Shakespeare lost one of his most eloquent teachers and writers when Russ McDonald died unexpectedly in London last week, and our lights at the ASC are a little dimmer as we’ve lost one of our finest friends.
A Professor of English at Goldsmith’s College in London, Russ McDonald was one of the most pre-eminent Shakespeare scholars whose written work appeals equally to the beginner and the expert. For the beginner, his writings give a solid understanding of what makes the work of Shakespeare and his contemporaries so admirable and important. For scholars, his books help us organize the work we do and remind us of the ways in which our Shakespeare enterprises are interconnected, serving as models for both clarity and prose.
But, like the great Early Modern authors he celebrated, he had a remarkable range of interests, as reflected in a bibliography of his works: Russ’s The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare is, in my view, the most lucid introduction to the writer and his works; Shakespeare and the Arts of Language is a comprehensive look at Shakespeare’s literary tools; Shakespeare’s Late Style makes clear both the manner and the meaning of the challenging language in the later plays; Look to the Lady is a study of Sarah Siddons, Ellen Terry, and Judi Dench, each the great actress of her century; and his first book Shakespeare and Jonson, Jonson and Shakespeare is a comprehensive comparison of the yin and yang of early modern playwrights.
His work as an editor includes a handy edition of the most-read plays (The Bedford Shakespeare, with co-editor Lena Orlin) as well as two of the most helpful collections of essays. Shakespeare: An Anthology of Criticism 1945-2000 provides not only the most seminal essays in that volcanic period of Shakespeare studies but also the most helpful explanation of each approach. His most recent book Shakespeare up Close contains dozens of short pieces that model the kind of close reading championed by his friend (and ours) Stephen Booth.
Alongside the extensive list of his works (which he wrote and researched with such apparent ease) Russ made room in his life for other interests and hobbies: from serving as president of the Shakespeare Association of America to working as the opera critic for Opera Magazine, a job in which he took childlike delight (“I get the best seats at the Royal Opera, and I get paid for it!”). Music, architecture, plays, Duke basketball, food – Russ knew and savored them all.
Russ was an early fan of the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, bringing our troupe to UNC Greensboro in the early 1990’s before he moved on to teach at Goldsmith’s College in London. He was one of the first keynote speakers for our Blackfriars Conference, reprising his role in 2013 when we honored his professor George Walton Williams. The last time he spoke on the Blackfriars stage was in March at the celebration of the life of founding ASC Board member Tom Berger, one of Russ’s dearest friends. Together Russ and Tom provided a latter-day version of the apocryphal “wit combats” of Shakespeare and Jonson, demonstrating more of a clever ballet of words than an aggressive fight. It was my great fortune to have heard them so many times at play.
Now, so unexpectedly to lose Russ in the same year as Tom is a great sadness for me; but, beyond my personal loss, his going has dimmed a joyous and generous light in the world of Shakespeare. He’s left behind a certain and twinkling sense of how lucky we are to have such a beautiful and, as Russ would say, delicious thing as his words. Russ’s great talent was sharing that delight with us all.
We send our condolences to his wife and colleague Gail and to their son Jack.
–Ralph Alan Cohen