Professor G. K. Hunter: Shakespeare scholar and founding Professor of English Literature at Warwick University

G.K. Hunter was a Renaissance man. But while he was a brilliant champion of marginalised Elizabethan playwrights like Lyly and Marston, his commitment, as scholar, editor and teacher was very much to the present, as his continuous engagement with Shakespeare demonstrated. He was among those pioneering academics who, in the wake of the 1963 Robbins Report, were tasked with tackling elitism, gender discrimination, and class-and-culture prejudice in higher education by widening participation, establishing, from the ground up, seven new universities in the UK. Hunter founded the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at Warwick University. His achievement was to imagine a new Humanities ethos for a changing world.

He was born in Glasgow in 1920. After graduating from Glasgow University, he joined the Navy, served on the Atlantic convoys, then, having learned Japanese, was posted to the Allied Pacific Headquarters in Sri Lanka. (Much later, Hunter would be known to introduce some debate or other in faculty meetings with, "as the only Orientalist present . . .") After the Second World War, he took a DPhil in Renaissance English Literature from Oxford, then held lectureships in Hull, Reading and Liverpool before being recruited to Warwick in 1964. His impact was immediate and sensational.

George Hunter saw culture as a continuum, an inheritance that authors have cherished or challenged and scholars have tried to comprehend for as long as writing has existed. Or even before: the European epic tradition, from Gilgamesh and Homer to Dante and Milton, was the foundation stone of the English syllabus he devised. Students were stretched by oral traditions and dizzying national myths while, simultaneously, they burrowed through the evolution of the English language via the Gawain poet, Langland and Chaucer. But Harold Pinter was on this syllabus, too – put there by Hunter before the playwright's name was at all known. For Hunter, past and present were in dialogue, and he was committed to discovering new voices. (One of his last Warwick lectures, after he had gone on to a distinguished career at Yale, introduced Jacobean revenge tragedy via the film Reservoir Dogs).

In establishing a department of "Comparative Literary Studies", Hunter was insisting that English could only properly be understood in a European context. He required all English students to become proficient in at least one foreign language and to take highly demanding courses outside their field. He himself worked fluently in five languages, two of them dead; didn't see the need of translating quotations (because everyone read Latin and Greek – didn't they?); and unhesitatingly gave readers passages of early modern Scots dialect, trusting to a literacy in them as capacious as his own.

To achieve his hugely ambitious vision for English at Warwick, Hunter head-hunted a brilliant team of rising specialists – including Claude Rawson, and Bernard Bergonzi – Americanists, linguists, poets, and such new talents as Gay Clifford (the youngest academic in Britain when she was appointed) and Germaine Greer (who juggled teaching, writing and appearances in a TV comedy show.

For students, these were heady times. The campus under construction on the green field site at the bottom of Gibbet Hill might be a sea of mud – more Wilfred Owens' Somme than William Blake's New Jerusalem – but that didn't matter. Everything there was to be invented: social structures, political structures, the very idea of what a university would be. Intellectual and generational turmoil were the order of the day, with student protest raging not just against what was happening in Vietnam, Mississippi and Northern Ireland but across universities too. He gave students a model of political engagement absent of factionalism.

And he created, at the centre of those days' storms, a still space of almost monastic dedication to scholarship. He even looked monkish, shambling between buildings in a belted gabardine, a canvas knapsack over his shoulder, holding his sandwiches – an image at odds with his habits of mind. Absolute clarity was Hunter's trademark. Reading, writing, conversing, arguing – his research was exhaustive, his logic flawless. Everything mattered. Everything he produced was polished.

His remarkable critical and editorial work has remained indispensable because of the absolute standards he set himself and expected of others, whether writing a learned monograph like John Lyly: the Humanist as courtier (1962), contributing to the Oxford History of English Literature or editing Macbeth or King Lear for Penguin – and for the new mass readership the Butler Education Act had created and his new university was built to instruct and serve.

His brilliance was to begin with disarmingly "simple" questions, wondering, for example, what the "theatrical purpose" of Othello's blackness might have been. Astonishingly rich and detailed answers followed, sweeping magisterially across history, geography, myth; etymology, demographics, visual and print culture; finishing with Elizabethan playhouse practice and close readings of text. Essays like "Elizabethans and foreigners" (1964) and "Othello and colour prejudice" (1967), collected in Dramatic Identities and Cultural Tradition (1978) may show their age in their titles but as scholarship remain unsurpassed.

Undoubtedly, he made his greatest mark as a Shakespearean. He respected the pastness of the past, requiring students to encounter Shakespeare as an Elizabethan, a foreigner, on the playwright's cultural terms. He was the perfect go-between: his knowledge of the period was formidable. But he was also one of the first to understand Shakespeare not just as a writer of texts but a "wrighter" of performances, a man of the theatre whose words achieved meaning in the mouths of actors. Hunter forged important relationships with the Royal Shakespeare Company (which flourish at Warwick today), bringing in Peter Hall as an Associate Professor and laying the foundations for pioneering, internationally influential Theatre Studies and Film departments.

His Shakespeare showed how culture learns from the past and teaches the future. Only George Hunter in those days could insist on Shylock's and Othello's inextricability from medieval church art, Venetian journals, Dachau, and Notting Hill. His Shakespeare was in dialogue with all writing: Homer (refracted and savaged in Troilus and Cressida); Petrarch (made to dance by Romeo and Juliet); Tolstoy and Melville (grappling with the nightmares of history, faith and obsession that galvanise King Lear).

And – he made this explicit – his Shakespeare was the crowning experience of the Warwick degree, the place where English students would apply their critical skills and test their imaginations to the limit. Attending his lectures was like going to the theatre. Students didn't take notes. They absorbed the performance – and wrote it up afterwards. His lectures could be inspirational, even hilarious, but dangerous too, as he suddenly leaned across the podium to pick out some hapless individual to explain a dense passage of rhetoric or supply a date.

Combative and witty, suffering no fools gladly but deeply concerned, a perfectionist with a hawk's sharp eye and boots thick with the dust of experience (some of it, students suspected, picked up in a past life on the road between Stratford and London, in deep conversation with Shakespeare), Hunter taught students that the values and humanity which great literature conserves are worth fighting for. He engaged in that battle every day of his life.

Carol Rutter and Tony Howard

George Kirkpatrick Hunter, English scholar: born Glasgow 7 October 1920; Lecturer in English, Hull University 1948-56; Lecturer in English, Reading University 1956-58; Lecturer in English, Liverpool University 1958-64; Professor of English Literature, and Founding Head of Department, Warwick University 1964-75; Professor of English, Yale University 1976-87, Chair of Renaissance Studies 1985-91, Emily Sanford Professor of English 1987-2008; FBA 1988; married 1950 Shelagh Edmunds (one son, two daughters); died Topsham, Maine 10 April 2008.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Nick Clegg on the campaign trail in Glasgow on Wednesday; he says education is his top priority
peopleNick Clegg remains optimistic despite dismal Lib Dem poll ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Déjà vu: David Tennant returns to familiar territory with Anna Gunn (‘Breaking Bad’)
tvReview: Something is missing in Gracepoint, and it's not just the familiar names
Arts and Entertainment
Buttoned up: Ryan Reynolds with Helen Mirren in ‘Woman in Gold’
filmFor every box-office smash in his Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. Now he says it's time for a reboot
News
people
News
Actress Julianne Moore wins the Best Actress in a Leading Role Award for 'Still Alice' during the 87th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California
people
Sport
Ross Barkley
footballPaul Scholes says it's time for the Everton playmaker to step up and seize the England No 10 shirt
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Accounts Office Administrator

£15000 - £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The ideal candidates will have ...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer

£22000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

£23000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing boutique prac...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?