Peter Alexander

Faculty Profile

To call on Professor Peter Alexander, even in the glass and cinder block guest suite on the top floor of Leverett House F Tower, is to walk into another world. You knock; he opens the door. "Professor Alexander?" you say. "Yes," he says, and blinks. "Won't you come in? Will you have some ginger beer?" You try to explain why you have come, but he waves you to a chair, apologizes for having nothing but ginger beer, and asks you won't you have some. Only after you are seated and have at least refused his offer, are you allowed to speak.

This bushy-haired, blue-eyed man in a wrinkled shirt, who seemed so pleasantly surprised by my visit, was until last year Regius Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. A leading Shakespearian scholar, he is teaching two courses on the playwright in the Summer School. During the regular academic year, he was at N.Y.U. In the fall he will "relieve a chap at Trinity, Dublin, who wants to come over here for a year." This is Professor Alexander's first trip to America. "It's a big show," he said, and he used the term as of a musical comedy on Broadway.

Alexander was born in Glasgow in 1893, went to school there, and entered the University in 1911. In 1914 he enlisted in the Cameron Highlanders as a private. "Everybody was in a hurry to get to the front and see what fighting was all about," he said, "so we all went as a crowd from the University." Half-way through the war he was made an artillery officer and left the army in 1918 as a captain.

'Pretty Hard Up'

He returned to Glasgow and completed his undergraduate studies, taking the usual M.A. degree in 1920. Then he "went to Italy for a bit," but returned almost immediately to accept a lectureship at Glasgow. "I wanted to travel around some," he said, "but if you refuse a job you want you may not get offered it again. And after five years in the army you're pretty hard up. A private's pay in 1914 was a shilling a day."


As a student and teacher at Glasgow, Alexander came under the influence of John S. Smart, who, along with Josiah Quincy Adams "knocked a hole" in the idea, held by almost everyone in 1900, that Shakespeare had been uneducated and had begun his career by revising other people's plays. "How an uneducated man could rewrite someone's plays I don't know," he said, and then began hunting on his desk for books to demonstrate the complete change of critical opinion.

He opened the Reader's Guide to Shakespeare, by Alfred Harbage, Henry B. and Anne M. Cabot Professor of English. "Here's a new book by a very distinguished Shakespearian scholar and he says simply that no one questions the Shakespearian authorship of any of the plays in the First Folio. The only one he's not sure about is Titus Andronicus; he doesn't think it's good enough. I think he's wrong. It's very clever play--though it's not a pleasant one. But you see, 50 years ago no one would have said that."

Published Works

When Smart died, Alexander published the chapters of his unfinished book, Shakespeare: Truth and Tradition in 1928. In 1929, "to consolidate the work of Smart," he published his own book, Shakespeare's Henry VI and Richard III, the first full-length refutation of the century-old thesis that various parts of the tetralogy had been written by Greene, Nashe, Peele and Marlowe, as well as by Shakespeare. In 1938 he published Shakespeare's Life and Art.

Alexander's major critical work is Hamlet, Father and Son, published in 1955, and originally delivered as the Lord Northcliffe Lectures at University College, London. "People invite you to give a series of lectures, and what do you do? You accept. But you can't talk about bibliographical matters easily with a mixed university group." He chuckled, and said that in 1945 he had given a lecture to the British Academy on Shakespeare's punctuation.

Alexander was at Glasgow from 1920 to 1963, with six years out as a major in the Second World War. "I was an anti-aircraft gunner," he said, "an old man's job." He became Regius Professor in 1935. Though he has written only on Shakespeare, he has also taught courses on the Romantic poets and on Chaucer. "I suppose I've lectured on the Victorians some, but with the death of Sir Walter Scott in 1832, the old-fashioned people like me lay off."

The major difference he sees between American and Scottish students is that the "education of young people here is more general. I didn't find any lack of intelligence in the people I taught at N.Y.U., but I couldn't count on--I wasn't clear what they had studied before they came up to the university." In Scotland, all students must pass exams in very specific subjects.

Harvard Compact

American universities are also more diffuse than Scottish ones. "At Glascow you sit down to dinner, and the man next to you may be in Hebrew, or botany, but here you never see the other people. I was at N.Y.U. a whole year and I never got to see the art department, though I would have liked to very much. Harvard, of course, is much more compact. If you want to see the science people, for instance, you just go up through the Quad to those buildings across the street. Still, even at Harvard I'm not just clear where the medical people are."

After his year at Trinity, Dublin, Alexander and his wife are retiring to St. Andrews. Though he does play golf his primary reason for settling there is that a university library will be available. Why is he leaving Glasgow? "I don't want to live next to the University where I've taught for 40 years. I'd get in the way of my successor. Nothing is such a nuisance as an idle colleague."

Alexander is unlikely to remain idle, however. His Shakespeare has just been published in Oxford's Home University Library series. "It was brought out for Shakespeare's birthday." And he intends to keep working on his own, "if my mind holds out."