April 1, 2005

In Memoriam: James F. Forrest

Category: In Memoriam :: Permalink

This week, I received word that Dr. James F. Forrest passed away last Saturday, March 26, 2005. For many years, Dr. Forrest taught English at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, focusing in particular on the Renaissance period (Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton). Highly regarded as a Bunyan scholar, he co-wrote John Bunyan: A Reference Guide and edited the critical editions of Bunyan’s The Life and Death of Mr. Badman and The Holy War, as well as a more popular edition of the latter.

In the fall of 1990, I arrived in Edmonton, planning to major in philosophy at the University of Alberta. By the end of the first year, however, I had made a number of friends in the English department, including two of Dr. Forrest’s graduate students, Maxine Hancock and Arlette Zinck, and I had determined that my own interests lay more in literature than in philosophy. I started my second year with a double major and by the third year I was an English major.

In my second year, I took Dr. Forrest’s class on Shakespeare, a six-credit course lasting two semesters. We worked through some of Shakespeare’s comedies and a few of his historical plays — I recall that Henry V was not Dr. Forrest’s favourite: great dialogue but little action — before settling into the tragedies.

Unlike many Shakespeare scholars, Forrest did not believe that Aristotle’s discussion of tragedy applied to all tragedies throughout history. Aristotle was analysing the tragedies of his own day; he was no expert in Shakespearian tragedy.

Specificially, Forrest rejected the Aristotelian idea, popularized by A. C. Bradley, among others, that every tragic hero has a “tragic flaw” which brings about his downfall. According to this view, we feel sorrow when we see the person fall because we have come to like the person and don’t like to see him fall, but we feel a certain joy in tragedy because the fall satisfies our sense of justice: such flaws need to be punished.

Forrest, on the contrary, argued that Shakespeare’s tragic heroes do not have “tragic flaws.” Rather, they have “tragic virtues.”

What is the tragic flaw in Romeo and Juliet? Various “flaws” have been proposed. Some think their flaw is haste, but they have to hurry because Juliet will be married to someone else tomorrow. John Masefield even proposed that their flaw is love!

That proposal, however, points us in the right direction: what brings about the tragedy is not a flaw but a virtue, not some sinful twist in their character but their love for each other, a love that shines all the more against the background of the sordid jokes of Mercutio and Juliet’s Nurse. We do sorrow when we read Romeo and Juliet because of the suffering of these lovers, because what should be pure and joyful ends up in death. But we leave the theatre or put down the book with a sense of joy and exaltation, not because we’ve seen a tragic flaw punished, but because, in their love, we’ve seen something that is too beautiful for this world. We’ve seen the beauty of love shining out in a sinful world.

The same holds true, Forrest argued, for Shakespeare’s other tragedies, with the possible exception of a play like Richard III which is more of a historical play than an actual tragedy.

Above all, what I loved in Forrest’s Shakespeare class was his close attention to the text. He challenged us to think through why Shakespeare wrote what he did and why he wrote it the way he did. Why, for instance, is the third act of Othello so long, compared to the third act of other plays? Forrest wanted us to love Shakespeare. He was appreciative of any interpretation which showed more of the richness of the text. And when he read King Lear, he was Lear.

The following year, I took Forrest’s “King James Bible as English Literature” course. To some degree, it was a remedial Bible course for students who had not grown up reading and studying the Bible. But it was never just that. Forrest also traced how themes in the Bible show up in other pieces of English literature and particularly in Spenser and Shakespeare, Milton and Bunyan.

It was probably in that year that I started going for coffee with Dr. Forrest on occasion. We would usually walk from his office to the Hub Mall and sit and chat for a while. Even after I left the University, I returned to visit him.

I don’t recall much of what was said in those conversations. But I do recall that often, after we had discussed our work or our reading or some other topic, Dr. Forrest would change the subject. He would look at me with a somewhat impish grin on his face and say, with his slight Scottish accent, “But never mind all of that. Tell me about your love life.” I am delighted that before he passed away he was able to hear that at last there was news in that department, that my love life was going quite well, and that I was now married to a wonderful wife.

My second year at the University was Dr. Forrest’s last year as a full professor. He was over 65 and the University forced him to retire. He returned for my third year, but only as a sessional prof. That was my last year at the University and in the summer of 1994 I moved to Iowa to start my seminary studies. I saw him for the last time shortly before I left. I do wish that I could have spent more time with him.

In his Shakespeare class, Dr. Forrest quoted this poem, which he remembered from earlier years when A. C. Bradley’s work dominated Shakespeare studies:

I dreamed last night that Shakespeare’s ghost
Sat for a civil service post.
The English paper of the year
Contained a question on King Lear
Which Shakespeare answered rather badly
Because he had not studied Bradley. 

Later, when G. Wilson Knight became a leading Shakespearian scholar, Forrest himself added these lines:

Still Shakespeare hasn’t got it right:
He hasn’t studied Wilson Knight. 

For the last Shakespeare class, which was Dr. Forrest’s last class as a full professor, I wrote the following addition, which I quote here in Dr. Forrest’s honour:

From Wilson Knight and A. C. Bradley
Shakespeare’s ghost passed, saying sadly,
“That tragic flaw’s what hurts me sorest.
I wish those guys had studied Forrest!” 

I’m glad I did.

Posted by John Barach @ 8:08 pm | Discuss (1)

One Response to “In Memoriam: James F. Forrest”

  1. Teresa McNally Says:

    Just today I learned that Dr. Forrest passed. He also had a great influence on me when I was at the U of A. While in his Shakespeare class, he noticed a reference that I made in one of my papers. Dr. Forrest called me into his office and asked, “Where did you get this?” and then told me, “Do something with this.” The reference evolved into research that was published in Notes and Queries. Dr. Forrest understood that the reference was as yet unpublished and the research original. Had he not encouraged me, I would never have done anything with it. As an undergraduate I had neither the knowledge or experience to identify unique information (not that much has changed…). Dr. Forrest was a true teacher, one that wanted to see his students grow. And if you are reading this Dr. Forrest, from wherever you are, I still think of the King James as a biblical Coles Notes.

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