By now, we have all heard the story. Like so many tragedies, this one begins with a husband and his wife. The husband seems a happy man, preeminent among his contemporaries, affable, well liked, someone whose weaknesses are balanced by a remarkable gift for inspiring affection and loyalty. (His relatives, on the other hand, are thought to be cold and greedy.) The wife, whose fiery inner passions are belied by a conventional exterior—she exults in the small routines of domestic life—is intensely, some might say madly, devoted to him. They have two small children: a boy, a girl.
Then something goes wrong. Some who have studied this couple say that it is the husband who grotesquely betrays the wife; others, who consider the wife too intense, too disagreeably self-involved, dispute the extent of the husband’s culpability. (As often happens with literary marriages, each has fanatical partisans and just as fanatical detractors—most of whom, it must be said, are literary critics.) What we do know is that directly as a result of her husband’s actions, the wife willingly goes to her death—but not before taking great pains to guarantee the safety of her two children. Most interesting and poignant of all, the knowledge of her impending death inspires the wife to previously unparalleled displays of eloquence: as her final hours approach, she articulates, with thrilling lyricism, what she knows about life, womanhood, marriage, death—and seems, as she does so, to speak for all women. It is only after her death, many feel, that her husband realizes the extent of his loss. She comes back, in a way, to haunt him: a speaking subject no longer, but rather the eerily silent object of her husband’s solicitous, perhaps compensatory, ministrations.
This is the plot of Euripides’ Alcestis. That it also resembles, uncannily in some respects, the plot of the life of Ted Hughes—whose final, posthumously published work is an “adaptation” of Euripides’ play—may or may not be a coincidence. Because Hughes’s Alcestis is a liberal adaptation, it cannot, in the end, illuminate this most controversial work of the most controversial of the Greek dramatists. (Scholars still can’t decide whether it’s supposed to be farce or tragedy.) But the choices Hughes makes as a translator and adapter (what he leaves out, what he adds, what he smoothes over) do shed unexpected light on his career, and his life.
As Ted Hughes neared the end of his life, he devoted himself to translating a number of classical texts: a good chunk of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in 1997, Racine’s Phèdre in 1998 (performed by the Almeida Theatre Company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in January 1999), and Aeschylus’ Oresteia, commissioned by the Royal National Theatre for a performance in 1999 and published posthumously in that year. Hughes had translated one other classical text: Seneca’s Oedipus, for a 1968 production by the Old Vic starring John Gielgud and Irene Worth. But …