Obituary: Professor Nicholas Brooke

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
NICHOLAS BROOKE - who was a founder of English Studies at the University of East Anglia (UEA) when it opened in the 1960s, and a most distinguished Shakespearean - practised the style of drama criticism that turned books back into scripts for performance. He did it however in a way that retained all the obsessive subtlety of the closest reading, in the tradition of the critic William Empson.

In Seven Types of Ambiguity, Empson interrupted himself in the middle of exploring a vertiginous Shakespearean play on words to ask: who - in the theatre - could possibly have caught these multiple meanings and lurking undercurrents of suggestion? Well (he answered himself) there were always the actors, who'd know the text sideways and backwards, they would get the point.

Brooke, who acted with the Marlowe Society when he was a student in Cambridge, would make this kind of insight his own - via the influence and example of his (most Empsonian) mentor from Jesus College, A.P. Rossiter, who positively preached against "absolutes" and "certainties" and in favour of "relatives, ambiguities, ironies", and by all accounts matched his insight with a lecturing style that electrified his audiences.

Rossiter didn't publish much: partly perhaps because he died prematurely - he liked to take risks, and killed himself in a motorcycle accident in 1957 - but also because he despised the settled forms of conventional critical writing. In fact, although I'm sketching out a "line" (a sort of anti-Scrutiny "great tradition") it was never one that was as visible as it might be, because it was about handing on a style of performance. Rather than a critical school, one ought probably to think of the way actors hand on styles of performing (say) Macbeth. Texts, in short, weren't the Holy Writ, they were for "new critics". Brooke, who did more practical theatrical work than Rossiter, was always intensely aware of this.

Brooke may have been predisposed to relish insecurity, just because his family were so set in Cambridge. His father was a Fellow of Caius, and a Professor of Medieval History (Brooke's younger brother Christopher would become a distinguished Professor of History too), and Brooke himself made a false start as a historian at Caius, before joining the Navy during the Second World War; when he returned, he found Rossiter, and became overnight a First Class student of English, and (briefly) an assistant Jesus College lecturer.

Then, in 1949, he took up a post as lecturer at Durham University and married his first wife, Pamela. At Durham his lectures became justly famed for their power to make even students who weren't in love with literature at least half in love with his portrayal of Marlowe, or Spenser or Shakespeare. He would stride up and down on Palace Green between lectures, smoking, his rusty gown flapping, his handsome, beaky profile defying the wind, for all the world like a spirit of the place.

But although he fell for the landscape, and leased the cottage at Harwood- in-Teesdale he would retreat to with family and friends for the rest of his life, he didn't regret the opportunity to leave. Durham was too collegiate and churchy for his tastes; it was also caught up in that picturesque power-struggle that went on in English departments back then, between Language (Anglo-Saxon) and Literature. So despite deep friendships with colleagues he was pleased to move to UEA in Norwich at the behest of Ian Watt. And when Ian Watt himself moved back to California (there was some story about the Watts' pet boa constrictor feeling the cold), having set up UEA English, which already had an unconventionally creative feel thanks to the presence of Angus Wilson, Brooke was free, indeed obliged, in the 1960s and early 1970s to spell out his own recipe for "English".

It is tempting, given the era and the Empson connection, to portray Brooke as a carnivalesque and anarchistic figure, and indeed he partly was, but only partly. Horrid Laughter in Jacobean Tragedy (1979) celebrated the most cruelly hilarious plays of Webster, Tourneur, Middleton and Ford - "Wild laughter resists order, and diminishes the neat social and even cosmic orders to which the plays appeal"; but for him, characteristically, this is about exposing the "perversity that is inherent in the beauty of tragedy", the vileness of pleasure-in-pain.

He is still very much the critic who years before, in his book Shakespeare's Early Tragedies (1968), could describe the "noisy, bustling, healthy, bawdy, shabby vitality" of Juliet's nurse in such a way as to put the "nice" side of carnival in its place. It has its survivalist's window, but survival isn't all, let alone ripeness.

The tone of voice he uses is not jokey. He may have been anti-order, but he was at the time bleakly discriminating. (Not for nothing was he an exigent and fastidious textual scholar.) Laughter is part of tragedy, and tragedy is about - for instance - having the honesty to refuse false consolations.

His best work speaks with authority about the limits of certainty, and is a kind of rhetorical gamble. His lectures were like this, and although he was an excellent tutor and seminar-teacher, balancing precariously on his chair's hind legs, drawing out the silence that would blackmail you into explaining yourself, it was in lectures that he could act out authority and turn it back on itself.

As an actor, too, he was most memorable in lonely, self-policing roles - Face in The Alchemist, Krapp in Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape. His last work - when he had retired first to London, then to Wiltshire, with his second wife, Julia Lacey - was about baroque form in Shakespeare (affinities with Caravaggio, or Bernini), a celebration of creativity and craft that took its clue from the illusions the stage produces and undoes so prodigally.

He wrote brilliantly about death. He seemed always physically frail, cartoonishly thin when I first encountered him as my tutor at Durham when, still in his thirties, he had just recovered from cancer, one illness he was able to put behind him. His energies were prodigious, he was a climber, a walker, a tireless father and grandfather.

His short book on King Lear (Shakespeare: King Lear in Arnold's "Studies in English Literature" series, 1963) has a marvellous coda about the myth of catharsis, the curative effect of the tragic end, which begins: "At the end of the play the lights go on and we shuffle out of the theatre . . ." The illusion fades, we shouldn't short-change the magic by turning it into a sermon, and that was Nicholas Brooke's message.

Lorna Sage

Nicholas Stanton Brooke, English scholar; born Cambridge 10 June 1924; Professor of English Literature, University of East Anglia 1964-84; married 1949 Pamela Maguire (deceased; two sons, two daughters), 1986 Julia Lacey; died Chippenham, Wiltshire 26 October 1998.