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What Happens to Shakespeare

ISSUE:  Autumn 1936

Shakespeare. By John Middleton Murry, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $3.00. What Happens in Hamlet. By J, Dover Wilson. New York: The Macmillan Company. $3.50. Hamlet Bibliography and Reference Guide, 1877-1935. By Anton A. Raven. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. $3.50. The Enchanted Glass. By Hardin Craig. New York: Oxford University Press. $2.50. lost Plays of Shakespeare’s Age. By C J. Sisson. New York: The Macmillan Company. $3.75. Shakespeare and the Audience. By A. C Sprague. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. $2.50.

Mr. middleton murry closes his book “Shakespeare” with reference to the divided Shakespeare of whom a part “descended into the playhouse” and a part “ascended into the library: and no one has ever quite succeeded in putting him together again.” Even the Shakespeare of the book, it may be added, has a divided life too: for the Shakespeare of the scholar’s desk is one interest and of the reader’s easy-chair, another. Now and then a book like Logan Pearsall Smith’s essay “On Reading Shakespeare” releases thousands of readers from the thrall of class-room association, setting Ariel free to lead imagination with his music where he will, and at the same time wins the applause of the specialist. Such books deserve heralding, and two such books are Murry’s “Shakespeare” and J. Dover Wilson’s “What Happens in Hamlet.” One is impressionistic and subjective, the other evidential and logically objective. Murry has submitted himself to Shakespeare and made the attempt to reconstruct the working artist in his youth from “the pupil age” through the poems and sonnets, then play by play, to the rounding out in “The Tempest,” Shakespeare’s dream of “Nature’s art working upon Nature to transmute it into Human Nature.” In the respect that Murry’s “Shakespeare” is in the romantic tradition, conservatively (or daringly?) returning to most of the older Shakespearean beliefs, it is in striking contrast to the other books reviewed in this essay. Sometimes its note is one of almost mystic revelation and sometimes Mr. Murry’s logic seems overcome by the force of his poetic language. His book is interesting and suggestive even when his theories of the plays become the armor with which he fights for his own taste. A division of the plays into those that are artifact and those of imagination, created by “a magnificent outflow of disinterested imagination,” fails for the mind that cannot agree with Mr. Murry that “King Lear” is artifact and “Coriolanus” a fine play, marking the return “from artifact to creation.”

The contrast between Murry’s method in the chapter on “Hamlet” and Dover Wilson’s, in dealing with the same play, is a contrast of minds as well as of methods and schools. Murry’s approach is philosophical, a submitting “ourselves to the experiences of the play.” The experience of the play for him finds Hamlet facing a universe in which “the warrant of Order is destroyed.” He must find “a new law” and “the marvel is that we find that he finds it.” The essay has a creative value of its own; it is good reading. The Hamlet that emerges is Shakespeare’s Hamlet but it is Murry’s Hamlet even more, and it will not bring anyone any nearer to Shakespeare’s Hamlet unless he experiences the play with somewhat the same temperament and philosophical temper as Mr. Murry’s. In “What Happens in Hamlet,” Dover Wilson brings all the mechanics of the investigative method to bear upon the text and the interpretation of the play to see first what Shakespeare probably wrote and how he intended it to be acted on the stage. Then with an analytic insight as keen as a detective’s should be and an imagination no less effective in illuminating and fusing, he reconstructs the intention of the artist dominating the craftsman. The book is one of those few triumphs of modern scholarship which are more entertaining and exciting to the informed reader than a fiction thriller could possibly be. It is the outcome of years of research. First, the whole textual problem was investigated in the two volumes, “The MS. of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.” A theory of the relations of the three texts of “Hamlet,” quartos and folio, and a word by word consideration of the language, prepared the way for the edition of the play in “The New Shakespeare” series. With the study of the text and the play behind him—every word considered in terms of the penmanship of the times and the characteristics of Shakespeare’s own hand, every act and stage direction considered in terms of the manner of the year, every thought considered in terms of the conventions and ideas current-Wilson followed the springs of action in the play to restore Shakespeare’s own conceptions, free from the later colorings, just as he had sought to give back to the text the exact wording that its author had written. The ghost, the antic disposition, the “mouse-trap” play, and Hamlet’s own “make-up” are the principal enigmas that he seeks to make explain one another.

Perhaps he has come nearer than anyone else to sounding the stops. His book is as delightful to the reader as it is revealing to the scholar. Modern scholarship, especially of the Shakespearean period, has turned its attention to the investigation of the minutest detail of the facts of Elizabethan matters and to the reconstruction of the physical and particularly the intellectual environment within which the mind of the writer functioned. To what elaboration this study has been carried for the one play of “Hamlet” is illustrated in Anton A. Raven’s “Hamlet Bibliography and Reference Guide,” in which are summarized with painstaking thoroughness and brilliant succinctness the writings about that play from 1877, the date at which the “Variorum” bibliography stops, to 1935. Studies of Elizabethan handwriting, spelling, and printing have been made to yield fruitful hints for the elucidation of obscure passages in the play. Dover Wilson’s own emendations include such brilliant ones as “sullied” for “solid flesh” and “the dream of evil doth all the noble substance often dout (do-out) to his own scandal,” emendations that we can learn from Mr. Raven’s book had been suggested wholly or in part earlier but which Mr. Wilson supports with strong and nicely intersticed evidence.

But even if the exact words of an author are restored, words are but symbols that like bubbles take on the coloring of the light which they reflect. Man’s universe intellectually is the universe he imagines. He thinks consciously and unconsciously in the terms of his times. Mr. Hardin Craig, in “The Enchanted Glass,” has attempted’ with more erudition than enchantment to chart the beliefs that the Renaissance English writer would hold about himself and the universe; for “. . . science, pseudo-science, philosophy, history, school-learning in general with all its vagaries and variations—has an important bearing on the interpretation of the literature of the Renaissance.” His bibliographical notes alone fill twenty-four pages of close print, ranging from the occult writings of Cornelius Agrippa to the dramatic criticism of Walter Pritchard Eaton. Mr. Craig has mastered this material of bewildering scope and condensed it to his will. He could not be expected to give it the literary charm that his title suggests, though he has made it a book that is clear to the understanding. Until some other book built upon its foundations supersedes it, “The Enchanted Glass” should be required reading for all students of Elizabethan literature. There is danger of holding an unscholastic poet, such as Shakespeare was, too close to the psychology of, shall we say, Juan Luis Vives, but the historical method of a Craig is a good antidote to the subjective method of a Middleton Murry.

Even the plays of Shakespeare’s contemporaries that have not survived can be summoned up as phantoms to give their evidence upon the theatre and life. Mr. C J. Sisson, in his “Lost Plays of Shakespeare’s Age,” has played the scholarly sleuth through records of the Star Chamber, the Court of Chancery, the Court of Requests, the Delegates Court, and wherever else his clues led him, and then put together from his discoveries, with entertaining skill, the stories of Chapman’s “The Old Joiner of Aldgate,” and “Keep the Widow Waking,” by Dekker, Rowley, Ford, and Webster. In his rich chapters on the jig, the May game, and the libel proper, he prints from manuscript several rare examples, among which “Michael and Frances” and “Fool’s Fortune” alone are enough to make the book delectable to all lovers of Thomas Deloney’s England. For the scholar there is more to be learnt about the manner of men who filled the pit of the Globe from “Lost Plays of Shakespeare’s Day” than from A. C Sprague’s “Shakespeare and the Audience,” in which all the plays of Shakespeare canon are discussed as meeting the special conditions of their time and stage. Special conventions such as stage letters and soliloquies, the beginning and the end, the villain and the hero, preparation and surprise, “testimony,” and the chorus character supply the topics for six of the nine chapters. The book is remarkable neither for originality nor profound comprehension. It is full and apposite in illustrations of the principles discussed and well annotated. It is agreeable to read and competent in scholarship.


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