Professor Elizabeth Abel Remembers Janet Adelman

In what follows, Professor Elizabeth Abel remembers Janet Adelman, a long-time fixture in the English Department, who died last spring.  Professor Abel gave these remarks at a memorial service that the English Department held for Janet earlier this fall.


Will Janet Adelman be most vividly remembered by her students and colleagues for her spellbinding Shakespeare lectures and pioneering scholarship, her legendary office hours, her dedication to shaping a diverse and inclusive community, or her passionate defense of academic freedom on behalf of a Graduate Student Instructor’s right to teach a course on the politics and poetics of Palestinian resistance? The answer, no doubt, is all of the above. During her thirty-nine years as a member of this department (1968-2007), for three of which she served as chair (1999-2002), Janet was at the heart of our collective enterprises.

Janet is renowned as a feminist psychoanalytic critic of Shakespeare.  After the publication of her first book, The Common Liar: An Essay on Antony and Cleopatra (Yale, 1973), she spent a year at the Hampstead and Tavistock Clinics in London, where she began the systematic study of psychoanalysis that was to transform her scholarship and Shakespeare studies generally. In pathbreaking essays on Coriolanus, Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida, Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear, which culminated in the magisterial Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare’s Plays, Hamlet to The Tempest (Routledge, 1992), she developed a psychoanalytically informed reading of the infantile fantasies that underlie Shakespeare’s densely metaphoric language and unexpected turns of plot. By tracing the evolution of fantasies of contamination at the site of origin, Suffocating Mothers brilliantly uncovered the “subterranean logic” that drives Shakespearean tragedy and romance.

Suffocating Mothers opened up a mode of inquiry that extended far beyond Shakespeare studies. By pushing with a kind of laser vision toward the most nuanced reaches of language in a fluid and expressive prose that made virtually no use of specialized terminology, Janet made the deepest insights and practices of psychoanalysis available to a broad range of critics in every literary period and genre. Her ability to hold together with a luminous clarity the big picture and the individual word also resonated within the psychoanalytic community, in which she was a widely admired Interdisciplinary Member of the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis and co-founder of the UC Berkeley object-relations and literature seminar.

In the next phase of her career, Janet turned her attention to questions of Jewish identity and the complicated and contradictory ways that Jews were imagined in Renaissance England. As she became increasingly involved with the Jewish Renewal Movement, especially with the Kehilla Community Synagogue that became a spiritual home for her, Janet pursued an inquiry into Shakespeare’s representation of Christian-Jewish relations in The Merchant of Venice. The result, Blood Relations: Christian and Jew in The Merchant of Venice (Chicago, 2008), which one reviewer described as “the crowning achievement of an outstanding critical career,”   is a bold and original study of the specter of Jewish conversion in a play that exposes a broader cultural anxiety about a Jewish presence that can neither be embraced nor disavowed. The book inspired a production of The Merchant of Venice by The National Theater of Portugal in 2008 in Lisbon, where Janet spent a week lecturing on the play in tandem with the performances.

Janet was a devoted and passionate teacher who worked her pedagogic magic with equal effect in intimate seminars and huge lecture halls. Regardless of class size, students in Janet’s courses felt acknowledged as individuals who were called on to think through, argue with, and position themselves in relation to the interpretation she presented. During office hours that extended well in to the evening, she made time and space for every aspect of student experience to be thoroughly and honestly discussed. She worked intensively and rigorously with graduate student instructors to help them hone their own pedagogic skills and styles, and they showed their appreciation by nominating her for the Award for Outstanding Mentorship of Graduate Student Instructors, which she received in 2006. Her mentoring encompassed students in the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies, whose Ph.D. program she helped to design.

The many tributes Janet has received include an ACLS Fellowship (1976-77) and a Guggenheim Fellowship (1982-83). She was also chosen to deliver the Charles Mills Gayley Lecture in 1990 and was awarded the Berkeley Citation, the campus’s highest honor for service to the university, upon her retirement in 2007. Perhaps the tribute most meaningful to Janet, however, was the teaching evaluation she cited in her statement for the Distinguished Teaching Award , which she received in 1986: “You know, you’ve only taught me one thing this semester: that under every question there’s another question and another one under that, and that you have to keep on asking them.” Janet’s challenge to keep asking questions may have spurred the one academic imperative in the student guide to “Ten Things You Must Do before Graduating from Berkeley”: “Take a course with Janet Adelman.”