The abandoned script of King Lear; Pike and Angels; and Orghast: Notes on a BBC Radio 3 interview with Ted Hughes.

© Ann Skea

King Lear

In a BBC Radio 3 interview with Clive Wilmer on 5 April 1992, Hughes was asked about the origins of his book Shakespeare and The Goddess of Complete Being. He began by saying that one of the springs of the book was a film script he began to write in the late 60s and early 70s when Peter Brook asked him to write a scenario for Shakespeare’s King Lear. He was reluctant to do this because, to him, it was a sacred text. For two to three months he “laboured away trying to simplify it”. But the first thing that he realized was that every word was important – that if you “take out one little nut here… a wing falls off somewhere or other – and a tail begins to come loose – the whole thing is so intimately integrated”.

Then one night he had a dream. There was a tremendous banging on his back door at Court Green and when he opened it “there was Shakespeare himself, in all his Elizabethan gear, like that portrait of Gloriana – jewels, ruffs, and the rest of it” and absolutely furious with him for “tinkering with King Lear”. He came in, “boiling with rage”. Then, in the enormous roof space in the top of the house he put on a performance of King Lear, using his own text, “as it should be put on, according to him”. It was “immense, filling the whole sky”. This extraordinary dream, Hughes says, “was the most tremendous thing” and it opened a way into “the whole mythical background of the play”. The next morning, he sat down and wrote bits of it that he could remember but he really took the dream to mean that he “had to stop tinkering with King Lear”. So, “reluctantly – perhaps wrongly”, he did.

Pike and Angels

Asked about his use of myth in his poems, Hughes said that even in his first books he could trace odd leading images directly back to certain mythical things that interested him. ‘Hawk Roosting’, for example, was “a straight monologue for a notion of the Egyptian hawk Horus – the immortal hawk who is the Eye of the Sun; who flies through all hawks and or who absorbs all hawks”. He was, he says, “trying to raise the creatures that I encountered in my boyhood in South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire”. He was “trying to raise them into some sort of mythic frieze” or mural. Pike, for instance: “they were to be angels, hanging in the aura of the Creator – they were just hanging there in a… great ball of light…, pulsing away there, very still”. They were still, he says, “because they were originally angels”. He went on to say that he was trying to raise his pike to the “kind of intensity and generality” exhibited by Blake’s tiger. That was his ideal, and his efforts, he said, are apparent in the original drafts of the poem. In the end, however, he “just cut them out and then left [himself] with the old South Yorkshire fish”. However, that had been the original purpose and motivation behind the poem itself, as it was, also, with the Hawk.


Orghast, said Hughes, was a project he undertook with Peter Brook in preparation for a performance at the Shiraz Festival in Persia. Peter’s international group of actors all spoke different languages and Peter assumed that the audience in Persia would be international or would be Iranian. The whole experiment was to search for a kind of acting which would not have “the divisiveness of being characterised by a single culture or a single language” but would be common to all human beings. This meant that actions had to be generalized, not necessarily “primitive” but on a “thoughtful or mythical level”.

Hoping to force the actors back into resources behind verbal expressiveness – “back into some sort of musical or other kind of expressiveness” – Hughes began with no language at all – “just using bird cries”. Then, he wrote a scene about the Vulture visiting Prometheus on his crag. He wanted to write a text of some kind, so that he could “organise the music of it”, so he invented about half a dozen words. And “automatically, because you don't want to just invent meaningless sounds”, he made each syllable represent what he considered to be the central ideas of the drama. He and the actors invented quite a large vocabulary. Then, “automatically”, he began to introduce a grammar - cases, tenses – and “the whole thing just automatically turned into a language,… it just automatically evolved in that way, on the pattern, I suppose, of Latin”.  As it became a language, however, the actors began to use it as a language in the scenes and it began to work less and less well. Instead of “driving them right back into the absolute last–ditch effort to express something–or–other that couldn’t be expressed in words, they were just talking”. It became “like Chekov” but what Hughes and Peter wanted was something more like “the first Parliament of the apes”. So, Hughes broke it down again, wrote a new language and didn’t tell the actors what the words meant. Then it began to work again.

Hughes saw the whole thing as a very interesting double experiment. Firstly, he discovered how easy and “how natural it is to make a language”. Then, he learned how, “as the language became full of verbal meanings, it ceased to draw on any of the expressive resources of the people using it”: how people “simply used it as a code, putting less and less and less expressiveness into it; hiding behind it more and more”. In order to get the actors to “reveal themselves again” he had needed to destroy that language and “give them, again, a sequence of cries which didn’t have verbal meaning… And then, once again, they were forced back onto other resources, and tremendous, exciting, strange musical things could happen again”.

Asked if this had influenced his verse, Hughes commented that it had enormously strengthened his sense of the “mosaic quality of verse” and of the way that verse operates. When language begins to operate like that, he said, “it is somehow pitched beyond the superficial syntactical meaning”.

© Ann Skea 2015. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at

Return to The Ted Hughes Homepage for more options.

Go to Ann Skea’s Homepage

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional