E. K. Chambers

Sir Edmund Kerchever Chambers, KBE, CB, FBA (16 March 1866 21 January 1954), usually cited as E. K. Chambers, was an English literary critic and Shakespearean scholar. His four-volume history of Elizabethan theater, published in 1923, remains a standard resource for scholars of the period's drama.


Chambers was born in West Ilsley, Berkshire; his father was a curate and his mother was the daughter of a Victorian theologian. He was educated at Marlborough College before matriculating at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He won a number of prizes, including the chancellor's prize in English for an essay on literary forgery. He took a job with the national education department and married Eleanor Bowman in 1893.

In the newly created Board of Education, Chambers worked principally to oversee adult and continuing education. He rose to second secretary, but the work for which he is remembered took place outside the office, at least before he retired from the Board in 1926. He was the first president of the Malone Society, serving from 1906 to 1939. He edited collections of verse for Oxford University Press. He produced a work on King Arthur and a privately printed collection of poems.

However, his great work, begun even before he left Oxford and which he pursued for three decades, was a great examination of the history and conditions of English theater in the medieval and Renaissance periods. This study, which Chambers (in the preface to Elizabethan Stage) called prolegomena to a "little book on Shakespeare," was published in three bursts. The Medieval Stage, issued in 1903, offered a comprehensive survey of medieval theater, covering not only the fairly well known interludes but also the then-obscure folk drama, minstrelsy, and liturgical drama. The Elizabethan Stage followed after two decades. The work, though it contained less original discovery than its predecessor, remains among the most useful depictions of the material conditions of English Renaissance theatre. W. W. Greg described it as "one of those books which perhaps no living person is in a position to criticise adequately." It remains in use today. In 1930 came at last the two-volume work on Shakespeare, which collected and analyzed the extant evidence of Shakespeare's work and life.

In his retirement, Chambers produced works on Coleridge and Matthew Arnold. After moving to Eynsham, Oxfordshire, he returned to medieval history, producing a volume in the Oxford history and a local study of Eynsham. He died in 1954.

Chambers was appointed Companion in the Order of the Bath in 1912, KBE in 1925. In 1924, he was elected fellow of the British Academy and his biography Samuel Taylor Coleridge was awarded the 1938 James Tait Black Memorial Prize.


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