In Memoriam: George K. Hunter, Shakespeare Scholar

G.K. Hunter, the Emily Sanford Professor Emeritus of English at Yale University, one of the world’s leading authorities on Shakespeare and his age, died peacefully on April 10 at Topsham, Maine, after a long illness.

G.K. Hunter, the Emily Sanford Professor Emeritus of English at Yale University, one of the world’s leading authorities on Shakespeare and his age, died peacefully on April 10 at Topsham, Maine, after a long illness.

George Kirkpatrick Hunter was born in Glasgow in 1920. He received his undergraduate education at the University of Glasgow, where he acquired the deep knowledge of the ancient classics that underpinned his lifelong expertise in the literature of Renaissance Europe. He obtained his D.Phil. at Oxford in 1950.

During World War II, Hunter served in the Royal Navy’s convoy protection zone in northern Russia, and then in British naval intelligence in Sri Lanka, operating throughout the Pacific and learning (among other languages) Russian and Japanese. He then taught English literature at the Universities of Hull, Reading and Liverpool, before becoming the founding professor of English at the University of Warwick in 1964.

Warwick was one of seven “New Universities” founded in the United Kingdom in the 1960s, in an era of expansion of British universities. Their mission was major curricular and pedagogic innovation. They recruited some of the finest scholars, and had from the start a status equal to prestigious older institutions. Hunter devised a curriculum for English studies that was an important break from the Anglo-centric model (“From Beowulf to Virginia Woolf”), which was standard in most U.K. universities. He insisted that English be studied in the context of world literature, together with at least one literature in a language other than English (originally Latin, Italian, French or German).

One of his graduate students at Warwick, Catherine Belsey, who herself became an eminent Shakespearean, wrote: “There was a sense that something important was going on. A new department was being built up from first principles, and what it did mattered. There was no complacency, no resting on old laurels, no easy imitation of existing systems.” At Warwick, Hunter also served as a pro-vice-chancellor, a senior administrative role. In 1974, he became, with Claude Rawson, an editor of the Modern Language Review, one of the oldest journals of literary scholarship, and its supplement, the Yearbook of English Studies.

Hunter moved to Yale in 1976, becoming an honorary professor at Warwick for the rest of his life.  He was named the Emily Sanford Professor at Yale in 1987 and served as chair of Yale’s interdisciplinary graduate program in Renaissance studies from 1985 to 1991.  In 1991, on his 70th birthday, he was presented with a festschrift, “The Arts of Performance in Elizabethan and Early Stuart Drama,” whose contributors included many of the most distinguished scholars in the field. He retired from Yale in 1991, and he and his wife, Shelagh, moved from New Haven to Maine in 2007.

Hunter’s many books and articles include “John Lyly: The Humanist as Courtier” (1962), a work that laid foundations for later 20th-century studies of courtliness and drama; a critical study of Milton’s Paradise Lost (1980); and numerous scholarly editions of plays by Lyly, Marston and Shakespeare. His “Dramatic Identities and Cultural Tradition” (1978) brought together such important essays on the cultural dimensions of Elizabethan drama as “Elizabethans and Foreigners” and “Othello and Color Prejudice.”  Hunter’s “English Drama 1586-1642” (1997) brought to completion the Oxford History of English Literature, a series that began in 1935 and that included volumes written by C.S. Lewis and J.I.M. Stewart.

Among other honors, he was named a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1978, and and a corresponding fellow of the British Academy in 1988.

In the words of Claude Rawson, the Maynard Mack Professor of English at Yale, “George Hunter was a beloved teacher and friend to generations of scholars, a person of great wisdom and charm, with a wry acerbic wit that in no way conflicted with a generous and compassionate nature.”

He is survived by his wife Shelagh, a distinguished scholar of 19th-century literature; his children Mary, Andrew and Ruth; and seven grandchildren.

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