Sunday 12 June 2022

'The careering of a not too captive balloon'

 I've been reading a small book called The Essential Shakespeare by John Dover Wilson, a name I vaguely remembered from my Eng Lit days as a prominent Shakespeare scholar. This little book was first published in 1932, and the 1967 edition I have was the 15th printing, so clearly it was a success, and it's easy to see why: it's lively, very readable, short of course, and it gives as plausible an account as any of Shakespeare the man. 'Here, in a nutshell, is the kind of man I believe Shakespeare to have been,' writes Dover Wilson in his Preface. He explores the works through the man and the man through the works, filling the biographical gaps with reasonable conjectures. His approach is set in deliberate opposition to those critics who were inclined to view Shakespeare's works as texts standing quite independent of their maker, to be studied in isolation from biographical context. Like virtually all Shakespeare scholars, Dover Wilson delights in differing from his fellow Shakespeareans, but in this instance fate has robbed him of one opportunity: 'I had hoped,' he writes, 'to break a lance with an old friend from Cambridge days, Lytton Strachey, in the last chapter, which was first written as a reply to his brilliant essay, Shakespeare's Final Period. But just as I was going to press, he laid his pen aside to join "the loveliest and the best", and I have removed all traces of disagreement except one nameless reference.' Oh well, there you go. 
  I read in Wikipedia that Dover Wilson's textual work (notably on The New Shakespeare) 'was characterised by considerable boldness and confidence in his own judgment', which is a nice way of putting it. A less kind judgment was passed by one of his enemies, W.W. Greg, who referred to Dover Wilson's ideas as 'the careering of a not too captive balloon in a high wind.' Be that as it may, I enjoyed reading The Essential Shakespeare, and, if you want your Shakespeare in a nutshell, you could hardly do better. 

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