John Dover Wilson

Born in Surrey in 1886, John Dover Wilson began his professional life as an education inspector, and was also involved in the Workers’ Educational Association. He had a passion for Shakespeare, and pioneered new ways of determining reliable texts of the plays. In 1935 he was appointed Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature at Edinburgh – the position first established by the Earl of Bute in 1762. From then until his death in 1969 he lived at Balerno, completing a groundbreaking new edition of Shakespeare’s works.

For Wilson, literary scholarship was an adventure. In his memoirs he describes becoming ‘converted - to Shakespeare!’ during a train journey from Leeds to Sunderland on a dark winter’s night in 1917. The cause of his conversion was a ‘devilish ingenious but damnably wrong’ reading of Hamlet advanced by one of his contemporaries, the critic and editor W. W. Greg. Realising that he ‘had been born to answer it’, Wilson threw himself into the problems and difficulties of the play. Over the next twenty years, he produced two striking new editions and a highly popular critical account simply called What Happens in Hamlet. His work had a lasting influence on the way the play was read and staged, combining as it did a careful attention to textual difficulties with some highly imaginative interpretation. Greg once drily described Wilson’s speculations as ‘the careerings of a not too captive balloon in a high wind.’

Shakespeare opened many doors for Wilson. Among those who sought his opinions or advice were some of the century’s finest theatrical talents, from Harley Granville Barker and Tyrone Guthrie to Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh and Michael Redgrave. He was friends, too, with writers including Rupert Brooke, Edwin Muir, E. M. Forster and Siegfried Sassoon. What Happens in Hamlet brought him a letter of admiration in 1936 from the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Neville Chamberlain, and the two men corresponded warmly on Shakespearean matters for three years, until more pressing matters intervened.

Wilson was not himself a collector of Shakespearean books and manuscripts. Unlike Halliwell-Phillipps he had no need to own copies of the texts in order to pursue his studies. But he influenced the destiny of important collections, nonetheless. In 1956 he helped to arrange the acquisition of the Bute collection by the new National Library of Scotland, of which he was a trustee, an achievement he described as ‘one of the proudest feats of my career in Edinburgh’. Ten years later, he prompted the University to buy a second of Halliwell-Phillipps’s libraries, up for auction after many years in Penzance.


John Dover Wilson

'Critics of Hamlet have gone astray largely through neglecting to concentrate upon the words of the text and the details of the action which are the first concern of an editor.' – What Happens in Hamlet, 13.

'In the days when Shakespeare was reaping his greatest triumphs in London, with Falstaff on the one hand and Hamlet on the other, in Edinburgh the drama and the acting profession were struggling for their very existence… And now Edinburgh has become the home of two of the finest collections of dramatic material, especially that bearing on Shakespeare himself, in the British Isles.' – Milestones on the Dover Road, 144.


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