Professor Katherine Duncan-Jones (13 May 1941 – 16 October 2022)
Photo by Teresa Wood
‘I don’t believe’, wrote Katherine Duncan-Jones in her revisionist biography Ungentle Shakespeare: Scenes from a Life (2001), ‘’that any Elizabethans, even Shakespeare, were what might now be called ‘nice’ - liberal, unprejudiced, unselfish’. It is an epitome of her fresh look at Shakespeare’s life and works, at once deeply immersed, and head-on-one-side detached. After studying as a student at St Hilda’s College, Katherine Duncan-Jones became Mary Ewart Research Fellow at Somerville in 1963, beginning an association that would last six decades, only briefly interrupted by a fellowship at New Hall in Cambridge from 1965-6. She was appointed Professor by the University of Oxford in 1998.
KD-J, as she was often known, began her career working on the Elizabethan courtier Philip Sidney, and was, for generations, the voice framing Sidney’s works for modern readers. She edited his poetry in 1973, his prose works with Jan van Dorsten in 1977, prepared a selection of verse and prose for OUP in 1989, and the standard edition of the Arcadia in 1985. In 1991 she published the still-definitive biography, Sir Philip Sidney. Courtier Poet. Sidney had been the subject of adulatory commentary for centuries, beginning after his untimely death in 1586: Katherine’s biography revealed the man behind this myth, and carefully, compassionately, but unflinchingly traced his increasing sense of frustration and self-indulgence. Its combination of admiration and objectivity was a foretaste of her method with a more famously mythical biography, Shakespeare.
Katherine’s work of the 1990s and early 2000s was firmly on Shakespeare. She produced a remarkable edition of his sonnets for the Arden series: it was an editorial task that had seen off at least two previous scholars. Her method, first writing out each poem in her own distinctively and stylishly wonky script (appropriately, there was more than a touch of Elizabeth I in her handwriting), was coolly immersive: she could recite them from memory, while also recognising their erotic cruelty and misogyny. This edition (1997, second ed. 2010), and her book reconnecting Shakespeare with the literary culture of his period, Ungentle Shakespeare, and its sequel, Shakespeare: Upstart Crow to Sweet Swan (2011) will be her lasting scholarly legacy.
Always committed to theatre, long before production was a standard element of Shakespeare editing and scholarship, she reviewed theatre productions with lively energy for the Times Literary Supplement. Her support for the performance of forgotten plays was legendary, and she was an enthusiastic advocate of gender neutral casting long before it became standard theatrical practice. Her numerous journal articles often deployed archival discoveries to situate Shakespeare and his contemporaries. She was an inspiring example of someone whose career, energy and professional authority really took off in mid-life. Her discovery of Ben Jonson’s epitaph on his one-time collaborator Thomas Nashe in the archives of Berkeley Castle was published in 1995: in the same collection she found new sonnets by the young Elizabeth Carey; elsewhere she also uncovered a late reference that may well extend the known life of Will Kemp, the comedian for whom Shakespeare wrote Dogberry. She was equally at home in modern theatre, in Elizabethan prose, in poetry, and in the archives, and was a fixture of the Upper Reading Room in the Bodleian Library.
Above all, Katherine was a scholarly interlocutor unafraid of controversy and debate: as she herself put it, ‘a fearless teller of difficult truths’. Her students experienced this usually as gentle and permissive, but with peers it could be forthright and sometimes implacable. Her signature scholarship - detailed and archival, challenging orthodoxies, and always steeped in decades of reading the Elizabethan poets - will continue to be cited. As a dedicated tutor, she might be even more pleased at the impact she has had on former pupils, inspired by her unshowy and practical commitment to women’s education. Her generosity to younger scholars was consistent and enabling. Above all, she was fun, with a capacity to inspire, and indulge, fits of laughter and attacks of the giggles. Perhaps we could borrow from that Ben Jonson poem she brought to life from the archive:
Farewell greate spirite my pen attird in blacke
Shall whilst I am still weepe & mourn thie lacke.
― Professor Emma Smith