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John Wilders, a dear friend and colleague passed away this week. He was also my teacher for Shakespere’s History Plays at the Bread Loaf School of English, Lincoln College, Oxford.  When John retired from teaching at Middlebury College, my husband wrote the following minute in his honor:

Faculty Minute for John Wilders (5/11/98):

Oscar Wilde divided people thus: “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.” John Wilders most definitely belongs in the first category, for he and his wife Benedikte, have by their gracious presences, by their many contributions to the community of Middlebury, improved the tone of the place immeasurably.

John Wilders, graduate of Cambridge University, has taught at many colleges and universities: at Bristol, at Oxford for many years, even at such remote corners of the empire where strange versions of the mother tongue are intoned, such as Australia and California, but none where his heart, I know, has so well resided as at Middlebury. John began his association with Middlebury by teaching at the Bread Loaf School of English; shortly thereafter he was appointed professor of humanities at Middlebury college, and has now taught in the English Department for the last several years. During those years, John has been the most helpful and collegial of colleagues. He has made available generously his un-matched knowledge and understanding of Shakespeare to innumerable students and teachers. Colleagues from other departments have sought him out to give lectures on Shakespeare and Religion, Shakespeare and Philosophy–perhaps even Shakespeare and Economics or Shakespeare and Chemistry, for all I know. As a scholar, John is mightily admired far and wide, for his work on Shakespeare: his book on the history plays, The Lost Garden; his best-selling New Prefaces to Shakespeare, a collection of his introductions to each of Shakespeare’s 37 plays, which John prepared for the BBC television productions of all Shakespeare’s plays–a monumental project for which John served as literary advisor. Most recently, he has published the prestigious Arden edition of Antony and Cleopatra, and he is currently at work on a book about the Scottish tragedy, but I think when he arrives at the pearly gates, as some of us will also–eventually–the seraphic scribe will welcome him by saying, “Are you the John Wilders who did that splendid edition of Samuel Butler’s Hudibras? Allow me to shake your wing,  sir!” And as a teacher, he is almost too much loved by his students–certainly he makes things awfully hard for the rest of us.

John has in his life played many parts: he has  been a concert announcer on BBC radio, a religion panelist and actor  on BBC television, a member of the board of governors of the Royal Shakespeare Company, a guest at Buckingham palace, a recruit of her majesty’s navy, and on and on–I cannot list them all here. I have been fortunate enough to have been lunching with John once or twice a week for the time he has been teaching at Middlebury. In fact, we now preface every anecdote with the disclaimer, “I’m sure I’ve told you this before.” Actually, in all these years, he has never repeated a one to me, and I marvel anew during each lunch, at his fund of encounters, literary and theatrical, as he reveals some remarkable experience or other–the time Tom Stoppard painted his staircase for him, or when Joyce Carey, the actress, invited him to what he thought would be a romantic luncheon, or when he saw Richard Burton’s stage debut.

If I may end on a personal note: I knew John Wilders before I knew John Wilders. At the age of 12 or so I bought a recording of Julius Caesar performed by the Marlowe Society of Cambridge University in order to learn Julius Caesar’s speeches from the play properly. Little did I know that the actor reciting Julius Caesar’s lines on that recording–whose every inflection and modulation I taught myself to mimic–would become a dear friend and colleague. One of John’s line readings I best remember is “I am constant as the northern star.” And that has been true of John Wilders, he has been constant as the northern star, constant as a personal friend, constant in his principles, constant as a teacher to his students, constant as a colleague to the faculty, constant as a friend to the community.

Dear John, what we owe you is incalculable. Thank you.

Submitted by: John Bertolini, Ellis Prof. of the Liberal Arts

18 Responses to “Remembering John Wilders”

  1. Doug Lucie says:

    So sad to hear this news. John was my tutor at Oxford – he let me in despite my lack of a science O-level, and was incredibly supportive of my theatrical ambitions. I’ll never forget our friday midday tutes -sherry, anecdotes, just me and him, as I was considered too controversial to be part of a group.

    I’ll never forget the day when he was running an hour ahead of schedule, and I tried to read my 26 page essay on DH Lawrence (who he hated, especially in my “it’s all anal” interpretation!) while he sat there in his squash gear waiting for his american phd student/squash partner to arrive.

    I last saw John at a garage (filling station) a few years ago, and he was obviously not too well, but he said to me “I’ve got all your plays on my bookshelf”.

    I hope he did have them, because without inspirational teachers like John and some of my other teachers, I wouldn’t be here writing this.

    Doug Lucie

  2. Thanks so much for your comment, Doug. I can just imagine John sitting there in his squash gear!

  3. Doug Lucie says:

    Mary Ellen,
    my favourite memory of John, apart from the picnics on the river with his lovely family, is my interview for admission. I was playing Vindice in the Revenger’s Tragedy at school, and had to get back in time for the performance. He said how jealous he was that I was going to be onstage holding that skull that night. A born performer.

    He also had his tutorial group do dramatic interventions in his lectures – eg Julius Caesar – where we were all planted in the audience and suddenly erupted with cries of “Liberty! Enfranchisement” etc….
    Bless him

  4. David Bain says:

    Many thanks, friends, for this beautiful portrait!

  5. James Wilders says:

    Dear John & Mary Ellen Bertolini,

    I was delighted to come across your obituary of my Dad, John Wilders. I am his youngest son (now aged 49, so not so young). Your description of him rings very true indeed. He was aged 83 when he passed away in the early hours of Maundy Thursday in hospital in Hull. My brother, Tom, was at his bedside and tells me that he died in his sleep without suffering.
    My Father had a wonderful life ranging from volunteering for the Royal Navy at the end of World War II when he served on an aircraft carrier, HMS Illustrious, to then going Cambridge in (I think) the early 50’s to take his BA and begin his PhD, completing his studies at Princeton, then teaching at Bristol University, then Oxford and then Middlebury. He packed loads of things in between these headlines. Best of all he was able to do a job which he loved and which brought fantastic experiences and many interesting and good friends. There aren’t many people who can say that.
    The funeral is not until Friday, 13 May (delayed by the great number of public holidays at this time of year) but my feeling is that it should be as much a celebration of someone who achieved a great deal with his life as much as a saying goodbye. As Hamlet said of his own Father, “He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.”
    James Wilders
    PS Doug – I remember you well from my childhood. Your failure in Maths O Level was often discussed at the dinner table. Also I much enjoyed seeing one of your plays at the Oxford playhouse (I think it was called “Oh Well” (?).

  6. william parente says:

    At Worcester College, Oxford, John was the most tolerant, engaged and encouraging tutor anyone could have wished for. Unlike many dons, he contrived to give the impression that a real dialogue was taking place between him and the pompous, irritable undergraduate in front of him, a dialogue in which both parties stood to gain something. This was a powerful, and wholly undeserved, boost to the student’s ego. He was engagingly open about his human failings- I recall with a smile his hilarious description of the undignified shifts he was put to to conquer his tobacco habit. His attitude to the canon was refreshingly pragmatic: I struggled miserably with Carlyle until John put me out of my misery: ‘I shouldn’t bother with it then. Read something else.’ He brought life and fun into the tutorial, Green Men, drunken Shakespeare rehearsals, the construction of punts. Intellectually, I owe him everything, because, like Samuel Johnson, he understood that the key to learning was enjoyment, and for me this opened every door. I salute his memory, and thank him from my heart for all he gave to so many people.

  7. KC Thornton says:

    Fond memories. He will be dearly missed!

  8. Ian Small says:

    As a student (too?) actively involved in Oxford drama in the late 1960s I was privileged to know John and to value his incisive but always generous and thoughtful critiques of what we were performing. His advice and encouragement have helped to form and deepen my love of theatre, and he always wore his scholarship lightly – making it more effective by so doing. Although I have not seen him for many years, I know that his quiet, kindly influence still resonates in my life and I am very grateful for knowing him.

  9. Daniel Friedman says:

    I am writing this from the Rad Cam, having spent the past eight weeks in Oxford, with all my memories flooding back about Dr. Wilders. I have written my appreciation to James, and thank you for your comments here.

  10. Jennifer Ballinger says:

    Was so saddened to hear the news of Prof Wilders’ passing in the most recent Middlebury magazine. It always amazed me how much fun he had with everything he taught–and how much enthusiasm he retained for learning new things about Shakespeare et al, through his students’ eyes–even though he had read and studied all this literature for years and years. He was wonderfully fun and made all literature a joy. Beautifully put, Prof Bertolini.

    Jennifer Poinier Ballinger, Midd 1991

  11. Jonathan D'Angour says:

    I pause, as I generally do. John was exceptionally kind to me, at Worcester 1978-81, and later when we corresponded (or I rang) when he was at Middlebury.. but there is a sadness. When, early on, we discussed Cymbeline, and Imogen in particular, James, your father in his flamboyant style talked of your sister, saying “and were she to be alive today, she might be the Imogen of Cymbeline”. In July 1979, when your dad was on sabbatical for a year, my own mother succumbed to brain cancer, and my years at Oxford were then lost. John was understanding, but helpless. I left Oxford with a third, not that it mattered,and our mum died in April 1982, 30 years ago. Later, we never talked about any of this, although my then psychosis left scars on my twenties and thirties. But that phrase, “were she to be alive today”, I echo when I talk of our mum, in fond memory of John’s own trials. John’s Shakespearean influence also left its indelible mark on me, and I became an avid reader, and listener (on tape) of many and much of the dramatic and critical cannon, particularly taking Hesketh Pearson’s comment in his Life of Shakespeare – as far as I remember – that Shakespeare as remembered by Him helped him in the direst days of the war. Thank you, John
    p.s. music helps

  12. BOB WHITE says:

    I’m sorry and a little ashamed to have only just found this moving site on the occasion of John’s passing. He was my supervisor at Worcester in 1971-4 when I was a very shy and completely intimidated postgrad from Australia. I was so incredibly lucky in having him. He was so kind and generous as my only real rock of stability in those early years, taking me into the family – I remember you, James, as a boy! and it was then while I was there that tragedy struck you all with your sister’s death – John quoted, “death as the psalmist saith, comes to all”. I may even have been the alien squash player Doug mentions above (though not American) as we played many times. (I also remember Will Parente from the time, and Jeremy Treglown, and many others who felt the same about John. He was hilariously funny and I remember not only his fund of stories but his perfection in telling them. Later I cajoled him to Australia where of course he was immensely popular, although sadly Benedikte had an accident which clouded the visit. I have never ceased thinking of John, his wisdom and beautiful attitude to life, and though belated this is a heartfelt valediction of pure love.

  13. Daniel Picker says:

    I studied with John Wilders at Lincoln College Oxford; the class was 17th Century Poetry; we studied the metaphysical and the cavalier poetry, including poems by Ben Jonson, John Donne, Andrew Marvell, George Herbert, and John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. John brought his tremendous knowledge of Shakespeare and the Loeb Classical Library to our small tutorial too; there were only two American students in the class. Of course he took us punting and hosted a picnic with some of the students from his Shakespeare class; I wished years after that I had the chance to study Shakespeare’s History plays with him too. He was the absolutely finest professor and scholar an American student could wish to study with at Oxford, and meeting him and studying with him remains one of the highlights of my academic career. We corresponded a bit over the years; I received a postcard announcing the Antony & Cleopatra book, and he enjoyed a postcard I had sent. I only wish I had seen and talked with him more. He blessed everyone he taught. I’m sorry for this delayed response.

  14. Phil wilkinson says:

    My grandmother, Mary Wilkinson was in fact John’s cousin. She spoke of him often and with great affection and pride. I learnt of Johns death from the obitiuny in the Times. That was by complete chance. My middle daughters class were all given a copy of the newspaper the day it was published. I sat down to have a read and was amazed to see the piece. That daughter Lauren is now at the Brit school, Croydon studying theatre management . She also has a great passion for Shakespeare ! Maybe it’s in the genes .


  15. Thanks, Phil. I got to study Shakespeare with John at Lincoln College, Oxford one summer. What a treat! Best of luck to your daughter Lauren in her studies!
    Mary Ellen

  16. Phil wilkinson says:


    Thought I’d let you know Lauren is about to start a 3 year degree in stage management at Bristol Old Vic stage school . She still loves her Shakespeare and my grandmother , Johns cousin would be delighted


  17. Natalya Baldyga says:

    John Wilders was one of the brightest lights from my time at Middlebury. I took two courses from him, the second an upper-level seminar that was technically for English majors but that he let me, a theatre major, happily attend. There was as much joy as erudition in his classes, and his kindness I will never forget. Now, over 25 years later, as a university professor, I still try to channel his generosity and humor in my own classes. I tell some of his wonderful stories, and, always reference his puckish manner of stealing the best roles for oneself when scenes are read out loud in class (“This role,” he would say, “_really_ demands a more _mature_ actor I think, so I had better take it myself.”)

    I looked him up today because I am about to head into a student’s defense of her senior thesis, which examines madness in several of Shakespeare’s female characters. I’m saddened to learn that it is five years to the day that John Wilders was laid to rest, but wished to write this note as a means of celebrating his gifts as a scholar and especially as a teacher. What I learned from him was not only knowledge about Shakespeare’s texts, but also a teaching style that I continue to draw on today. My students are the beneficiaries of his largess.

    Natalya Baldyga (Middlebury ’91)
    Assistant Professor of Drama, Tufts University

  18. Carol simpson says:

    To Tom and James and also Ben Wilkinson
    My grandfather Herbert Augustus Simpson was an enthusiastic Shakespearean scholar and inspired your Father/cousin John Wilders to study Shakespeare. H A Simpson could quote by heart nearly all of Shakespeare’s works!! Quite a feat!! He was also devoted to Lord Byron as you may remember he lived very near Newstead Abbey. Living in Scotland, we didn’t meet up with your branch of the family very often but I have fond memories of you visiting us in Edinburgh when you were quite small.

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