Renowned Shakespeare scholar David Bevington dies

Prof. David Bevington (U. of Chicago photo by Jason Smith)

Contributing writer

David Bevington, renowned Shakespeare scholar and a longtime, popular professor in the English Department at the University of Chicago, died Aug. 2 at age 88. 

Bevington was born in New York City in 1931, and moved to Durham, North Carolina, when he was 11. His parents, Merle and Helen Bevington, were both English professors at Duke University; Helen would go on to become a well-known poet and memoirist.

David Bevington received both his B.A. and Ph.D from Harvard University. After a short stint at the University of Virginia, he came to the University of Chicago in 1967. 

He worked and taught at the U. of C. for the rest of his life, where he cultivated a reputation as a kind, popular professor. In 1979, he received the university’s award for excellence in undergraduate teaching, and a 1989 story in the Sun-Times describes how students camped out overnight on the school’s main quadrangle to register for his class. 

Martyna Majok, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of “The Cost of Living,” said that Bevington’s classes were part of the reason she found the courage to follow a career in theater. “When I first got to U. of C., I had felt like such an outsider — I hadn’t really done or even seen much theater, and I was coming from a first-generation, working-class, public-school world,” she said. “I think it was largely the warm and welcoming atmosphere that David cultivated in his classes that made me feel safe and invited — and encouraged me to ultimately pursue theater. He instructed with enthusiasm, love, and humanity. He was patient and compassionate. He made space for you — for everyone — and never did that diminish him.” 

After Majok graduated from the U. of C., she worked with The Access Project at Victory Gardens Theatre in Lincoln Park, which helps people with disabilities get involved in theater. There, she reached out to Bevington for help with staging a show featuring excerpts from Shakespeare concerning disability. “And he responded with such a thoughtful, expert email, packed with information. I felt like the luckiest, coolest kid being able to share that with the rest of the group,” she said.

In “The Third Way,” one of his mother Helen’s memoirs, she writes of seeing him teach a class on Shakespeare: “David, smiling, sits on the flattop desk in his classroom, book in hand, absorbed in teaching ‘Much Ado About Nothing.’ It’s not a lecture, it’s a celebration going on.” 

“The Third Way” was written following the death of Philip Bevington, Helen’s son and David’s brother, who committed suicide in 1980. It was perhaps because of that tragedy that Bevington was particularly sensitive when, in early 2016, one of his students spoke with him in about a similar tragedy.

In an op-ed last year in the Chicago Maroon, Hannah Edgar wrote about coping with grief after Edgar’s stepfather killed himself. The story includes a passing mention of a considerate professor: “Instead of treating academia like a vacuum, a respected professor emeritus in the English department gave me a practically indefinite extension on my midterm.” 

After Bevington’s death, Edgar revealed on Twitter that he was the professor in question and expanded on the story in an interview with the Herald.

After Edgar asked for an extension, Bevington asked for more information. “I told him my stepfather died and the circumstances were very difficult. I said something kind of euphemistic that I think people who know others who died by suicide understand. My recollection is he nodded and said, ‘That’s ok with me,’” Edgar said. “There did seem to be in that moment of me saying that it was complicated a flash of understanding that I didn’t understand until reading about his brother.” 

Edgar also recalled the care Bevington took in class to learn his students’ names. “I was in a lecture class in a seminar set-up. Everyone sat in a humongous circle, and he had everyone’s name memorized. He never consulted a seating chart,” Edgar said. “It must have been the orator in him.” 

As a scholar, David Bevington was best-known for his work on William Shakespeare. He edited a number of different volumes of Shakespeare’s plays for mass-market release, including the well-known Bantam Classics series. 

His notable works include “Action Is Eloquence,” a study of Shakespeare’s use of hand gestures as “a language in itself, with its own vocabulary of signs,” and “Shakespeare and Biography,” a study of the ways that different historians and scholars have written about the life of Shakespeare. His last book, published in 2011, was about “Hamlet” and its impact as “a kind of paradigm for the cultural history of the English-speaking world.”

Bevington also worked on Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s contemporary, friend and sometime rival. (Jonson is the one who famously eulogized Shakespeare with the line, “He was not of an age but for all time!”)  He co-edited the complete volume of Jonson’s plays, and helped to make an annotated version digitally available. 

Apart from his scholarship and teaching, David Bevington faithfully attended concerts and plays in Hyde Park. 

In a letter written to the executive director of UChicago Presents, the university’s chamber music series, he praised the sense of community that had formed around the organization’s concerts. “An important part of getting together regularly with special friends is to talk about the performances we have heard in Mandel Hall,” he wrote. “The music is greatly enriched by the opportunity to compare our appreciations with knowledgeable and neighborly colleagues.” 

Bevington was also deeply involved with the Court Theatre. In the mid-nineties, he adapted “Henry IV, parts I and II,” together with Charles Newell, then and now the Court’s artistic director. “There was a moment in the adaptation process where we were stalling and we were pulling texts and lines from ‘Henry IV,’” recalled Newell. “Then David found a passage in “The Tempest”—I think it was just a couplet. It was the perfect moment we needed.” 

Over the past decade, Bevington also hosted a post-show discussion series for every play put on at the Court. “Audiences would sign up to come see a show because they knew that following a performance the discussion would be led by David,” said Newell. “He was the sweetest man in the world. Always very generous, always very curious.”