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A condensed 357-page explication of Shakespeare's "Hamlet", the little book "What Happens in Hamlet" has a wealth of insight, in spite of the fact that it sports a photo of Mel Gibson on the front cover from the Franco Zeffirelli version of the film Hamlet.
What makes this book so vital is the breadth and depth of John Dover Wilson's intellectual acumen. It was first published in 1935 and has been reprinted 17 times since, and is just as timely as it was when it first came out.
If you think you know the play Hamlet, this book offers more perspective on Shakespeare's tale than you thought imaginable.
Wilson achieves his goal of complete illumination of the play by his viewing "Hamlet" through many different modern viewpoints, based in historical studies of the Tudor and Elizabethan periods, spanning not only social customs, but also political and legal practices of the day.
The books contains copious notes and references to further reading and study resources, and also includes commentary from other distinguished writers such as T.S. Eliot and Timothy Bright.
Wilson asks a serious of questions to get you thinking, then answers each one in the terms of the play, the ghost, the dumb show, the theatrical attitudes and practices of Elizabethan times, and ultimately the effect of the play within the play, the Mousetrap.
By following through on this method of clarification of the play, Wilson measures completely the effect of the play "Hamlet" on the audience of the day, and the effect of the play on the audience of today.
If you have only a mild fascination of Shakespeare's play "Hamlet", either for the poetic language, or for the range of emotional levels the author was able to document, or if you are an actor seeking further research into the playable parts of the play, John Dover Wilson's book "What Happens In Hamlet" will totally engross you in the pure genius of the dramatic text and open your eyes to the wonderful tapestry of artistic meaning in the play.
You will find yourself re-reading or re-watching the play after reading Wilson's book, and will return to Wilson's book after returning to "Hamlet" because Wilson is able to open so many interpretations of the play.
In part II, The Tragic Burden, Wilson looks at how Shakespeare asks every spectator to feel what Hamlet feels- his father has died and his mother has married his uncle right after the funeral... what the heck!?
As if that wasn't enough, the ghost of his dead father comes back and tells him that Hamlet's uncle, Claudius, murdered him! Hamlet didn't like the guy that much before but now he's really put out (I'm paraphrasing here!)- So the Ghost tells Hamlet to prevent Claudius from having sex with Hamlet's mother Gertrude, and avenge his murder- yikes! This is an impossible task, according to Wilson, and one that Elizabethans were accustomed to in their theatre developing from classical literature.
In part IV, Antic Disposition, Wilson shows that the ghost and his message is heard only by Hamlet and that this testing of Claudius with the Mousetrap is not resolved until the middle of Act 3, when Claudius reacts to the play within the play.
This makes it tough going for the audience because we are subject to Hamlet's self-reflection. It is testament to Shakespeare's genius that we are gripped so by the poetry of the play that the action of revenge seems secondary to the actual character study of Hamlet.
Take Chapter V, for example, the way Wilson looks at the mousetrap, and the Dumb Show from the part of the play where Hamlet presents his play intended to "...catch the conscience of the king". The mousetrap is the name of the play that Hamlet has written that the actors will perform and he believes will elicit some behavior from Claudius as to his guilt in murdering King Hamlet.
To Wilson the entire play is a study of supernatural forces on the rational mind of man. Thus the ghost is communicating exclusively to Hamlet after the beginning of the play- initially Horatio saw the ghost and told Hamlet about it, but for the remainder of the play only Hamlet is affected by the presence of the ghost.
Take part VII, Failure and Triumph, in Gertrude's bedroom, after Hamlet has stabbed Polonius behind the arras, the ghost appears but only Hamlet can see it. Wilson suggests that this is because Gertrude had fallen out of love with King Hamlet before he was murdered, that her eyes have been clouded by the lust for Claudius. Again Wilson contends that the Elizabethan audience was sensitive to this subtlety.
In Appendix A, The Adultery of Gertrude, Wilson writes about the marriage of Gertrude after the death of King Hamlet and that neither the Protestant nor Catholic Church would have recognized the marriage as legitimate. This is supported by excellent references to historical religious practice of the day as well as quoted portions of the play.
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