- A History of Transformation
In the spring of 1983, I heard a lecture that changed my conception of what literary study might include. The speaker was Terence Hawkes, and his mystifying title, "Telmah," indicated that Hamlet could be read, literally, backwards. Hawkes began his lecture by quoting the preface to John Dover Wilson's celebrated book What Happens in Hamlet (1935). This preface records a precise and emotional moment of origin for Dover Wilson's book. During a train journey in 1917, Dover Wilson tells us, he read an essay by another scholar pointing to an oddity in the construction of Hamlet. Explicitly "overwhelm[ed]" by this experience (5), Dover Wilson drafted a rebuttal that later became What Happens in Hamlet, an appraisal presenting Shakespeare's play as a flawlessly constructed masterpiece by a national icon of literary genius.
Hawkes, intrigued by Dover Wilson's "heated response" to a mere scholarly article (Hawkes 103), looked for an explanation in his circumstances in 1917. Dover Wilson himself notes that it was wartime, but Hawkes adds that the purpose of Dover Wilson's train journey was to visit a munitions factory where the unionized and left-leaning workers were threatening trouble. The [End Page 228] crucial context, however, was that Dover Wilson, who had recently published an article endorsing the czarist regime in Russia, had just learned of the Russian Revolution.
My previous response to What Happens in Hamlet was shaped by my education in the early 1960s at University College London, where the "New Criticism" still defined the teaching of English. Focused on "the words on the page," this was a formalist approach that eschewed biographical or political context. Although "great" literature was open to multiple readings—to at least seven types of ambiguity, in fact—we students read these diverse interpretations believing that in some literary empyrean they could coexist in a version of perfected complexity. As for historical context, my vision of English literature at that time was something like E.M. Forster's in Aspects of the Novel (1927): "we are to visualize the English novelists not as floating down th[e] stream [of time] … but as seated together in a room, a circular room, a sort of British Museum reading-room—all writing their novels simultaneously" (27).
Dover Wilson's formalist approach to Hamlet, therefore, chimed with my preconceptions, and Hawkes revealed why this should be so. Dover Wilson had formidable authority as the general editor of Cambridge University Press's "New Shakespeare" editions, but what I did not know was that he served on the committee that produced the 1921 Newbolt Report, entitled The Teaching of English in England, which argued, in Arnoldian terms, that English literature should be taught to all classes as a kind of glue to promote social cohesion and a sense of national pride.
I was, of course, a product of the Newbolt ideology, and back in the 1960s I would have been shocked to learn that something as extraneous as politics lay behind Dover Wilson's work on Hamlet. The 1970s had, indeed, eroded this purism. I had encountered Roland Barthes, Louis Althusser, and Mikhail Bakhtin through inspired popularizers such as Hawkes himself, Catherine Belsey, and Terry Eagleton. At the Essex Conferences of the late 1970s I heard Pierre Macherey, whose Theory of Literary Production (1966) argues that instead of a work of art being a creation, or self-contained artifact, it is a production in which previously existing and disparate materials are reworked. Moreover, Macherey argues that literary value is not inherent in the text but is produced by the institutions of society, especially the education system. Thus the text is not only produced by the author but also reproduced by society.
The works of the Brontë sisters, meanwhile, became testing grounds for avowedly political readings. In 1975, Terry Eagleton's Myths of Power offered A Marxist Study of the Brontës (the work's subtitle), while in 1979 Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic took the structure of Jane Eyre (1847) as a model for the nineteenth-century woman writer's literary imagination. The year 1978 saw both Elaine...