William Shakespeare’s notorious bequest of his “second-best bed” to his wife, Anne, has become, for scholars, a proxy for something much more substantial about their prized subject. Was the author of such large-minded poetry a decent man or not? Did poetic genius coincide with human kindness and generosity? Did the designation of the bed recall a shared intimacy, or deliver another calculated rejection? For Katherine Duncan-Jones, who has died aged 81, it was most definitely the latter.
Her revisionist biography, Ungentle Shakespeare: Scenes from a Life (2001), looked askance at “a writer among writers, a man among men”. His works would transcend history, but not their author, whose misogyny, social climbing and snobbery were impeccably documented.
No other biographer has been able to match her combination of deep immersion and learning, and humane scepticism. Her lifetime of academic study made her that unique Shakespearean – one whose commitment to the plays and poetry never approached Bardolatry.
“Partisan, idiosyncratic and unforgettable,” wrote David Riggs in his admiring review of the book in Shakespeare Quarterly. His words could be a summary of Katherine, too. She was a forceful interlocutor who pursued scholarly disputes with gusto, drawing her undaunted certainty from her own research and experience. Her work was always a fascinating amalgam of the scholarly and the intuitively personal.
In the archives of Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire, her determination and her nose for research enabled her discovery of a hitherto unknown elegy by Ben Jonson for his erstwhile collaborator, the Elizabethan pamphleteer and controversialist Thomas Nashe; her confident assertions about the Shakespeares’ non-existent sex life were less obviously documented but still revelatory.
Her edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1997, second edition 2010) combined her sense of detail, poetic appreciation and unflinching honesty. Her annotations help these poems speak loud their fever dream of misogyny and destructive desire, without ever losing the sense of wrought beauty.
A great writer to the literary letters pages, the way she sometimes defended her views could seem a little thin-skinned. She would, for instance, never let go of her attribution of a painting of Shakespeare, or of her views about the chronology and occasion of Shakespeare’s sonnets. In her mind, she was simply right. But taking to task in print an eminent historian for not mentioning, in a review of a later work on Sir Philip Sidney, her own biography (Sir Philip Sidney: Courtier Poet, 1989), was not simply about her own sense of amour propre.
Rather, she recognised, long before the academic hashtag #CiteWomen, that there were systems of referencing and intellectual genealogy that routinely sidelined the contributions of female scholars, and she wanted to call them out. She was quietly, and often practically, supportive of women in the profession: at Somerville College, Oxford, in the early 1970s, when her own children were infants, she championed one of the first academic workplace nurseries.
It would be easy to caricature Katherine as an old-fashioned, eccentric blue-stocking. She was a stalwart of the Bodleian Library’s Upper Reading Room, and a familiar figure in town on her bicycle. Her bold, Elizabethan-inflected handwriting, her distinctive voice, her capacity for gossip: these could all seem distantly donnish.
But it would be a mistake to underestimate her sharp intelligence and intellectual prescience. She was often ahead of her time, in writing seriously about Shakespeare in the theatre, for the Times Literary Supplement and other publications, and in supporting cross-gender casting in mainstream productions.
Long before queer theory she wrote without embarrassment or prejudice about a bisexual Shakespeare, and long before Shakespeare on film was a classroom stalwart, she sent her students to watch Kenneth Branagh as Henry V (1989) at the Phoenix cinema in Walton Street.
She was a strong advocate of amateur, especially student, productions, and under her direction the Malone Society, known for its impeccable scholarly editions rather than its must-see events, began to mount day conferences with a central performance of a forgotten play.
She often played an enthusiastic role, frequently accessorised with a single, hilarious prop. She had a talent for laughter, and a keen sense of the absurd.
Born in Birmingham, Katherine was the daughter of Elsie (nee Phare), a literary scholar with a particular expertise in Andrew Marvell, and Austin Duncan-Jones, a philosopher and professor at Birmingham University. In later years Katherine would suggest that her own adolescent passion for reading grew from curiosity caused by her parents’ reticence about emotional and sexual matters.
From Edward VI high school for girls she went to study English at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, and began her academic career at Somerville in 1963. After a year in Cambridge at New Hall, she returned to Somerville in 1966, where she spent the rest of her career, retiring as professor of English literature in 2001.
She was an inspiring example of a woman whose career had especially flourished in middle and later years. Many honours, including fellowship of the Royal Society of Literature, followed.
In 1971 she had married the writer Andrew (AN) Wilson, then an undergraduate student. His take on their relationship, which ended in divorce in 1990, forms part of his recent memoir Confessions.
She is survived by her daughters, Bee and Emily.
• Katherine Dorothea Duncan-Jones, Shakespeare scholar, born 13 May 1941; died 16 October 2022