Press Release

Professor emeritus and noted Shakespeare scholar Marvin Rosenberg dies at age 90

By Kathleen Maclay, Media Relations | 19 February 2003

BERKELEY Marvin Rosenberg, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, whose series of books on the stage history of Shakespeare's plays have been central to Shakespearean studies, died Feb. 4 at the age of 90. Marvin Rosenberg

Marvin Rosenberg
Marvin Rosenberg

"No one else in the world approaches his contribution to the study of Shakespeare's plays in performance," said Dunbar Ogden, a friend of Rosenberg's and an emeritus professor in UC Berkeley's Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies.

Rosenberg's contribution to Shakespearean scholarship included "The Masks of Othello" in 1961, "The Masks of King Lear" in 1972, and the 666-page "The Masks of Macbeth" in 1978. Rosenberg's "crowning achievement" came with "The Masks of Hamlet" in 1992, said Ogden.

In recent years, Rosenberg was researching the fifth book in this series, "The Masks of Anthony and Cleopatra." He was working on the final chapter when he suffered a stroke in August 2002, but continued to think through the chapter in the following months. The book will be edited and published posthumously.

"His books are deservedly familiar to every scholar of Shakespearean acting in the world," said William Worthen, chair of UC Berkeley's Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies.

"Rosenberg moves through a Shakespearean play from scene to scene, from moment to moment, showing the reader the variety of choices that producers and actors have made for each moment," Ogden said. "This description leads him to demonstrate ways in which dramatic production has informed and interpreted the lines, how performance illuminates text."

Rosenberg was a pioneer in this method of theatrical interpretation, which has since become an accepted tool of Shakespeare critics and criticism.

To this end, he often sought out and attended performances of Shakespeare's plays and discussed in his work the individual interpretations of various actors and directors. His notes on instances in which he witnessed the entire rehearsal process for a production are considered especially helpful to theater people, historians and critics. He also assembled a vast collection of videos of Shakespeare productions from all over the world, which brought him mutually helpful contacts with fellow scholars, actors and directors who became his friends. During his research, he took part in a BBC program with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

Actor Stacey Keach recalled Rosenberg as his dramatic criticism professor while he attended UC Berkley from 1959 to 1963.

"When I was accepted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 1962, it was Marvin who joyously proclaimed his enthusiasm for my rendering of Henry V and Mercutio, he was also so supportive and as a teacher, he gave one of his young students the best gift of all - a feeling of self-worth and self-confidence," Keach said in a tribute posted on a Shakespearean research Web site, Shaksper. Born Nov. 6, 1912, in Fresno, Calif., to Russian immigrants, Rosenberg served as a senior editor in the Office of War Information from 1943-1946 and as chief of the Thailand section of the U.S. State Department's international broadcasting division from 1946-48.

Rosenberg was a member of the American Philosophical Society and was invited to deliver the annual Shakespeare birthday lecture at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1976. He received the 1992 University of Delaware Press Award and George Freedley Award of the Theatre Librarians' Association in 1993, both for "The Masks of Hamlet."

He earned B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in English, all at UC Berkeley. He taught high school briefly before World War II interrupted his career. After the war, he returned to UC Berkeley to earn his Ph.D. Rosenberg joined the faculty in 1949, and first taught in journalism. He switched to theater arts, and became a full professor in 1961.

He became an emeritus professor in 1983, yet continued to lecture and publish. In 1990, he organized the first of its kind - a seminar at UC Berkeley featuring actors, directors and Shakespearean scholars gathered from around the world to explore "The Many Faces of Hamlet."

His son, Barr, recalled that his family traveled to the Ashland Shakespeare Festival each summer and that he saw all of Shakespeare's plays while still quite young. He called his father a "very generous spirit" who enjoyed playing for the UC Berkeley chemistry department team in the faculty softball league.

Rosenberg published a book, "The Adventures of a Shakespeare Scholar," in 1997, and an article, "The Myth of Shakespeare's Squeaking Boy Actor: or Who Played Cleopatra," in the summer of 2001.

Adventures" is a collection of essays and lectures in which Rosenberg examined the aesthetics of the dramatic form, the cultural contexts in which Shakespeare's plays were created and perceived, the language and characters of the plays, and how critics and theaters interpreted them. Characteristically, one of his aims in publishing the book was to convey to students the excitement of being a Shakespeare scholar, and to encourage them to undertake the same adventures in human experience and relationships.

Rosenberg published articles on topics relating to theater, literature and psychology, and was a contributing reviewer to the San Francisco Chronicle's book section.

He continued teaching a popular freshman seminar and was about to begin a new course when he suffered the stroke. "My father loved his mind to be active," said Barr Rosenberg. "His mind sparkled all his life, so it stayed very creative and responsive."

He never fully recovered from his stroke. Rosenberg died peacefully earlier this month at his home in El Cerrito, Calif. He is survived by his wife, Mary; his son, Barr, of Orinda, Calif.; and sisters Nedda Fratkin of Santa Barbara and Violet Ginsburg of Berkeley. His previous wife, Dorothy, a published poet, died in 1969.

A memorial celebration is set for 2 p.m., Sunday, March 16, at Alumni House on the UC Berkeley campus.