What Happens In Hamlet by John Dover Wilson

To continue our ‘Shakespeare 400’ week, an 80 year-old study guide and a flashback to a painful English A-level exam, aka how English rugby legend Lawrence Dallagio almost ruined my life.

Published in 1935, this book is an engaging insight into the Prince of Denmark and his woes. It takes the story of Hamlet from beginning to end, and investigates, in a detailed but very accessible way, the play’s key questions – why is Denmark so ‘rotten’? Why has Hamlet got spicy hot beef* with his mum? Would Elizabethans really have believed that Hamlet was seeing the ghost of his father? What are his true feelings for Ophelia?  And of course the biggie – is Hamlet really mad?  There is every chance that some of Wilson’s scholarly insight has been superseded by young guns in more recent years, but for me it remains a great way to explore the mysteries within Shakespeare’s finest play. (Yeah, I went there.)

I found this is a local charity shop, long after my A-levels, complete with the scribblings of previous owner, Sue Calver of Upper Sixth B. Given Sue was in the Upper Sixth, it’s a fair assumption that she was doing her A-levels and unlike me had listened to the teacher who recommended this as further reading. There are lots of bits marked ‘imp.’ and pencilled comments such as ‘Ophelia’s feelings repressed come out in her madness’, and I wonder how she got on when exam D-day came. I really do hope she didn’t have an extremely rude dream about England rugby captain Lawrence Dallaglio the night before her three-hour, four-essay A-level English Literature exam, and have to contend with images of Dallagio swinging his bits around whilst trying to focus on Hamlet and his father issues (Isn’t the Hamlet story the prototype for every American film ever? You know, seeking revenge on behalf of the father and all that. It’s all a bit Star Wars when you strip it down). Yes, that did happen to me – it was June 1999, the height of Dallagio’s naughty drug episode, and he had found his way into my exam-addled brain through the proliferation of Daily Mail articles that abounded at the time. I feel the fact I ploughed on and still got an ‘A’ (c’mon, I’m entitled to show off after this experience!) is a combination of good preparation and the seven Lucozade tablets I took before the exam. Hey Lawrence, you should have gone for the Lucozade tablets yourself, instead of the hard stuff – they give you a kick but don’t land you in the Daily Mail.

A-levels. What a cruel time, with all those hormones and exams. Here’s to you all, exam soldiers. I’m sure Shakespeare didn’t mean to cause such pain to our nation’s young.

*street for ‘angry with’. Well if Shakespeare can use confusing contemporary terms, then why can’t I?


Mr Dallagio. Bad for A-level exams (dailymail.com)


Mr Dover. Good for A-level exams (geni.com)



2 Comments Add yours

  1. noteablepad says:

    This is so interesting! When did you do your A Levels? What was your exam board?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks! I did my A-levels in June 1999! Long time ago. I can’t quite recall the exam board unfortunately!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s