Sir John Dover Wilson has written a sporting book on What Happens in ‘Hamlet’ (Macmillan, $3.50). It furnishes gay reading for scholar and layman. The body of Shakespeare, so often a subject for dissection, revives and speaks again. Not content to rest upon his foundation of knowledge, Sir John takes off from this solid ground into the region of enlightened supposition. He puts the proof of many arguments into courageous jeopardy. But by this daring he builds a consistent and detailed hypothesis of how a performance of Hamlet struck an Elizabethan audience.
He reconstructs Elizabethan thought on vital questions, private and public. The recent study of Shakespeare generally strives to read him according to the values of life in his day. The essential value of the plays, of course, is what is universal, not what is merely of the Elizabethan age. Is there a way to make this universal quality more distinct to our modern eyes? Shakespeareans like Dover Wilson think that there is. By restoring the peculiarities of thinking in that far-away moment, they also release more clearly the universal comment beneath them.
To elucidate the treatment of the ghost, the state of Denmark, Hamlet’s ‘antic disposition,’ all the major problems, Dover Wilson has ransacked Elizabethan books on spiritualism, on melancholy, behavior, and so forth. Although these books have no literary value, they contain within their dull pages the transitory thought of that world upon the problems of life. This thought has been sensitively interpreted by Wilson. He uses it to throw upon the play the light of its own moment. Under that light what was ephemeral is made clear, but, more important, what is timeless in the whole design emerges with extraordinary penetration and beauty.
The argument of What Happens in ‘Hamlet’ has been carried in Dover Wilson’s brief case and heart for eighteen years. He recounts its adventures in a dedicatory letter to the ‘only begetter,’ W. W. Greg. On train journeys, in holidays, amid war and peace, Wilson has taught his imagination to walk according to Elizabethan standards. With this training he has re-created the Elizabethan Hamlet to put beside our modern idea of the play. How little the margin of difference is, how great the common ground of universal experience then and now, this book wittily implies.
Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us, by Caroline F. E. Spurgeon (Macmillan, $4.00), steals up on Shakespeare while he is unaware and essentially himself, and declares what that self is like. It applies a trained imagination to all of Shakespeare’s poetic images. Their collection and classification, involving eight years, are merely the basis. What Dr. Spurgeon does with this evidence is the important thing.
Under the stress of emotion, she argues, a poet’s essential attitude will be reflected in the images he’chooses to illuminate, ‘the speech and thought of his characters.’ This book is the application of this argument to Shakespeare’s work. To test its validity, Dr. Spurgeon compares the images of Bacon and Marlowe with those of Shakespeare. At a glance one sees that the furniture of these three contemporary minds was essentially different. Marlowe’s was full of stars and space; Bacon’s full of thoughts on ignorance and intelligence in terms of darkness and light; Shakespeare’s sensitive to the simplest everyday things. The difference in the images of these men furnishes a scientific check on the difference which the critic of their work intuitively feels. The method puts salt on the tail of that winged thing, creative imagination, and without stopping its flight, too.
Inference from the images runs in two directions. One is biographical. The description of the peculiarities of a river current may reflect a particular river, the Avon of Shakespeare’s boyhood, A colony of swallows upon a castle wall may reflect a particular castle of Shakespeare’s experience. But Dr. Spurgeon is cautious about tying poetry to biography. More valuable at this stage (she contemplates two more books) are those ‘glimpses into the deeper thoughts of Shakespeare’s mind, through this oblique method.’ Another use of the evidence is interesting. Oft-repeated images to describe certain ideas indicate individual tendencies of Shakespeare’s mind and experience. If this is true, the presence of these images in the doubtful plays will be a contributory argument for his authorship of them.
In Shakespeare‘s Imagery, one sees how poetry is created. In order to imprison abstractions, Shakespeare seizes upon his sensitively observed daily experience, and uses it to illumine the intangibles of life. The book has index, colored charts, pictures. Through these Dr. Spurgeon shares with the reader her clever eavesdropping upon one of the most wonderful human beings while he felt life and recorded it.