Shakespeare as Currency

John Dover Wilson’s Correspondence

John Dover Wilson was one of the best known, and most influential, Shakespearean scholars of the 20th century. His greatest achievement was the complete edition of the works that he edited and oversaw for Cambridge University Press between 1921 and 1966; yet he is perhaps best known to generations of readers as the author of What Happens in Hamlet, first published in 1935, with which – in the words of Harold Jenkins – ‘he captured the imagination of the general public to a degree probably unequalled by any other Shakespearian scholar’. In doing so – and this is a point to which I’ll return – he demonstrated the particular currency of a specifically literary critical engagement with the Shakespearian text and its dramatic and readerly possibilities that differs from more recent biographical or historical handlings of the playwright and his plays.

John Dover Wilson, in a portrait by Robert Lyon (University of Edinburgh)

But for those of us living in Scotland, and more particularly Edinburgh, Wilson also has a particular significance. In 1935, at the age of 54, he was appointed to his first professional position as a literary scholar, which just happened to be the Regius Chair of Rhetoric and English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. He had no prior connection either to Scotland or its educational institutions, and indeed confessed himself mystified by the workings of the latter even many years later – though since his recent predecessors in the Chair included Herbert Grierson and George Saintsbury, its existence and authority was certainly not news to him. The post offered him the chance, as he twice says in his memoirs, Milestones on the Dover Road, to get on with his Shakespeare, but in addition to this he immersed himself in the life of the University and the city. Perhaps as a result, he found his other academic duties becoming an eventual impediment to his editorial labours, and he retired from the chair in 1946.

Rather than return south, however, as many of his friends expected, he remained resident at Balerno and heavily involved in the institutions of his adopted home. Crucially, he became a trustee of the National Library of Scotland, as well as Convenor and Vice-Chairman of its Standing Committee, and in that role was centrally involved in the Library’s acquisition of the Bute collection of early English printed plays from Michael Crichton-Stuart for £41,000. Later, he also prompted the University Library’s acquisition of a collection of early modern printed plays first made by James Halliwell-Phillipps, and presented by him to the Public Library of Penzance, when that came on the market. The cost this time was lower – a mere £22,000 – but the acquisition significantly augmented the collection that Halliwell-Phillipps had donated to the University Library in the 1870s. As he concluded, with some satisfaction, in his memoirs, he had helped to ensure that ‘Edinburgh has become the home of two of the finest collections of dramatic material, especially that bearing on Shakespeare himself, in the British Isles’.

It is hardly a surprise, then, to learn that Wilson made his own bequests to both University and National Library in his later years. Due to his generosity, Edinburgh now possesses three copies of one of the finest editions of a Shakespeare play ever produced, the Cranach Press Hamlet of 1930, for which Wilson produced an innovative text based on the second quarto. As well as one of three hundred copies on hand made paper produced for general sale, the National Library contains a copy made up of page proofs with Wilson’s corrections; to the University, he donated a presentation copy bound in red calf printed for him alone. The National Library also holds a substantial archive of his working papers, lecture notes and other writings, and eleven substantial boxes of his correspondence from the first years of the 20th century to the early 1960s. This substantial archive sheds light not only on the network of relationships in which Wilson participated, but also on the constitutive role that his work on Shakespeare played in establishing its nature and extent.

A page opening from Dover Wilson’s copy of the Cranach Press Hamlet (University of Edinburgh)

It is perhaps difficult to know or determine exactly how much exchange value one should attribute to the currency of Shakespeare here. Wilson was born into a well-connected family, and his education at two public schools and Caius College, Cambridge, clearly did nothing to deprive him of the social and cultural capital with which he had begun. To read his memoirs is to witness a passage through the dominant institutions of British cultural life in which the personal and the professional are continually confounded, and professional openings emerge over an agreeable dinner or chance encounters at High Table, the Athenaeum or the New Club: it’s hardly surprising to find him involved with so many figures in public life when the fraction of society constituting that ‘public’ is precisely that to which he already belongs, and which is therefore defined so much more narrowly than in other modern societies or, we like to think, in more recent times. His friendship with Rupert Brooke, to whom he pays homage in Milestones, and which is marked by a solitary note from 1910 in the letters, is an outcome of their contemporaneity at Cambridge as much as of their shared interest in Renaissance drama. To this extent, the network of friendships and connections revealed by his correspondence and memoirs resembles those of contemporaries who were likewise academic pillars of the establishment, or pillars of the academic establishment.

Yet it is also clear that the precise nature of that network depends quite significantly on the increasing recognition of Dover Wilson’s authority as, specifically, a Shakespearean, in the middle decades of his life; even before then, the memoirs suggest and the letters confirm, Shakespeare furnished an opportunity for bonds to be established and friendships struck up, even if the social contexts in which that could happen were largely determined by forces and structures more insistent even than him. Michael Redgrave, for example, becomes a good friend and frequent correspondent, but is first encountered in a Cranleigh School production of King Lear that Wilson attended with a friend from his teaching days at Whitgift School in Croydon. Redgrave, a fellow Cambridge graduate, was following the same, very well-established path from Oxbridge to the wider world via a stint in schoolmastering, albeit a couple of decades after Wilson, Brooke and others of his generation had taken that route. Though Milestones makes no mention of it, Wilson establishes a particularly warm friendship – to judge by the tone of their correspondence – with Siegfried Sassoon during the fifties and sixties, to whom he had been introduced by his old friends Geoffrey and Margaret Keynes. Though Shakespeare gave them a shared focus and interest, he did not bring them together.

Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, 1957

This is perhaps not the case with many of his academic interlocutors and collaborators, particularly those with whom he collaborated or corresponded for the Cambridge edition, including Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, Walter Greg, Alfred Pollard, Percy Simpson, Alice Walker, Veronica Wedgwood and Helen Gardner. It is certainly not the case with others among his theatrical connections, including an extensive correspondence and engaged friendship with Harley Granville-Barker begun in 1928 after a meeting at the Shakespeare Association in London. Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh become established correspondents, the former turning to Wilson for help with his productions of Shakespeare, and beginning their 20 years of correspondence in 1945 by firmly declaring himself a ‘keen admirer’. Tyrone Guthrie engaged in informal and impassioned discussions of Shakespearean matters with Wilson throughout the fifties. And his friendship and correspondence with Barry Jackson gave rise to a gem of an observation in a letter dated 6 November 1945, after Wilson had travelled down to the Birmingham Repertory Theatre to witness a new staging of King John: ‘I do so agree with you as to the talents of Peter Brook,’ comments Jackson. ‘As you rightly say age and experience will teach him to curb his invention’. Begun with Shakespeare, all of these relationships are sustained not simply by a shared interest but also by the sense that Wilson’s work as a scholar and textual critic is of value and relevance even to such practical questions as how best to cut Antony and Cleopatra. They are testament to the then current conviction that the sustained and serious study of Shakespeare, as manifested in the work of academic critics and scholars, is not only of use to those staging the plays but also constitutes a conversation in which non-academic readers can legitimately and competently engage.

Indeed, this assumption underpins some of the more surprising or unlikely friendships to be found among Wilson’s correspondents. One, extensively detailed in Milestones on the Dover Road, was that which developed between Archibald Wavell, Field Marshall and Viscount, after they were brought together at a dinner given by the Earl and Countess of Rosebery at Dalmeny House, to the West of Edinburgh, in the summer of 1943. ‘The party,’ Wilson later recorded, ‘consisted of the Roseberys, Lord Primrose [their son], Wavell and myself; and I dare to think that Wavell had especially asked to meet me, for the talk was mostly about Shakespeare. It was evident that he was following my edition with keen interest’. As well as being a highly regarded general, whose public reputation had somehow managed to survive the series of defeats he had suffered in Greece and North Africa in 1941, Wavell was a respected writer on military leadership, a biographer, and at the time of his first meeting with Wilson was putting the finishing touches to an anthology of poetry, Other Men’s Flowers, with introduction and annotations by himself, which was to prove an exceptionally popular volume not only on its publication in 1944 but for many years afterwards (by 1979 it had sold around 130000 copies in the UK, and had been pretty much continuously in print for 35 years; it has continued to sell in the forty years since). Though he described himself to Wilson as a mere ‘groundling’ he engaged eagerly with Shakespeare commentary, and was to be the dedicatee of Wilson’s edition of Henry V when it was published in 1946. Wilson also sent him a copy of each new volume in the edition as it appeared, and sought his advice on military aspects of the histories on which he was working. He and his wife Dorothy also took a shine to Wavell’s son – at least in part, Wilson confessed to Wavell, because their own had died in 1944, and they were ‘son-hungry’ – who would appear from his letters to have been a thoughtful and articulate man, and spent many hours in their company discussing matters Shakespearean. After Wavell’s death in 1950 Archie John added a foreword to a memorial edition of Other Men’s Flowers, mildly criticising his father’s poetic preferences. He himself died in December 1953, aged 37, in the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya; Wilson later recorded that ‘the news reached me over the wireless on Christmas Eve, and I felt I had lost a second son’. He subsequently became involved in efforts to gather and publish a memorial volume of tributes.

Neville Chamberlain, portrait by William Orphen, 1929.

The relationship with Wavell, however, was far from being the most striking instance of the social currency of Wilson’s Shakespearean expertise. That came in early 1936, as a result of the publication of What Happens in Hamlet the previous year. Writing in his Diary Letters to his sisters on January 5th, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Neville Chamberlain, recorded his impressions of a book he had been given for Christmas:

I found What Happens in Hamlet so exciting that after finishing it I promptly read it all over again, a thing I don’t remember to have done with any book before. I dont myself see any reason why Dover Wilson should not have discovered things missed for at least 2 centuries for there was no continuous study of Shakespeare till comparatively recent times and by then much had been forgotten. No doubt other experts will make fun of this book but till I see their criticisms I am prepared to accept his theory of the Dumb show which makes much that was unintelligible fall into its proper place. It was Hamlet that first attracted me to Shakespeare and now he is more interesting and absorbing than ever.

The impression the book made on Chamberlain prompted him to write to Wilson two days later, not simply with thanks or praise, but taking up particular points of interpretation and textual problems, and offering his views. Wilson replied immediately, sending his edition of Hamlet in which the points raised by Chamberlain had been at least partially addressed. This in turn brought about another strong reaction, again recorded in the Chancellor’s diary letters:

I have been corresponding with Dover Wilson, to whom I wrote to tell him how much I had been interested in his book and to ask him one or two questions. He has now sent me his edition of Hamlet with a full glossary and notes on almost every line. I have read through the play again with the notes and have / been astounded and appalled by his knowledge and the discovery of how much I had missed.

A Downing Street dinner was arranged for February 20th, followed by an occasional correspondence that understandably gave way once Chamberlain took over as Prime Minister.

The most peculiar and perilous moment in this acquaintance, however, came after the shame of Munich. In correspondence with Wolfgang Keller, secretary of the Deutsche Shakespeare Gesellschaft, about his own participation as speaker in their planned 1939 annual meeting, Wilson mentioned Chamberlain’s studious interest; Keller then asked him whether the Prime Minister ‘would enjoy to be made an honorary member of our Shakespeare-Gesellschaft? We intend to create two English honorary members on April 23rd and would like to pay Chamberlain our homage for having saved the peace of Europe and the World.’ Wilson duly conveyed this invitation to Chamberlain in a letter dated January 17th 1939, though he refrains from citing his own words in the account of the episode in Milestones:

I have been asked as representative of this country to deliver a lecture in Weimar before them on April 22nd, an invitation which I have accepted in the interests of “appeasement”. The Secretary, Professor Wolfgang Keller, who is a very good fellow and is at the moment helping me in connection with an unhappy refugee, has asked whether I think it possible that you might accept the title of Honorary President of the Society. [disparity here?] He tells me that before the War His Brittanic Majesty was Honorary President ex officio together with the Kaiser, but all that has gone of course. I don’t know how you will view this suggestion. It may not be politic at the moment to accede to it, but I promised that I would find out, if I could, whether an official invitation would be embarrassing to you just now.

A full reply from Chamberlain was delayed until 9th February, with Keller writing in the meantime to let Wilson know that the Nazi government was itself not overly keen in dignifying the British Prime Minister in this fashion:

The difficulties with regard to our making Mr. N. Chamberlain an Honorary Member of our Shakespeare Society seem, I am very sorry to say, still to persist. This lingering on our side is, of course, very unpleasant. It seems as if they had other cares just now in our Foreign Office…

So it was perhaps a relief for Wilson when Chamberlain’s response made it clear that the proposal could not be pursued:

I have now taken advice on the question you put to me on the 17th January about the Shakespeare Gesellschaft. The difficulty in the way of my accepting the Honorary Presidency is that the Gesellschaft has been, I understand, forced to include in its statutes regulations prohibiting non-Aryan membership and I think if I accepted the Honorary Presidency there might be a good deal of criticism here. I do not, of course, want this given as a reason for declining and perhaps you would tell Professor Keller that I have numerous offers of this kind in my official position and find it so difficult to select between the various societies in this country and foreign countries that I have had to make it a rule not to accept Honorary Presidencies except in very special circumstances.

It is salutary, looking back on this episode from our vantage point, to note how much of the difficulty was couched in terms of manners and appearances. This is, of course, and as Wilson says without a hint of awkwardness, the establishment mindset of appeasement.


There is a postscript to this ignoble business. Chamberlain’s status as the saviour of world peace did not survive the destruction of what remained of Czechoslovakia in March, and by the time of his death from cancer in November 1940 he had already been condemned as chief among the ‘guilty men’ who had inherited a ‘great empire, supreme in arms and secure in liberty’ and brought it to ‘national humiliation’. Wilson wrote to The Times in his defence, and the terrain he chose is worth noting. In a letter dated 14th February 1939 he had remarked to Chamberlain how ‘thrilling’ he had found it to hear the Prime Minister ‘quote Hotspur through the microphone on your way to Germany, and amusing to see how the quotation was misinterpreted. The prize effort, I thought, was “Safety first”. What would Hotspur have thought!’ In his letter to The Times he drew attention to Chamberlain’s enthusiasm for, and knowledge of, Shakespeare, and recalled this use of a quotation from Henry IV Part 1:

It was … thrilling to hear him later, over the wireless, quote Hotspur on the memorable day when he took off to meet Hitler, and not a little amusing to see how many, especially among critics of his policy in the House of Commons, ignorant of their Shakespeare, entirely misinterpreted the words he borrowed.

I never discussed politics with him, and I do not wish to introduce them into this letter. But perhaps you will allow me to quote the words once again, in their context, and to add one brief comment. Hotspur, it will be remembered, is reading a letter from one of his supporters who suffers from cold feet: –

“ ‘The purpose you undertake is dangerous’ – why, that’s certain: ’tis dangerous to take cold, to sleep, to drink; but I tell you, my lord fool, out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.”

Neville Chamberlain undertook a dangerous purpose, and the safety he brought home with him was not worth a twelve-months’ purchase. But, when Clio comes to render his account, will she not say that he plucked a flower after all? Not “safety” – his chance came too late for that – but “salvation.”If only he could have lived to see it in full blossom!

Wilson’s claim that he is not introducing politics here is of course highly disingenuous. But the form the politics takes indicates his own faith in the general currency not just of Shakespeare, but of the scholarly and critical study of his works. It’s not so much that Chamberlain is dignified by his immersion in the plays; it’s more that his opponents can be seen as compromised by singularly academic vices: ignorance and misreading. Wilson’s own experience would be enough to suggest that such vices could not be confined or dismissed as merely academic; the role that the study of Shakespeare played in his own social world would militate against any such confinement.