Marvin Rosenberg was born in Fresno, California on November 6, 1912, and grew up there, his parents Russian immigrants. He earned a B.A. and an M.A. in English at the University of California, Berkeley. During World War II he worked for the U.S. State Department, then returned to earn a Ph.D. in English. Eventually he joined the Berkeley faculty, first teaching in journalism – when reading his books one is struck by what a good writer he is – and eventually changing to the Department of Dramatic Art, where he became a full professor in 1961 – and emeritus in 1983.
During his teaching career at Berkeley he enlisted hundreds of students as helpers in his research. Part of his teaching involved guiding students to participate with him in professional-level documentation of Shakespeare stage production. He brought the staging of Shakespeare into his classroom and pointed the way toward a new direction in Shakespeare studies.
His books include The Masks of Othello (1961), The Masks of King Lear (1972), The Masks of Macbeth (1978), and The Masks of Hamlet (1992). In each of his books he gathers together a vast amount of material gleaned from his study of literary essays and reviews, and from his interviews with actors and directors worldwide.
When Rosenberg begins to discuss Act One, scene one, line one of a Shakespeare play, he can cite different ways that the moment has been played by scores of actors all over the globe. He continues throughout each play.
He achieved this widespread geographic range by collecting a huge store of contacts with scholars, theatre people, and theatre students throughout the U.S., the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa. He assembled reviews of local Shakespeare performances, photographs, and even videotapes, and paid back his correspondents by exchanging research materials. Tirelessly he attended rehearsals and productions of his chosen plays and participated in international conferences, where he made contact with the people from whom he would solicit much of the documentation that underlies his Masks books.
In 1997 he published his Adventures of a Shakespeare Scholar. Here he gathered his Shakespearean essays and linked them to a roll call of the forward-looking Shakespearean researchers of our era – all friends, many his collaborators – and to a map of professional meetings where over a lifetime he laid out the territory ahead. His Adventures take the reader to his interviews with major Shakespearean actors and directors, and to his keen visits to the theatre.
Eventually, in 1999, 22 of his friends and colleagues put together a Festschrift for him, Shakespeare Illuminations, attesting in the very subject matter of their contributions to his range, longevity, and pioneering spirit.
Marvin had a knack for bringing people together. His home constantly filled with these collaborators, colleagues, students, and theatre people. His first wife, Dorothy, a published poet, contributed to the spirit of this collegial atmosphere. During her last years he nursed her through ill health until her death in 1969. He then met and married Mary Bell, a faculty member at the University of Lancaster in England. After their marriage she worked with him on the books.
Marvin enjoyed athletics. At the University he was an ardent supporter of the Cal football team, and he played a sharp game of tennis into his late eighties. Mary and Marvin were also partners on the tennis court. It is Mary who, together with the support of son Barr Rosenberg, has seen to it that his last book, The Masks of Anthony and Cleopatra, has now appeared.
Just this last summer (2006), The Masks of Anthony and Cleopatra came out posthumously as a crowning achievement of Marvin Rosenberg's long career. No one else in the world approaches his contribution to the study of Shakespeare's plays in performance. Not only is his international coverage of Shakespearean productions enormous, but he developed a particular method of analysis and description that has changed the way others go about analyzing the drama in general: a method which allows him to demonstrate ways in which dramatic production has informed and interpreted the lines, how performance illuminates text.
Very rare indeed is there a work of scholarship or criticism that genuinely helps and inspires the performer. By the same token, rare are those works of scholarship about the stage that inform students of the text. On both counts, Marvin Rosenberg's is such work.
During his lifetime Marvin also established three major poetry prizes, two in memory of his first wife, and one in memory of his mother. The Dorothy Rosenberg Memorial Prize in Lyric Poetry is administered by the UC Berkeley Office of Financial Aid; and the annual international Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize is currently being managed by Mary and Barr. The Anna Davidson Rosenberg Award for Poems on the Jewish Experience is sponsored by the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. Details of all these competitions can be found at www.DorothyPrizes.org.