Obituary : Professor Kenneth Muir

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The Independent Online
The eminent Shakespearean scholar Kenneth Muir was one of the last of the patriarch- professors in the Arts Faculties of English provincial universities. For 23 years, from 1951 to 1974, as King Alfred Professor of English Literature at Liverpool University, he presided with benevolent autocracy over one of the best English departments in the country, encouraging such diverse talents as the two Allotts, Kenneth and Miriam, G.K. Hunter, Ernest Schanzer, Inga-Stina Ewbank, Hermione Lee, Brian Nellist, and many others. He looked after everything himself, including admissions and the announcement of the degree-list, until nearly the end of his reign. If you phoned the department, as often as not he would answer.

Muir made his name with the New Arden editions of King Lear and Macbeth, which he prepared with characteristic speed, so that they were the first to be published in that famous series, in 1951-52. He wrote extensively on Shakespeare's imagery, and made notable contributions on the sources of the plays. Although most of his work was on Shakespeare and the dramatists of his time, he also edited Sir Thomas Wyatt's poems and wrote his biography. The wide range of his writings included work on Keats, Milton, Ibsen and Restoration comedy. He translated Racine and Caldern, and was very pleased at the praise his Racine translation received when he was awarded an honorary doctorate at Dijon.

Muir's father, a doctor, died when he was seven. He was educated, on a free place, at Epsom, and although he was not much in sympathy with the school's outlook, and later wrote to the Headmaster, "I am one of your failures", he became a prefect and won numerous prizes. He abandoned his medical studies in London and read English at Oxford, at St Edmund Hall; he blamed his lack of interest in the linguistic approach to Old English literature for his not getting a First.

In 1931 Muir was appointed to a lectureship at St John's College, York, largely on the strength of a recommendation from the Poet Laureate, John Masefield, who, mistaking him for another Muir, had given him a leading part in The Comedy of Errors. He was sacked on three separate occasions for opposing compulsory chapel and being too familiar with the students, but on each occasion was reinstated by the governors, whose chairman, the Archbishop of York, William Temple, was on his side (he thought) because he liked the Shakespeare productions Muir had been doing for the York Settlement.

Muir brought out his first volume of poems, The Nettle and the Flower, in 1933, and collaborated with Sean O'Loughlin in a study of Shakespeare's imagery, The Voyage to Illyria, published in 1937. He became a lecturer at Leeds University in the same year.

He was tireless in publishing notes and short articles, so much so that in the Sixties his colleagues used to call Notes and Queries "Old Muir's Almanac". During the Shakespeare Conference at Stratford-upon-Avon he could be seen on the terrace of the Dirty Duck handing out offprints of his latest views on the chronology of Marlowe's plays.

With broad forehead and keen blue eyes, lean of face and lean of build, Muir was a tall and impressive figure. There was a natural distinction in his bearing, though he cared little about clothes. He loved the theatre and was very proud of his performances and productions, especially at Leeds. When he retired from Liverpool, his colleagues staged The Tempest in his honour, and he played Prospero. He spoke the poetry beautifully. He had a great fund of reminiscences about pre-war productions of Shakespeare, and was a devoted admirer of the actresses he approved of, particularly Peggy Ashcroft and Judi Dench.

He was a lifelong Labour supporter, undertaking a great deal of journalism in his younger days, and serving as Labour councillor in both Leeds and Birkenhead. An immensely kind, thoughtful, sensitive and generous person, he was also very reserved, and those closest to him could only guess at the quality and depth of his emotional life. His wife, Mary, died of leukaemia in 1975. In the years that followed he was very close to his daughter Katharine, who lectured in psychology at Keele, and her death in 1981, also of leukaemia, was a very great blow to him.

For many years, Kenneth Muir was a commanding figure in English academic life and in the international world of Shakespeare studies. His very active intellectual life continued throughout his long retirement. As editor of the influential journal Shakespeare Survey, and long-time chairman of the International Shakespeare Association, he remained very much at the centre of things, and was contributing chapters to books, and papers to conferences, until a few weeks before his death. The revolution in literary studies in the Eighties pained him deeply, and he was very shaken when in the last year of his life someone called him a reactionary.

Although he was a pillar of that less than revolutionary society, the British Academy, he always saw himself as a rebel and a radical. Conservative or radical, he had an alert, clear and capacious mind, an amazingly retentive memory, and he loved literature passionately for its human values. Generations of students, colleagues, and fellow scholars remember him with affection and gratitude.

Kenneth Muir, English scholar: born London 5 May 1907; Lecturer in English, St John's College, York 1930-37; Lecturer in English Literature, Leeds University 1937-51; King Alfred Professor of English Literature, Liverpool University 1951-74 (Emeritus), Dean of the Faculty of Arts 1958-61, Public Orator 1961-65; Editor, Shakespeare Survey 1965-80; FBA 1970; FRSL 1978; married 1936 Mary Ewen (died 1975; one son, and one daughter deceased); died Birkenhead 30 September 1996.

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