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‘The Minotaur’

Context & Subject Matter

Title: Minotaur – a monster from Greek mythology, a half man-half bull that fed on flesh. Its destructive behavior terrorised the island of Crete.  

The sea god Poseidon gave a bull to King Minos of Crete about 1800 BCE. Poseidon expected the King to sacrifice the bull and was furious when the King chose to keep the bull instead as the bull was a sacred animal to the Cretans. As punishment, Poseidon made Minos’s wife fall in love with the bull, and the two had a child, half-man and half-bull, called the Minotaur. The Minotaur grew up to be quite the man-eater (literally), and so King Minos tricked Daedalus into coming to Crete to build this elaborate labyrinth (maze) to contain the beast. 

When completed Daedalus was refused permission to leave so he designed feathers for him and his son Icarus to escape by flying over the sea.  Icarus ignored his father’s advice, flying too close to the sun causing the wax on his feathers to melt and he plunged into the sea.

Because the Minotaur needed to be fed by at least two humans each day,  King Minos enlisted the Athenian hero, Theseus, who managed to kill the Minotaur and with the aid of Ariadne  who unravelled a skein of thread for him to follow out of the labyrinth.

King Minos represents an exemplar of responsible leadership, protecting his people from a monstrous beast threatening civil society.

The comparison lacks subtlety as Hughes demonstrates Plath’s destructive temper tantrums and angry rages (like a bull in a china shop?) which needed to be controlled, though other interpretations have the Minotaur representing her father, Otto Plath.

II. Sound Effects

Read the poem aloud. Comment on the Sound Effects, verbal music. It’s rhyme. Rhythm and melody. Assonance, alliteration. Onomatopoeia. etc. (Blending repetition patterns. slow/fast movement, harsh, discordant, sibilance, sotto, allegro,  Rhapsodic, lyrical, elegiac,  upbeat,  blue, staccato,  dirge, ode,   Melody. tone. mood. atmosphere. voice.

Noisy onomatopoeic words like “smash”  and “snapped”  provide a vivid dramatic edge to the short anecdotal poem of a domestic incident in their marriage.  The violence creates a tension that is reinforced by the defensive self justification of the persona and the accusatory language directed at the “you” of the poem.

III. Themes, Issues, Values, Concerns

The poem explores the psychological motivations behind human nature and how we are constructed.   Hughes’ reference to his mother and “the scars of my whole life”  is a rare confessional insight into his past.  Could his sense of loss and lack of a strong mother figure be a rationalisation of his womanising or philandering? 

He then turns his attention to Plath's psychological issues; a mother she cannot connect to and a father who died too early and who keeps reappearing in her sub-conscious  seducing her to join him in his grave.  Plath’s destructive temper tantrums and angry rages (like a bull in a china shop?) needed to be controlled or channelled into expression in her poetry.

The poet then suggests the cyclical nature of abuse; her children too will be scarred by haunting images of her temper tantrums. 

Left your children echoing

Like tunnels in a labyrinth

Yet there is little evidence that the persona takes any responsibility for being late.  It is possible her extreme reaction could be stimulated by suspicion of infidelity which could justify her manic destructive behaviour.


Structure: linear, circular, episodic, flash backs, climatic.     Images: (visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, gustatory) figures of speech:  similes, metaphors, personification, analogy, synecdoche, contrast, antithesis, unity, irony, Allusions, etc

This is very much an episodic flash back concerning a domestic dispute meant to illustrate Plath’s manic volatile temperament and uncontrollable destructive rage.

The extended analogy to the minotaur, (The title)  the skein used by Theseus to find his way out of the labyrinth (maze) help to sustain the metaphor. 

The bloody end of the skein

That ended your marriage

Left your children echoing

Like tunnels in a labyrinth

 Minotaur: Is the minotaur Sylvia Plath or her father, Otto Plath?     

Labyrinth:  A symbol of the situation Sylvia; her psyche is so messed up she can’t seem to escape her psychological predicament and so when she gets to the end of her tether (skein), it destroys her marriage.

Cave:   A recurring image in Plath’s poetry, the cave can be seen as a shelter from harm or as an entrapment.  Something he said triggered the “goblin” for her self - destructive over reaction. 


Approach: Subjective/Objective, Attitude or Tone, Audience,   Style: diction, word play, puns, connotative/denotative,   emotive (coloured biased,) /demotive, (technical, dispassionate) clichés, proverbial, idiomatic, expressive, flat, Jargon, euphemisms, pejorative, oxymoron.   Gender biases.  Register:  formal, stiff, dignified  or Colloquial;  relaxed, conversational, inclusive, friendly  or Slang;  colourful, intimate,  Rhetorical devices;  Questions,  exclamations,  cumulation,  crescendo,  inversion,  bathos,  repetition,  3 cornered phrases. 

There is observation through the dramatic recreation of an incident with dialogue and action together with supposition and conclusion. 

The language is accusatory, blaming Plath for destroying “her” marriage  - not theirs.  The repetitive second person pronoun “you”, you’re and “your”  accentuates this.

You smashed/stool you swung/stuff you’re keeping out../your stanzas/your ear/your marriage/your children/your mother/brought you/your risen father/your own corpse.

The poet’s participation is illustrated by first person pronouns “my, I,” and the collective “we’ll”  suggesting a subjective and personal involvement – perhaps acknowledgement of some responsibility?

My mother’s heirloom/scars of my whole life/my being ..late/I shouted/what had I given him?/ we’ll be away. 

 Anger has words, but rage does not. When we become violent, we have moved into this wordless territory that so often becomes confused with simple anger. But rage is usually accompanied by inexpressible grief and feelings of abandonment.

When language is inadequate we resort to violence.  When destructive people have nothing else to destroy, they become self-destructive.

VI. Evaluation:

There seems to be a lot of self-justifying going on in this poem.  He seems to be pointing the finger of blame squarely on his audience whether it be Sylvia Plath or  any assumed subject.

Is there any sense of responsibility Hughes feels for Plath?

To what extent is this a reliable version of the event.  It is personal, one sided and therefore subjective.  It does little to indicate the reasons for her extreme reaction to his role in the marriage.  Is it merely a self-justification?

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