Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

J. Leeds Barroll III: A Tribute

Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

J. Leeds Barroll III: A Tribute

Article excerpt

YOU never can tell what the future holds. When I embarked on a two-semester seminar in Shakespeare thirty-five years ago, I expected a major extension of my graduate study but not an encounter with a legendary figure. In 1968, though J. Leeds Barroll III had already established credentials sufficient to secure him an endowed professorship at Vanderbilt, he had barely begun the remarkable achievements that now make him so distinguished. Many others whose lives and careers he has touched or transformed might have written this essay in his honor, but no one else, I suspect, has known him in as many different capacities. Teacher, scholar, visionary, administrator, editor, colleague, mentor, friend. It has been my privilege to observe Leeds at first hand in all these capacities.

He might well have made his mark solely as an extraordinary teacher. In that long-ago seminar at Vanderbilt, he set up procedures that demonstrated not only his own enormous grasp of Shakespearean scholarship but also his high standards for professional competence. Each week we heard a brilliant, meticulously crafted lecture on some aspect of the field--biography, theater history, textual studies, bibliography, critical approaches, and other methodological matters in the first semester, with a sweep through the canon in the second semester. I still consult my notes sometimes, humbled yet profoundly grateful for the foundation Leeds Barroll provided us. One unique feature, which I subsequently incorporated into my own teaching, involved weekly assignments at random to two or three students who had to prepare a critical review of some essential work in Shakespearean scholarship related to the topic for the next session. Regardless of any other commitments for any other courses, we had to assess the work in an ungraded but formally written three-minute presentation (accompanied by a handout identifying three significant reviews of the book), delivered as if it were a paper at a professional meeting. Nowadays, when graduate students routinely show up at such meetings and submit papers for pre-PhD publication, this practice may seem commonplace. At the time, however, it provided a rare, realistic foretaste of the pressure to produce which haunts anyone with serious aspirations. After each presentation, the weekly victims received critiques of their performances by fellow students and by Leeds. We learned more than we realized, and though some despised the experience, I did not. More routinely, final papers and a rigorous final examination covering lectures and assigned readings completed each semester's work. That capacity to create precisely what a particular course should provide for its students has characterized Leeds's teaching, whether at the graduate or undergraduate level, within a university setting or at the Folger Institute, where he has served so ably.

As a Shakespeare scholar, few can match the contributions of Leeds Barroll. Earlier in his career, it seemed as if other significant professional projects might prevent the definitive publications that everyone who knew him well hoped he would produce. He seemed to have read and absorbed everything ever written by anybody else, always preferring the "hard" work of exhaustive research rather than the "soft" work of a trendy critical approach. For a while in the early seventies, it looked as if editing might claim his loyalties. He edited the Blackfriars Hamlet and Othello, directed the editions of fifteen other plays in the series, and also trained several fine editors, including Paul Werstine and John Andrews. Artificial Persons (1974) addressed a vital subject that had lingered in neglect since the old-fashioned criticism of A. C. Bradley, though it did not become the seminal work every scholar wishes to create. Nor did the equally solid, thought-provoking Shakespearean Tragedy: Genre, Tradition, and Change in "Antony and Cleopatra" (1983). Fortunately, the passage of time has allowed Leeds to publish the massively detailed Politics, Plague, and Shakespeare's Theater: The Stuart Years (1991) and Anna of Denmark, Queen of England: A Cultural Biography (2001). …

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