Hughes takes Shakespeare’s two early narrative poems VENUS AND ADONIS and THE RAPE OF LUCRECE as points of departure and shows in the first chapters how Shakespeare’s rethinking and combination of these ancient myths eventually produced what Hughes calls the “Tragic Equation.” This grand pattern flexibly structured the plays from, roughly, AS YOU LIKE IT to the end of Shakespeare’s career. The first myth is of a hero who rejects the love of a goddess and is killed in revenge by a boar; the second is based on Tarquin’s rape of Lucrece and subsequent banishment. Citing Euripides’ HIPPOLYTUS and Racine’s PHAEDRA as, respectively, a classical and a neoclassical exploration of the tragic consequences of the first myth, Hughes shows how Shakespeare’s genius connected the two myths as previous authors had not and thereby produced works more dazzling in their complexity.
Though in summary this thesis may seem to risk reducing the plays to a predesigned formula, Hughes’s play-by-play analysis brings out many fresh comparative points. Angelo in MEASURE FOR MEASURE, for example, goes from being the Adonis figure in condemning sexual license in Vienna to the Tarquin figure in suddenly desiring the chaste novice Isabella. Lucio, the life-denying character who represents the disrupting element in Vienna, evolves into the cold, calculating Iago later in OTHELLO. Hughes presents Parolles in ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL and Thersites in TROILUS AND CRESSIDA as permutations of the same polarizing force.
An important part of Hughes book is his application of the archetypal elements from these myths to the growing strife in England’s religious and political life during Shakespeare’s career. Hughes sees the innate power of the myths as not only dramatized in the plays but also lived out in the conflicts between the forces leading to the English Civil War. An esoteric and penetrating study, Hughes’s lengthy work (524 pages) demands and rewards the concentration of readers already quite familiar with the plays.