ‘No sir,’ quoth he,
‘Call me not fool until heaven hath sent me fortune’.
And then he drew a dial from his poke,
And looking on it with lack-lustre eye,
Says very wisely, ‘It is ten o’ clock;
Thus may we see,’ quoth he, ‘How the world wags:
‘Tis but an hour ago since it was nine,
And after one hour more ’twill be eleven;
And so from hour to hour we ripe and ripe,
And then from hour to hour we rot and rot,
And thereby hangs a tale.’ When I did hear
The motley fool thus moral on the time,
My lungs began to crow like chanticleer,
That fools should be so deep-contemplative,
And I did laugh sans intermission
An hour by his dial. O noble fool!
A worthy fool! Motley’s the only wear.

And what better time than in the aftermath of an election to experience the catharsis of Coriolanus’s embittered harangue to the people:

You common cry of curs! Whose breath I hate
As reek o’ the rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcases of unburied men
That do corrupt my air, I banish you!
And here remain with your uncertainty!
Let every feeble rumour shake your hearts!
Your enemies with nodding of their plumes
Fan you to despair!

Phew. That feels better. He’d have been a riot online, would Coriolanus.

It is a book to dip into I found. So many of these pieces are profoundly introspective, so many evoke the pity and fear of the tragedies, the bloodletting of the history plays, the introspection of the later plays. Reading one after the other can be indigestible. But it has been a minor revelation to me to consume these passages as poetry in their own right, unshackled from the context of the play. There is, in fact, no such thing as cheating in reading, so immersing myself in a piece then looking it up at the back is perfectly acceptable behaviour! It is such a simple, refreshing device to present the passage on the page without the reference.

This anthology is also illuminating as an insight into the poetic sensibility and taste of Ted Hughes, his poet’s appreciation of another poetic genius, and if you are admirer of his work that is another reason to buy it.

William Shakespeare. Poetry selected by Ted Hughes. London: Faber and Faber, 2000. 165pp
ISBN: 057120386X

Please excuse the poor definition of the jacket illustration; I wanted an illustration of the exact edition I have, which I bought at the National Theatre Bookshop for £4.99. Another edition exists, with the title: Ted Hughes. A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse. I suspect it is the same, but I have no proof that it is. It is listed on Faber’s website at £9.99, while the other edition is not.

6 comments on “William Shakespeare. Poetry selected by Ted Hughes.

  1. Alison Priest
    May 15, 2015

    I have to say that I disagree with Hilary about reading passages from Shakespeare ‘unshackled from the context of the play’ such as the John of Gaunt speech from Richard II.

    This, of course, is just my personal preference, but having had the opportunity to study ten plays by Shakespeare over the past year with the Open University, I feel that it is vital to read such passages in their original setting. It was exactly this type of lifting of speeches out of context that lead to some of the worst misreadings of Shakespeare which sadly still persist in some less rigorous educational material.

    PS We have also studied the Sonnets and I would be fascinated to know if Hilary has worked through all of them since her post in 2010! Sonnet 60 is a particular favourite of mine.

  2. Hilary
    May 15, 2015

    My mild rejoinder is that there is no reason not to do both. It is an interesting and specific discipline Hughes is advocating here, to read a passage as a poem that is capable of speaking beyond the confines of the play, as far as possible detaching oneself from one’s knowledge of it, which in my opinion is not an invitation to bring variant readings back to the play by doing so. All the more reason, perhaps, not to peek at the index, but enjoy and consume them for their poetic genius and not as bleeding chunks from particular plays – which was Hughes’s intention. If the passages had had their references printed underneath that would have been much riskier, as readers would be immediately invited to bring what they know of the play to their reading.

    The Sonnets have rolled around several times since I wrote my piece, and still land in my inbox three times a week! So one way or another I’ve worked through them all (again, they can be indigestible in a lump). Sonnet 60 is loveable indeed. Also through finding it again in this collection, I was struck by how beautiful and moving 65 is – I’d not paid it much attention before, but in this particular reading exercise it stood out for me. I’ve had no plans to return to the Sonnets here, but who knows.

  3. Kate
    May 15, 2015

    It is standard pedagogic practice in university-level literature courses to teach Shakespeare through extracts as well as in whole plays. Teaching the whole play is a luxury approach, since most courses won’t have the time to focus on a single play in a course that has to deliver far more than that. Understanding the setting and context within the scene, the student can settle down to focus on vocabulary, imagery, rhetorical devices, and the poetry of the language. Non-native students in particular appreciate the gradual approach, and can enjoy Shakespeare, and go on to read more, by working on small extracts initially. Asserting that an all or nothing approach is the best approach is unnecessarily purist and exclusive. The important thing is to catch the imagination, not bore the student into loathing. Taking students to see a performance, or teaching through rehearsed readings, is another way round the problems of length, obscurity and unfamiliar discourses. These Faber books are an excellent resource for teaching.

  4. Alison Priest
    May 15, 2015

    Hello Kate – I think that you may be referring to university-level study outside the UK? The approach you suggest seems more like that which would be used for pre-16 GCSE students in England. Even post-16 students would be expected to study at least one whole Shakespeare play for English Literature at A-level.

    My experience of studying literature with the Open University is absolutely not ‘purist and exclusive’. Many of its students have been unable to access traditional degree courses for various reasons including long-term illness, disability and lack of formal qualifications. However, the OU also prides itself on producing academic standards which are equal to those of other UK universities through its distance learning materials which guide students with little or no previous experience in the subject.

    I have met so many students during the course of my OU studies who have returned to studying after having been failed by the education system earlier in life. Attending an OU degree ceremony, where these students receive the degree which they had previously thought was completely unattainable, is a very emotional and humbling experience.

  5. Jackie
    May 15, 2015

    This sounds like a wonderful volume and by studying sections of the plays and poems, would enlarge the meanings of the whole when set back into their context. And remember, Shakespeare made his works understandable to the common man, not just those with higher learning, so I would think he’d approve of luring people in via selections of his writings.

  6. Kate
    May 16, 2015

    Alison, I see that you’re making assumptions, and drawing selective inferences. I taught for the OU for three years, as well as in universities outside the UK. I’ve taught Shakespeare plays in their entirety and in extracts. These Faber books are a really excellent resource for teaching poetry, the poetry in plays, and for learning more about how a poet thinks about and critiques their craft.

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This entry was posted on May 15, 2015 by in Entries by Hilary, Poetry, Poetry Week, Theme weeks and tagged , , , , .



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