Alfred Harbage Redux

When I completed my BA at Harvard in 1952 and went off in the US Navy on an ROTC commission for three years, I took along some literary books and had a general idea of applying to graduate school after the military service. But I didn’t know really in what direction I would go. My BA in English History and Literature was usefully broad. I had written my BA thesis about Quakerism in the seventeenth century, focusing on George Foxe and especially on Robert Barclay’s Theologiae Vere Christianae Apologia, but didn’t know where this would lead.

I wondered if instead I should concentrate on the nineteenth century novel. (I did in fact publish an essay a bit later on Dickens’s Pickwick Papers.)

Graduate education at Harvard was different in one important aspect from what I had known as an undergraduate. Alfred Harbage had come from Columbia (Penn before that) to join the faculty. Some graduate courses at Harvard didn’t seem to me as new as I’d hoped: Hyder Rollins, for example, lecturing to a large class about Sir Philip Sidney, and Penelope Rich and related philological issues. But I was drawn to a class that Harbage offered in that fall of 1955 on staging of Renaissance plays. I knew Harbage’s name, of course, and was intrigued to learn that he had written a number of detective novels under the pseudonym Thomas Kyd: Blood is a Beggar (1946), Blood of Vintage (1947), Blood on the Bosom Devine (1948), and Cover His Face (1949). The first three, with their Kyd-like titles, were hard-boiled murder mysteries. In one, the chair of a media department at a suspiciously Penn-like university was shot to death during an especially loud exchange of gunfire in a film he was showing to sleepy students in an afternoon. Because everyone bore one kind of grudge or another against the chair, everyone became a suspect. In Cover His Face (the title this time alluding to John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi), the protagonist was a scholarly researcher who solved the crime in question by means of his expertise as a literary sleuth, confronting the villain with deductive proofs, briskly snapping rubber bands around his note cards. His reward was to recover (and publish) an invaluable purloined literary document, namely, the original of a short letter by none other than Dr. Samuel Johnson replying to a social invitation by saying that he regretted being too busy to comply.

Here, I thought, was the teacher for me.

The course that Harbage taught did not disappoint. We met around a good-sized oval table in the top floor of Widener Library, next door to the English graduate reading room and also next door to Harbage’s office. We were perhaps fifteen in number, including Dan Seltzer, a wonderful actor (born to play Falstaff) who went on to teach at Princeton. Harbage gave us our assignments. We were each assigned a Renaissance play. As good luck would have it, mine turned out to be Antony and Cleopatra. We were each required to produce a “plot” for the play we had taken in hand, that is, a large poster board listing all the entrances and other important stage business. This “plot” would have been displayed inside the tiring house of the theater to be consulted by the actors as they awaited their moments to venture out on stage. We assembled lists of needed props, along with the scholarly evidence for the use of such items on the normally spare Elizabethan stage.

Each of us also had another assignment, which was to present to the group all the relevant documentary evidence we could amass relating to one important aspect of stagecraft: the “discovery” space backstage in the tiring house wall, the gallery or upper acting area, the number and nature of the doors leading onstage from the tiring house, the acting company, use of boy actors, costuming, music, other sound effects, swordplay, and so on.

The brilliance of the plan, as I saw it, was that it meant we had to depend on one another. If one of us flubbed in providing relevant information about the “discovery” space or music or costuming, we all would be without the documentation we needed for scholarly staging of the individual play to which we were individually assigned. Elsewhere in graduate school the competitiveness tended to be oppressive; here the model was one of collaboration.

I was assigned the acting company for my report. This led to my finding, in the bowels of the Widener Library, a group of sixteenth-century morality plays that had been “offered for acting,” that is, with an indication of how parts were to be doubled by a troupe of five men and a boy or so. These offered-for-acting plays hadn’t been much noticed. My hunch was that their inventive schemes of doubling could lead to insights as to the structure of the plays themselves, with perhaps then some heritage of dramatic composition that could have influenced the acting companies and playwrights that gravitated toward London in the 1570s and 1580s. Harbage liked this idea, and so a dissertation grew out of it.

Alfred Harbage was a marvelous director, encouraging and at the same time very demanding. (B. J. Whiting, my other reader, was a great help also.) Harbage was never very successful in large lecture classes on Shakespeare—to my great disappointment—though I graded for him admiringly. I also graded for Jere Whiting in his large Chaucer class, which was another comparative failure for many undergraduates. He had us graduate assistants collect bloopers from midterm tests that he then read out in class, while the targets of this ridicule simmered angrily at what they saw as condescension. For all that, to me, Jere Whiting was Chaucer. Alfred Harbage was not Shakespeare, nor Hamlet, nor was meant to be, but by golly he was an honest scholar. It saddened me that in late years he turned openly hostile against postmodern criticism (as did Maynard Mack at Yale), but his books written before that, including Shakespeare’s Audience (1941), As They Liked It (1947), and especially Shakespeare and the Rival Traditions (1952), filled me with devoted fascination. I continue to admire and use his Annals of English Drama: 9751700. Yes, that compilation has needed to be updated (1964, 1989). Yes, Ann Jennalie Cook did a very useful thing by correcting his overly democratic view of Shakespeare’s mixed audience in her Privileged Playgoers of Shakespeare’s London, 1576–1642 (1981). Harbage’s idea of rival traditions was too neatly symmetrical, and too fueled by an intense dislike for John Marston, whose work Harbage regarded as a five-act lapse in taste. But Harbage himself cherished the idea that scholarship should engender revisionary criticism in an ongoing process of discovery. He was a very formal and private man; I sensed that he did approve of my work, but he never encouraged the use of first names. He did honest and important work, without grandstanding.


David Bevington, “Alfred Harbage Redux,” Shakespeare Quarterly, June 2017,