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Shakespeare scholar Anne Barton dies at 80, a graceful, expert voice

Arts and CultureLiteratureColleges and UniversitiesEducationCambridge (England)EnglandTheater

Anne Barton, one of the 20th century’s foremost Shakespeare scholars, died Monday in Cambridge, England.  She was 80 years old. The announcement was made by Cambridge University, where she was an emeritus professor of English and fellow of Trinity College. 

An American who grew up in Westchester County, New York, Bobbyann Roesen set sail for England after graduating from Bryn Mawr in 1954 and spent most of her life on the native soil of her great subject, William Shakespeare. 

Shakespeare was her destiny. As an undergraduate, she published in “Shakespeare Quarterly” the essay “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” the last paragraph of which contained, in her own words, “the germ” of what became her most important book, “Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play” (1962).

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Here she argued that for the playwright the stage, with its mirthful impersonations and flamboyant games, provided a buoyant symbol not of illusion but of reality itself. 

She earned a PhD at Cambridge and became the first woman to hold a Fellowship in New College, Oxford before returning to Cambridge, where she rose to prominence as one of the leading authorities in English Renaissance drama and Early Modern literature. Among her many honors, she was made a fellow of the British Academy. 

Her books include "Ben Jonson, Dramatist" (1982), “The Names of Comedy” (1990), “Byron: Don Juan” (1992) and the collection “Essays, Mainly Shakespearean" (1994).

But she is perhaps best known in the U.S. for her introductions to Shakespeare’s comedies in “The Riverside Shakespeare,” the backbreaking tome American undergraduates have been lugging in their knapsacks for generations. 

It’s safe to say that through these prefaces Barton awakened countless students -- future academics, theater artists and critics among them -- to the miracle of Shakespeare’s genius.  

A first marriage to William Righter ended in divorce. In 1968, while a university lecturer, she married director John Barton, a pillar of the Royal Shakespeare Company under Peter Hall’s leadership and one of Britain's most influential classical theater directors. Intellectually, it was an ideal match.

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Barton’s scholarship is notable for the way it balances psychological nuance with narrative clarity (much like the best of John Barton’s productions). Her graceful prose illuminates a work’s broader historical, political and cultural contexts only to throw into sharper relief the dynamic flux of dramatic relations. For the supremely erudite, Cambridge-educated Bartons, the play was indeed the thing.

At times it seemed as if the entire repertoire of Elizabethan-Jacobean drama, with its growing tonnage of fiercely contentious annotation and exegesis, was at the beck and call of Barton’s memory. No character was too minor, no plot point too negligible, no historical footnote too obscure for her to lose track of, especially when quietly skewering, in the London Review of Books or the New York Review of Books, the work of a fellow academic exploiting Shakespeare to promulgate the latest scholarly fad.

A close reader who remained keenly aware of the way literary and social frameworks alter how texts are interpreted, she moved with effortless, undoctrinaire fluidity in her critical method. Exploring the hearts and minds of characters came as naturally to her as it did to Stanislavski-based actors.

But she was equally interested in examining the function of a role in a playwright’s larger dramatic scheme and understood that questions of genre, chronology, source material and textual accuracy were integral to this study. Hers was truly a holistic approach.

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Unlike other titans in the field, she never lost sight of the fact that the creation of consciousness -- Shakespeare’s supreme gift, as Harold Bloom excitedly contends in his book “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human” -- was an artistic phenomenon, the DNA being poetic and theatrical, not biological.

I still recall reading her introduction to “As You Like It” in "The Riverside Shakespeare" as a somewhat melancholic graduate student (really, are there any other kind?) and being tingled to alertness by insights that bridged a 400-year old play with my own far less frolicsome situation. About Rosalind, the comedy’s bright protagonist, she recognized a figure every bit as central to her play as Hamlet was to his.

“Like Jaques, Rosalind knows that human beings die and that worms eat them. Like old Corin, she is aware that even the most passionate love diminishes with time, and like Touchstone, that lovers are objectively ridiculous and their airiest flights grounded in the senses. She knows these things immediately and emotionally, not merely in the abstract, and yet they do not sour her gaiety or trivialize the essential seriousness of her commitment to Orlando.”

In “Falstaff and the Comic Community” (contained in “Essays, Mainly Shakespearean”), Barton observed that “Falstaff in Windsor is a stranded leviathan, a man hopelessly out of his element, beached and floundering. Yet she immediately pointed out that “he remains able to run rings round everyone else” in a town filled “with people engaged in a losing battle with the subtleties of the English language.”

Absorbing the inspirational model of Shakespeare, Barton’s prose possessed a classical poise seldom encountered in today’s jargon-riddled academic mewlings. Her work continues to remind us that rigor and elegance needn’t be sworn enemies. 

“Humane, learned, un-showily stylish and at times moving in their tender intelligence” is how the literary critic A.D. Nuttall described the contents of “Essays, Mainly Shakespearean,” and it is these characteristics that enabled Barton to stand out in a crowded scholarly field, a figure as formidably bright as any of Shakespeare’s cleverest heroines. 

Twitter: @charlesmcnulty

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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