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Issues in National and Literary Biography

As a prelude to sustained focus on biographies of Shakespeare—and as a context for those discussions—the first session addresses literary biography as a genre. Lawrence Goldman, Professor of History at the University of Oxford, is also Editor of the revised Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB), the premier source of biographical information on figures from the British past. He will describe the special attention and consideration that was applied to the article on William Shakespeare—at approximately 40,000 words the longest in the Dictionary—as an exemplar of the Dictionary’s procedures and intentions. The Shakespeare essay was peer-reviewed by a panel of experts, as well as the editorial staff in Oxford, and was the subject of a day-long seminar among those experts.


Professor Goldman’s description of that process will open to a number of more general questions: How does the Oxford DNB deal with controversial lives in the past—where scholars disagree among themselves—and in the present—where the dictionary courts public disapproval of decisions to include criminals, malefactors, and celebrities? What are the criteria for inclusion in the Dictionary and the procedures taken to ensure that the biographies are accurate and also revelatory? The Dictionary is seen to fulfill a national function as a source of national information and memory; it must also meet the needs of scholars and be interesting to members of the general public. As such, it must be sensitive to the different audiences for biography and their respective needs. Its role in bringing together academic scholarship with a wider audience for history and biography will also be discussed: the Oxford DNB has helped bridge the gap between different groups of readers, amateur and professional, since its publication eight years ago.


Picking up on and broadening many of these issues, a roundtable discussion will follow Professor Goldman’s presentation. Andrew Hadfield, Professor of English at the University of Sussex; Christopher Hodgkins, Professor of English and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro; and Barbara Lewalski, William R. Kenan Jr. Research Professor of History and Literature and of English at Harvard will discuss the genre of literary biography in light of non-Shakespearean examples from the seventeenth-century. The discussion will then open to the audience.

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