Obituary: Professor Muriel Bradbrook
Saturday 19 June 1993
LOVERS OF SHAKESPEARE from all over the world will mourn the passing of Professor Bradbrook, whose name is a household word amongst scholars, teachers, theatregoers, and students at all levels. Last year she received the prestigious Pragnell Award from the Shakespeare Birthday Celebration Committee for 'outstanding achievement in extending the appreciation and enjoyment of the works of William Shakespeare'. In Cambridge a special sense of loss is felt at Girton College, of which 'Brad' was a cornerstone from her arrival as an undergraduate from Merseyside in 1927, to her election as Mistress in 1968 and her appointment as Life Fellow in 1976. She published prolifically on subjects as diverse as Malory, Ibsen and Malcolm Lowry, although her central love was always Shakespeare and the Elizabethans.
In a subject animated by differences which can nourish factions, Bradbrook's research appealed both to traditionalists and to innovators. She possessed an old-style encyclopaedic learning based on the rigorous study of primary texts and manuscripts; a learning which she then sifted, synthesised and presented to the reader in lucid, idiomatic English. But she was an innovator in her belief that Shakespeare's drama was the product of the economic, social and theatrical pressures of his time, a thesis explored in two of her most remarkable books, The Rise of the Common Player (1962) and Shakespeare the Craftsman (based on the 1968 Clark Lectures). The interaction of playwright, actors and audiences in a particular theatre at a precise moment interested her more than purveying to the reader her own interpretative perceptions. Her best writings have not dated because she did not use literature for her own self-fashioning.
Being a woman was in this respect an advantage to her. While she fervently admired TS Eliot, IA Richards and William Empson, who dominated the new Cambridge English school in the late 1920s, her critical writing flourished in a different intellectual climate. Hilda Murray, her Oxford-trained Girton tutor, deliberately gave her a traditional Oxford literary education, particularly in medieval literature. The life-giving fusion of this heritage with the experimental, comparative and theoretical bent of Cambridge English, characterised everything Bradbrook wrote. In her inaugural lecture as first woman Professor of English at Cambridge, she declared of Timon of Athens: 'Life begins on the other side of despair - the maxim of Sartre would not have seemed unfamiliar to the 17th century, for something like it was found in the writings of Luther.' The combination of the big statement, the authority for it, and its precise application remains her unique hallmark as a scholar.
Like all her generation, Bradbrook lived through despairing times: the Depression and the Second World War. Her father died during her first year in college, but her mother, despite family poverty, continued to encourage her daughter's ambitions. 'My mother,' Brad declared stalwartly in old age, 'was the rock on which I founded my life.' Her judgement of an early Girton don as 'a great tree rooted in the Victorian soil of classical virtue', could be applied equally to herself. She lived, however, resolutely in the present, presiding over the change of statute which enabled Girton to admit men, and suggesting in her history of the college, That Infidel Place (1969), that the nuclear family would be replaced by radical alternatives. She admired the Victorian pioneer Barbara Bodichon above all for her 'experiment in balanced living'.
Bradbrook knew as well as any that the life of the scholar is hard to combine with balanced living. But she did her best, working at the Board of Trade during the war, experiencing through close friends the problems of racial conflict in South Africa and through her Czech sister-in-law the situation of Eastern Europe. She loved Ireland, discovering in an undergraduate visit to a friend in Co Wicklow 'a world that fed my imagination; I was like one of my Elizabethan playwrights, tasting a life beyond my own'. Her Christianity, a conscious choice made since her agnostic undergraduate days, and practised at Great St Mary's, took root in the same context of imaginative life, as did her long friendship with the poet Kathleen Raine.
Muriel Bradbrook will be much missed at Girton, where very recently she saw the Queen Mother open the new wing at Wolfson Court, built, while she was Mistress of the college, to alleviate the problem of Girton's distance from town. No doubt both women remembered their meeting 45 years earlier, when Brad had composed for the royal visitor a 'Triumphal Ode' to celebrate the university's finally admitting women to full degrees. Girtonians, new and old, know that the place will not be the same without her. She would have retorted to such a sentiment, in idiosyncratic high-pitched tones: 'Don't be silly, my dear. Change is a good thing.' Her understanding of change in education, as in life, was as remarkable as her understanding of the importance of change for the work of her beloved dramatist, William Shakespeare.
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