S. Schoenbaum: OBITUARY

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The Independent Online
Sam Schoenbaum was one of the heroes of Shakespeare scholarship, yet his voluminous writings can be seen as preliminary studies for a culminating book that his long last illness was to prevent him from writing. He wanted to write a major biography of Shakespeare and, like E.K. Chambers before him, he set about the task by planning a series of preparatory volumes.

Early works on Thomas Middleton (Middleton's Tragedies: a critical study, 1955) and on problems of attribution in Elizabethan dramatic authorship (Internal Evidence and Elizabethan Dramatic Authorship, 1966), and a revision (1964) of Alfred Harbage's Annals of English Drama, 975-1700, laid the groundwork. He turned directly to Shakespeare, in the masterly Shakespeare's Lives (1970, revised 1994), an encyclopaedic but immensely entertaining study of earlier investigations into Shakespeare's biography which includes a long section on what he called "Deviations" - attempts to demonstrate that Shakespeare did not write his works.

Next came William Shakespeare: a Documentary Life (1974), a meticulous and splendidly produced investigation of the primary materials accompanied by photocopies of all the relevant documents which he went to great pains to examine himself, wherever they were located. This was supplemented by a no less impressive companion volume, William Shakespeare: records and images (1981). On the title-pages of these, as of all his works, he appears as "S. Schoenbaum"; he had an aversion to the use of any longer form of his name in print.

In the meantime had appeared a compact version (1977) of the Documentary Life. Although he saw this only as the last stage in the process of limbering up for the comprehensive biography that would have crowned his achievement, it remains the fullest, most scholarly, and most readable account of what is known about Shakespeare's life. Like all Schoenbaum's mature work it is characterised by learning lightly borne, and by a prose style that combines high intelligence with a marvellous play of ironical wit.

All this was achieved along with a busy career as a university teacher - mainly at Northwestern University and later at the University of Maryland, where he was Distinguished Professor of Renaissance Studies; as an editor, as a contributor to learned journals, and as a reviewer of books, theatre, and cinema, in which he took a keen interest.

Sam Schoenbaum's dedication to scholarship never stood in the way of his enjoyment of the good things of life. In great demand as a speaker, he travelled extensively, usually accompanied by his wife, Marilyn; he liked to recall that their first date had been at a performance of Othello starring Paul Robeson. He enjoyed good wine, food (cooking it as well as eating it), and restaurants. He was gregarious and made friends easily, he always had time for a gossip, he liked to amuse, he was kindly to young and old; there was no malice in him. On the jacket of the Documentary Life he is portrayed, not uncharacteristically, holding a glass of brandy. He once told me with puzzled hurt that this had caused much ill feeling. His worldly success provoked envy in some of his colleagues, but he took great pleasure in his friends' successes, and was unfailingly generous in criticism.

It must be over 10 years now since multiple sclerosis started to slow Schoenbaum down and to reduce his output. Cancer was to be added. He continued to work, but the big book on which he had set his sights never came into being. I last saw him in Washington two years ago, already bedridden and wraith-like, but patient in affliction and tended with selfless devotion by his wife. A volume of essays planned to celebrate his achievements is about to be published; it will, as all who have contributed feared it might, turn out to be a tribute to his memory.

Samuel Schoenbaum, English scholar: born New York 6 March 1927; staff, Northwestern University 1953-75, Franklin Bliss Snyder Professor of English Literature 1971-75; Visiting Professor, King's College London 1961; Distinguished Professor of English, City University of New York 1975-76; Distinguished Professor of Renaissance Literature, University of Maryland 1976-93, Director, Center for Renaissance and Baroque Studies 1981-96; married 1946 Marilyn Turk; died Washington DC 27 March 1996.