guest blogger and bad boyfriend consultant Matthew Kern
Two of the worst boyfriends of the literary world would have to be Hamlet and Ted Hughes. Just look at what happened to their wives and/or girlfriends. I will address the Danish one first as he’s somewhat less loathsome. I am not a Shakespearean scholar but I saw a good production of Hamlet in 1992 and certainly know a thing or two about bad boyfriends. I also have no problem making up for any lack of knowledge with the strength of my opinion. This may be the only thing I have in common with Sarah Palin, but I digress.
Hamlet may be fun to get stoned and share Deep Existential Angst with, but that boy is no fun on a date. And that’s if you can even get him on a date; his big greeting to Ophelia after being off at theatre camp (another can of worms) or wherever he was is “get thee to a nunnery.” Jesus. Asperger’s much? One is left imagining that they had some awkward sex up against a stony wall, he went away to school, never responded to her pregnancy scare letters and then became completely absorbed in his father’s death and whining about his Mommy‘s new husband who is his uncle or rabbi or something. This is so not sexy. Yet our girl is not one to give up easily so she decides that her boyfriend’s insane, tries to get him to snap out of it and in the process goes nuts herself, mutters about flowers and throws herself in a river.
At least she has the decency to do this off stage. Hamlet does not spare us one minute of unpleasantness. He seems perturbed by the Ophster’s death but then spends the rest of the play making sure that everyone else dies too. Hamlet is among other things a cautionary tale against trying to keep high school romances going after one of you goes off to college. It never works. You just end up with a really big phone bill and a self important boyfriend who likes to fondle skulls.
Laurence Olivier as Hamlet
But as bad a boyfriend as Hamlet is, he has got nothing on Ted Hughes, the Baddest Boyfriend of Them All. Ted Hughes is automatically a worse boyfriend because he is real. But even if he were fictional, Ted would still beat Hamlet for the simple fact that Hamlet only drove one woman to suicide and he also had the decency to die himself shortly thereafter. Again, I am hardly an expert on the lives of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath but one does not have to be to see that they were Deeply Fucked Up. Sylvia had already survived one major suicide attempt (fictionalized in that delightful romp The Bell Jar) when she met Ted at Cambridge, so while one could argue that she had serious mental health issues before she met Ted, I argue that he should have known that she might be just a wee bit fragile and might not take well to him nailing everything with breasts while she put her own writing career on hold to raise their two children in moist sunless England. Couldn’t he have picked someone else? Anyone else? Like Hamlet, Ted was an insufferable Mama’s Boy, often using his mother’s mysterious health problems as an excuse to avoid his own fatherly and husbandly duties, or as cover to meet with hot young chicks.
Ted Hughes and first known victim Sylvia Plath
Famously, Ted began a major affair with Assia Wevill and it was this that sent Sylvia into her final spin ending with the Big Finish when she stuck her head in the oven. Plath’s gruesome death at thirty deprived the world of decades of future work by a brilliant writer who had just found her voice. It also deprived two children of a mother, and I imagine it made quite a mess of the stove. But perhaps most shockingly, it also made Ted an even worse boyfriend. His relationship with Assia quickly became toxic, as she moved in to the house where Sylvia died to care for Ted’s now motherless children. Assia was still married to David Wevill (fun fact: David also attempted suicide upon learning of his wife’s affair with Ted. Both poets, Ted and David were close friends, so Hughes was evidently a terrible friend as well as a horrible boyfriend) and she would return to him periodically for a couple of years when Ted was being parti cularly useless and noncommittal. Ted seemed to blame Assia for Sylvia’s death on some level, which seems incredibly ballsy since Assia is not the one who was married to Sylvia. At least not according to any of the books I read.
Assia Wevill and Shura Hughes
Assia became pregnant at some point and gave birth to a girl who Ted never acknowledged as his child. Now divorced from her husband, and having given up her successful career in advertising to raise Ted’s children, Assia struggled financially. Ted was now wealthy from dead Sylvia’s bestselling posthumous books but would not give Assia money outright, instead making small loans to her which he kept track of in a ledger. I wish he were still alive so I could beat him to death with that ledger.
Assia now a single mother over forty, was desperate to marry or at least live with Ted but he continually put her off with claims of responsibility for his endlessly and conveniently sickly mother. Never a fan of monogamy, Ted had of course by this time moved on to other women as he taught poetry at University and therefore had access to an endless stream of vulnerable young women with perkier breasts and no irritating children as baggage. Assia, who had never been able to compete with Sylvia’s memory, now decided to outdo her rival in suicide by killing both herself and her four year old daughter with Ted by leaving the gas on. This was six years after Sylvia’s death. It was 1969: a bad year for forty something ladies with an interest in the arts or self destruction.
One would certainly hope that at this point Ted would have the decency to kill himself. At the very least, he should have castrated himself and spent the rest of his life hiding in shame. But no, he continued to fuck around with various women, live a public life and make money off of dead Sylvia up until the day he died. In 1998. Yes, that’s right. He had bad manners to hang on for nearly thirty years after Assia gassed herself and his daughter.
WHO WOULD DATE HIM AFTER THAT? How would a personal ad for Ted Hughes have read in 1969? "Single father of two. Poet. Last two major relationships have ended in the suicide or murder/suicide. Financially stable due to the money I make from the poems that my dead wife wrote about me while I was fucking my now also dead girlfriend. A real people person."
So, even though he is fictional, I still think you’ve got to go with Hamlet if you had to date one of these sociopaths. You might die, but at least a stove wouldn’t be involved. I personally feel that either of these women should have taken out Ted on their way to preheat the oven, but Ted had a way of making women feel as if everything was their fault. Assia survived the Holocaust, three marriages and the cutthroat, male dominated world of advertising yet six years with Ted did her in. As a tribute to her memory I propose a production of Hamlet where Ophelia kills Hamlet and then dances gleefully to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” It would surely be a lot more fun than the god damn Bell Jar.