Campus & Community

Gwynne Evans, Renaissance lit scholar, at 93

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Distinguished editor of Shakespeare's plays, poems

G. (Gwynne) Blakemore Evans, Cabot Professor of English Literature Emeritus at Harvard University and this country’s most distinguished editor of Shakespeare’s plays and poems, died on Dec. 23, 2005, at his home in Cambridge, Mass. He was 93. His death was the result of complications that followed a recent stroke.

Evans was a scholar of Renaissance (now called, but not by him, Early Modern English) literature, publishing articles and editing the writings of a number of 16th and 17th century authors, but it is with Shakespeare that his scholarly reputation is forever linked. He edited in individual volumes “Richard III” (Pelican), “Romeo and Juliet” and the “Sonnets” (both Cambridge), the Variorum Supplement to “1 Henry IV,” and, most significantly, “The Riverside Shakespeare” (Houghton Mifflin, 1974; 1997), the complete one-volume Shakespeare, which dominated the scholarly market for a quarter century.

Evans, whose father was for many years the much-admired chair of the German Department at Ohio State University, began his teaching career at Brooklyn College in the early 1940s, then served in the U.S. Army Intelligence Corps in England at Bletchley Park, where allied code-breakers cracked the German Enigma Code. When asked about his own role in this vital project, Evans would, in his customary self-deprecating manner, reply that he had not helped to break the German code but had succeeded in deciphering the code of the allied Free French. Upon his return from England, Evans moved to the University of Wisconsin and then to the University of Illinois, where he taught for 20 years and edited the Journal of English and Germanic Philology. Moving to Harvard in 1967, he was just in time to experience the student protests of 1969, and he recalled patrolling the library to protect volumes from political activists. He was successful. No books were taken under his watch.

Evans was the recipient of a Festschrift, “In the Company of Shakespeare: Essays On English Renaissance Literature,” on the occasion of his 90th birthday. The volume was a collection of essays written by his former students and academic friends, who came from Arizona, Utah, Texas, Wisconsin, Missouri, and New York to celebrate the appearance of the volume with a memorable reception in the very room at the Houghton Library where Evans had first led a seminar at Harvard. Among the very many words of appreciation for his accomplishments and academic and personal support were those of his old friend and colleague Professor Marvin Spevack of Munster, Germany, who expressed best the image the contributors held of Evans: that of a knight, one more Galahad than Lancelot.

Evans took special care to advance and support the careers of his students and advisees with letters of recommendation that were works of art, and wonderfully effective, as the many who were fortunate to have his support can attest. One small instance of his generosity was his inviting younger scholars on sabbatical or otherwise free to use his office and smaller desk as his “assistant.” Several scholars profited from this Dickensian Bob Cratchit role in the cheerful employ of an always already-born-again Ebenezer Scrooge.

Evans, who knew the influence of his text on readers and scholars, enjoyed especially the particular anecdote told by one of his students who was caught up in the Entebbe raid. In order to protect his young daughter in his arms as they left the plane, he placed the Riverside Shakespeare (a several-hundred-page hardcover) in front of her as a shield. When the passengers later had some, but not all, of their seized possessions returned to them, the student was handed the Riverside with the words, “you may have this back, for it is a holy book.”

Gwynne Evans was not a holy man, though some thought him so. Rather, as Hamlet said of his father, “he was a man, take him for all in all:/I shall not look upon his like again,” or, as one version has it, “he was as good as it gets.” He had a slender, erect bearing with a handsome face, and a posture and mien reminiscent of T.S. Eliot. His manners were those of the generation of his youth, extending to the doffing of his hat when women entered the elevator in the Widener Library at Harvard. Within his old-school sense of chivalric distance and propriety, there was, in the words of his friend and Harvard colleague Professor Daniel Aaron, “a special sweetness.”

Evans was the recipient of a Harvard Dexter Traveling Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a treasured member of the Senior Common Room of Harvard’s Leverett House. At the time of his death, he was awaiting the arrival of his last work, an edition of the poems of the Elizabethan writer Robert Parry.

He is survived by his loving wife Betty, his son Michael of Chicago and daughter Pamela of Belmont, Mass., as well as four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

In the words of the Bard, from your family, friends, and admirers: “Good night, sweet prince.”