John Dover Wilson video transcript

In January 1936, the Shakespeare scholar John Dover Wilson received some surprising fan-mail. He had recently published What Happens in Hamlet, a fresh interpretation of Shakespeareʼs most celebrated tragedy. The book had already proved a big success, and Wilson was accustomed to receiving appreciative letters from readers.

The surprise, though lay in the signature Wilson found at the bottom of the letter. It had been written by none other than Neville Chamberlain, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer. Over the next four years, after Chamberlain became Prime Minister and as Europe descended into the Second World War, the two men maintained what might have seemed an unlikely friendship – united by their shared love of Shakespeare.

Chamberlain was only one of many who admired Wilsonʼs scholarship and sought his views. Theatre directors and actors including Harley Granville Barker, Laurence Olivier, Tyrone Guthrie and Michael Redgrave consulted him over the choices they were making in staging their own productions. Writers such as Rupert Brooke, E. M. Forster and Siegfried Sassoon valued his critical expertise.

Shakespeare made Wilson influential. He began to undertake sustained research on the plays while working as an education inspector during the First World War. His hobby became his profession, and in 1935 he became Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature at the University of Edinburgh.

Over the course of a long career he produced a complete new edition of Shakespeareʼs plays, which is still in print today. He played an important role in securing the purchase of the Bute collection of Shakespearean and other early playbooks for the National Library of Scotland, of which he was a trustee. He was also able to use his influence to help the University acquire a further collection of playbooks once owned by James Halliwell-Phillipps when it came up for sale in 1964. As he wrote in his memoirs, with evident satisfaction: ʻNow Edinburgh has become the home of two of the finest collections of dramatic material, especially that bearing on Shakespeare himself, in the British Isles.ʼ

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