By David Rains Wallace
295 pp.  Privately Published

Reviewed by Patricia Keeney*

An exhaustive and complicated exploration of wild places in the Shakespeare canon, Wallace’s study is also insightful and imaginative, involving meticulous research that tracks off on its own wilderness paths. Along these, the reader wanders intrigued, slightly lost but trusting, and finally emerges gratified yet surprised by the connections made.

Shakespeare’s Wilderness constantly begs the question: were Shakespeare’s vivid evocations of the untamed imagined or experienced? If imagined, could William of Stratford, who never travelled further than London, have possibly invented them with such convincing detail? If experienced, they fit much better into the peregrinations of the aristocrat, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford— and long time contender for the authorship of Shakespeare’s works—than they do William of Stratford, the traditionally accepted author.

Exploring the derivation of “wilderness,” word and idea, Wallace takes us back to its Anglo-Saxon root in the noun “wildeor” meaning “wild beast.” He goes on to discuss the varying images of wilderness in early western literature through Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with excited scholarship and the imagination of a poet thrilled by the way word history reveals cultural history.  Boewulf’s wilderness is grim and violent. For Medieval England, the wilderness was considered unpopulated waste. Courtly poetry reduced it to formal conventions “with the mannered style of tapestries,” the difference being that itinerant Anglo-Saxon poets worked from an oral tradition while Medieval poets— entertaining more literary audiences—had begun to work from classical and foreign sources, Chaucer being the prime example.

In the Renaissance, wilderness shrinks even further out of sight with Thomas More’s Utopia. But, says Wallace, an old dynamism resurfaces in Shakespeare where wilderness thrusts itself into his dramas. Quoting The Winter’s Tale and reinforced by such twentieth-century literary giants, such as Jorge Luis Borges and Northrop Frye, Wallace identifies “a [general] sense of older things lurking behind the sparkling dialogue, gorgeous imagery and snappy plots.”

In Shakespeare’s later plays, a “folkloric groundwater springs to the surface.” In his last romance, The Tempest, Prospero’s Island barely contains its dangerous wilderness. Macbeth’s witches and Lear’s terrible heath also echo the old Anglo-Saxon “sacred horror” identified by Borges. Cromwell’s Puritan revolution may have outlawed plays but it couldn’t outlaw the bard’s influence. Yet, he was not restored whole by the Restoration, his folkloric “wood notes” being regarded as somewhat barbaric, by such literary eminences as Dryden. However, the Enlightenment recognizes authorial power again with Alexander Pope applauding the originality of Shakespeare. Samuel Johnson enthusiastically distinguishes between a conventional “garden” writer and the much wider ranging “forest” writer that Shakespeare is.

The Romantics embraced Shakespeare’s wild side, the concept of the “sublime” becoming an existential alternative to urban civilization, which, in its turn, was regarded as a lawless wilderness (later characterized as the urban jungle). By the time we get to Modernist giants, such as Eliot and Pound, European civilization itself becomes a ruined wasteland. At the end of the Second World War, an exhausted Europe wanted what D. H. Lawrence called “a painted dome,” the protection of urban artifice against “ever-surging chaos.” Poets of Britain’s Movement, led by Philip Larkin in the 1950s, craved security no matter how banal.

At the heart of the Wallace’s study is Ted Hughes’s phenomenal book Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. In Wallace’s words, Hughes was “the main post-war British exponent of restoring mythic relationships with wild nature.” And, I would add, with the cosmos at large. Hughes is a myth-maker extraordinaire, writing versions of creation—animal, human and divine—on an almost Blakean scale. Raised on the Yorkshire moors, Hughes’s sense of the wild is deeply rooted in England’s Anglo-Saxon past. For him, Shakespeare’s language (“despite its Elizabethan ruff”) is far closer to the “vital life of English than anything written since.”

Hughes sees Shakespeare as a shamanic figure who attempted a “ritual reconciliation” of England’s great cultural and religion schism by creating a “literary Tragic Equation,” first worked out in the narrative poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, and then in the plays.

Of what is this national schism composed?

The Great Goddess is nature herself, the force and source of life worshipped in the earliest forms of religion. For Hughes, she has long been suppressed by the Great God of orthodox religion, the lawgiver, the controller who curtails instinct. In Shakespeare’s time, the Great Goddess lingered ghostlike in Catholicism’s Madonna, threatened constantly by the rise of Puritanism; a force held violently in check by Queen Elizabeth.

For Hughes, the drama of Venus and Adonis—prudish Puritan youth rejects passionate love goddess who turns ravening boar and gores him to death— animates most of the canon, the boar becoming Shakespeare’s shamanic animal, the symbol of his “visionary awareness.” Hughes goes on to illustrate how Shakespeare’s Tragic Equation is played out through his ritual dramas (and comedies), from All’s Well That Ends Well through Othello, Hamlet, MacBeth, Lear and The Tempest.

Here, we approach the core idea, fully endorsed by Wallace, that the work of strong writers (Shakespeare, Hughes) grows over its creative life to build “a consistent, recognizable persona.” As a poet, Hughes’s unique vision has been animated by nature. Such artists—think also of Blake or Van Gogh—see through the natural/material world to the informing reality behind it, opening infinitely in image and dream. For Wallace, this “primal phenomenon,” along with any highly specialized/privileged access to it, whether artistic or spiritual, constitutes the shamanic. This primal phenomenon is also what Hughes identifies in Shakespeare, developing a notion articulated by Alexander Pope that Shakespeare is no mere instrument of nature but that nature speaks through him.

Hughes’s identification of the Tragic Equation in Shakespeare is influenced by his own fraught involvement with Sylvia Plath. Wallace’s analysis of this relationship is fearless and fascinating, suggesting that Hughes spent his final years writing his extraordinary Goddess book because he found a strong connection to his own life story, a desperate one of creative/destructive unions and suicidal wives: “handsome young hunter who attracts a kind of goddess, who resists her . . . undergoes a ‘death in life’ [and is] ‘reborn,’ painfully and unwillingly as a kind of goddess-destroying monster.”

Hughes reminds us that the pattern is familiar: the “division of the loved and the loathed woman in the one body,” loved because she is nourishing nature, loathed (and feared) because she is also strange and wild. Wallace points out that Hughes in his Goddess introduction declares the “blood jet autobiographical truth is what decides the value of a truly mythic work.” Informed no doubt by his own turbulent psycho-drama, Hughes looks to the canon for the equivalent in Shakespeare.

What, asks Wallace, is the autobiographical blood jet truth about Shakespeare that provides the mythic beat driving his work?

Surely it cannot be found in the scanty biographical evidence we have on William of Stratford. Wallace spends some pages documenting that thread bare material to show how the literary reputation of small town William solidified around the First Folio and the Stratford Monument, burgeoning ultimately into Bardolatry with David Garrick’s premier Shakespeare Festival at Stratford in 1769. Since then, the paucity of biographical fact has inspired biographers “like a blank canvas,” says Wallace, to invent the abundant lives of Shakespeare that we now have in print.

With ironic zest Wallace, himself a well-known nature writer, intersperses his study of Shakespearean wilderness with his own American experiences in (variously) New England, Yellowstone and Berkeley. In California, for instance, he becomes aware of crows—once rustic now urban-summoning up that mythic Trickster figure of Hughes’s most famous black bible, Crow and also the well-known “upstart crow” reference to Shakespeare of Robert Green. In this context, the bandit bird represents the wiliness of Stratford William’s dual nature as “exploited writer” and “exploiting actor-impresario,” and seems to Wallace, a fitting symbol of the very sketchy literary identity of William of Stratford.

In a chapter called “Lord Boar,” Wallace declares that, at the time Hughes was writing his Goddess book, renewed interest in the authorship question had also developed, particularly with Mark Anderson’s 2005 biography of de Vere, Shakespeare by Another Name. He reminds us that the de Vere authorship question was first seriously posed by an English schoolmaster, Thomas Looney in 1920 in his book, “Shakespeare” Identified, outlining the tempestuous life of the Earl of Oxford that provides the baseline of the Oxfordian argument for de Vere as the author of the Shakespeare canon. The comedies and romances are seen as reflections of de Vere’s travels and affairs, while Hamlet is cited as the play that most closely parallels de Vere’s life and experiences.

For Wallace, “The Tragic Equation theme of men chosen by goddess-like women and then driven to destructive behavior pervaded de Vere’s life. He was Adonis-like in his youth . . . and attracted the era’s Great Goddess embodiment, Queen Elizabeth . . . [vacillating] between adoration and impudence . . . [his] Tarquin side emerged as he rejected his wife, plotted against the Queen’s allies, and impregnated her maid, Anne Vavasour.” Hughes’s Goddess model illustrates howthe Tragic Equation imbues most of the Shakespeare canon.

Wallace calls on British historian, Hugh Trevor Roper, to provide a pertinent little dialogue on Shakespeare and the natural world, asking, “How did this sensitive creature [Shakespeare], so sympathetic with the hunted—so acutely attuned to wild nature—survive the rough and tumble of the Elizabethan age?” The answer is that he did not survive it intact (as de Vere did not), except by becoming the great tragic poet of the mature plays, where, even here, Shakespeare’s feeling for wild nature softens the drumbeat of horrors in Macbeth or Lear. Citing passages from these plays, Wallace points out that de Vere, not William of Stratford, knew the wilderness they describe, knew Scotland and Dover (as Hughes knew the Yorkshire moors that infuse so much of his poetry).

For Wallace, Hughes’s characterization of Prospero’s place as “the rocky, storm-beaten island of a terrible dead witch and her devil-god,” in The Tempest, is truly an evocation of sacred horror. According to Richard Roe’s The Shakespeare Guide to Italy, it is based on “a volcanic islet off Sicily’s northwest coast,” containing lava caves, perfect for Ariel’s  hiding of the King of Naples’ ship and for habitation of Prospero in his cell. Its Mediterranean flora and fauna match descriptions in the play while references to foul smells, filth and even to strange noises can all be associated with the island’s volcanic origins.

Hughes speculates that his reading of Shakespeare “might form . . . a new kind of Shakespearean production . . . a single Titanic work, like an Indian epic.” One remembers that Hughes collaborated with Peter Brook, that great director of ancient epics. The Shakespearean epic that Hughes outlines tells, “the story of the mind exiled from human nature [and] is the story of Western Man . . . [looking for] a substitute for the spirit-confidence of the Nature he has lost.” For Wallace, Hughes’s suggestion that by exploring a personal Tragic Equation, Shakespeare may have realized how the real “sea change” is one that associates “wealth [and status] with death and the loss of it with life.” William’s story does not follow that course. Edward de Vere’s does.”

Wallace’s book argues passionately for the value of poets like Shakespeare, Hughes and Plath who let the wilderness in. They bring us right up to the present and, I would add, to a film such as The Shape of Water that stunningly warns of the risk we take in suppressing elemental forces, in turning “the well of life into more bathrooms and factories that pollute it.” The pulse of the wilderness is a “savage god,” to borrow the title of critic A. Alvarez’s major 1972 study on suicide (featuring a long memoir by Sylvia Plath). It is the engine that drives Shakespeare’s work. 


*Patricia Keeney is professor of English and Creative Writing at Toronto’s York University. She is an award-winning Canadian theatre and literary critic, as well as a widely published poet and novelist. Her most recent books are the novel One Man Dancing, based on Uganda’s legendary Abafumi theatre company and a collection of poetry and dialogues called Orpheus in Our World, inspired by the earliest Greek hymns to elemental forces.

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Shakespeare’s Wilderness
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