Janet Adelman, scholar of Shakespeare, psychoanalytic and feminist critic, dies at 69

BERKELEY —

Janet Adelman, a University of California, Berkeley, professor emeritus of English who wove her research on psychoanalysis, gender and race into a scholarly exploration of Shakespeare and other English Renaissance authors, died on April 6 at her home in Berkeley. She was 69 and had cancer.

Janet Adelman, professor emeritus of English (Brian Adelman photo)

“After you read Adelman on a Shakespeare play, you never see the play the same way again,” said Gayle Greene, a professor of English at Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., and a Shakespearean critic. “Even if you don’t agree with every single thing she says, her readings dig deep into the imaginative structures of the works and leave the plays changed.”

Adelman, who joined the English Department as an acting assistant professor in 1968, authored numerous books and essays, often causing a scholarly stir with her psychoanalytic interpretations of Shakespeare.

Greene said many consider Adelman’s book-length studies of Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” and “The Merchant of Venice” the two plays’ most important critiques.

Adelman’s distinctive psychoanalytic approach took center stage in “Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origins in Shakespeare’s Plays, ‘Hamlet’ to ‘The Tempest’” (1992), a book in which she offered an in-depth analysis of the mother figures in Shakespeare’s works – the female characters in the plays and those whose absences raise questions.

“In ‘Suffocating Mothers,’ Adelman compels us to look into the psychic recesses of Shakespeare’s characters, of Shakespeare himself as far as his personality can be recovered through his works, and of ourselves,” wrote Hardy M. Cook in a review that appeared in The Shakespeare Newsletter. Greene said the book showed Shakespeare’s uneasiness that masculine identity is “of woman born” and linked male fantasies of female characters to “suffocating mothers who must themselves be suffocated.”

Nancy Chodorow, a feminist sociologist and psychoanalyst and a UC Berkeley professor emerita of sociology and clinical psychology, co-taught with Adelman a graduate seminar on “object relations, psychoanalysis and literature” in the late 1980s. She praised Adelman’s ability “to bring the immediate experience of a text to life, to show you how word and affect and sound and tone and meaning and communication are all wrapped up together. She made reading and thinking about literature, for those of us who don’t do it professionally, into something that is just part of you, part of being human, rather than being something that you do.”

More than any other psychoanalytic literary scholar and more than most analysts, Chodorow said, Adelman “showed us how to use ourselves to understand unconscious communication, to bring immediate affect and a psychoanalytic ear to her literary reactions, and communicated this in her writing and teaching.”

Adelman’s “Blood Relations: Christian and Jew in ‘The Merchant of Venice’” (2008), was described as an unsettling, psycho-theological reading of the play. Greene said Adelman tapped into a strong command of Christian and Judaic theological scholarship to show how the play reflected the “Christian culture’s uneasiness about a dependence on and disavowal of Judaism, and an anxiety of the English Renaissance about the presence of Jews.” The National Theatre of Portugal in Lisbon in November 2008 staged a production of “The Merchant of Venice” based on “Blood Relations,” and Adelman spent a week there, lecturing on the play in tandem with the performances.

Celebrated teacher

“Her work combines a capacious command of scholarship with a refreshingly direct, clear and jargon-free style,” Greene said. “Janet communicated these extraordinarily subtle, sophisticated analyses to generations of students partly due to this style that was so direct and commanding, and partly because the enterprise mattered so much to her.”

Adelman received a UC Berkeley Distinguished Teaching Award in 1986 and wrote at the time that she gauged her success in each course “by the extent to which I can imagine myself as having vanished into thin air at the end, leaving each student fully able to carry on teaching him/herself.”

She recalled a student saying: “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.” No praise could have pleased her more, Adelman said.

Elizabeth Abel, a UC Berkeley professor of English, said her colleague and friend “could communicate across boundaries of generation, gender, race and ideology by eliciting what was truest and best within each person. Students and colleagues felt heard and acknowledged by Janet in ways they rarely felt by anyone else. Janet’s insights into literature, especially Shakespeare, were revelatory, but her insights into each student’s and colleague’s deepest academic passions and potential were gifts that each individual could carry away and build on for a lifetime.”

That might be why, Abel said, a student guide called “Ten Things You Must Do Before Graduating from Berkeley,” listed taking a course with Adelman as the one academic imperative.

Adelman and several English Department colleagues developed and taught in a master’s degree program designed to meet the needs of different kinds of students, including minorities, mid-career returning students, poets and publishers.

She was the first female faculty member in the department to have children while teaching full-time and at a time when there was no official campus maternity leave policy. Adelman and former colleague Carol Christ, now president of Smith College in Massachusetts, are credited with leading UC Berkeley to implement new rules supporting maternity leave.

Early years

Born in Mt. Kisco, New York, on Jan. 28, 1941, Adelman earned a B.A. degree in English from Smith College in 1962 and attended St. Hugh’s College at Oxford University in England the following year. She received a master’s degree in English from Yale University in 1966 and a Ph.D. in English from Yale three years later.

Adelman received a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies to spend 1976-1977 in London to study psychoanalysis from the theoretical side and as used in practice. She was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship in 1962, a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship in 1964 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1982. She was awarded a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation to the Bellagio Study Center in 1998 and from the Bogliasco Foundation to the Liguria Study Center in 2003.

Adelman received an Explicator Prize honorable mention for “The Common Liar: An Essay on ‘Antony and Cleopatra’.”

In 1968, she became one of the first women to join the faculty of UC Berkeley’s English Department, earned tenure in 1972 and became a full professor in 1981. Adelman served as department chair from 1999 to 2002, and retired in 2007.

In 1990, Adelman was chosen to deliver the annual Charles Mills Gayley Lecture, the highest honor bestowed by the English Department. In 2006, Adelman received a UC Berkeley Faculty Award for Outstanding Mentorship of Graduate Student Instructors. The following year, she was awarded the Berkeley Citation, the campus’s highest honor for service to the university.

Adelman belonged to the Modern Language Association and Shakespeare Association of America. She also was an interdisciplinary member of the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute. Adelman also was associated with the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations and the Anna Freud Clinic, both in London.

An active member of Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont, Calif., Adelman chaired several committees there. She had been studying biblical Hebrew at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and had been set to teach a course this spring at Kehilla on traditional liturgy.

Her husband of 33 years, Robert Osserman, said Adelman loved the theater, nature, bird watching and taking long walks in nearby Tilden Regional Park.

In addition to Osserman, Adelman is survived by her two sons, Brian Osserman of Woodland, Calif., and Stephen Osserman of Portland, Ore.; and a brother, Howard Adelman of Bethel, Conn.

A memorial service was held for Janet Adelman on April 9 at the Kehilla Community Synagogue. A memorial program will be held by the English Department at a later date.