Professor G. K. Hunter: Shakespeare scholar and founding Professor of English Literature at Warwick University - Obituaries - News - The Independent

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.

Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
FootballFull debuts don't come much more stylish than those on show here
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
The ecological reconstruction of Ikrandraco avatar is shown in this illustration courtesy of Chuang Zhao. Scientists on September 11, 2014 announced the discovery of fossils in China of a type of flying reptile called a pterosaur that lived 120 millions years ago and so closely resembled those creatures from the 2009 film, Avatar that they named it after them.
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Matisse: The Cut-Outs exhibition attracted 562,000 visitors to the Tate Modern from April to September
Life and Style
Models walk the runway at the Tom Ford show during London Fashion Week Spring Summer 2015
fashionLondon Fashion Week 2014
Kenny G
peopleThe black actress has claimed police mistook her for a prostitute when she kissed her white husband
Life and Style
techIndian model comes with cricket scores baked in
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Energy Markets Analyst

£400000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Energy Markets An...

Junior Web Analyst – West Sussex – Up to £35k DOE

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

Nursery Manager

£22000 - £23000 per annum: Randstad Education Bristol: We are currently recrui...

Web Analyst – Permanent – Up to £40k - London

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week