Dench Gives Degrees, Gets One

May 16, 2004

Mary Baldwin University gave Dame Judi Dench, the acclaimed British actress who has won virtually every major award, her first American honorary degree at its annual Commencement. Dench, in turn, helped present the ceremonial academic hoods to the first three students to earn a master of fine arts in Shakespeare and Renaissance literature in performance.

Dench, star of stage, screen, and television, won an Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love. She also has collected Broadway’s Tony, London’s Olivier, and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Golden Globe. For her unsurpassed contributions to English theatre, Queen Elizabeth II made her a dame commander of the British Empire.

In introducing Dench, Mary Baldwin President Pamela Fox said: “Your roles have ranged, remarkably, from Shakespeare’s heroines, for which you consistently set the standard for interpretation, to the knowing Jean of British sitcom fame, to James Bond’s unforgiving boss, M. Your support for young artists and for Shakespeare is evident in your willingness more than a decade ago to lend your name to a fledgling theatre company, Shenandoah Shakespeare, now Mary Baldwin’s partner in its master’s program.

Shakespeare scholar Russ MacDonald, in his forthcoming book, includes you among the greatest Shakespearian actresses of the last three centuries.”

Fox noted that Dench’s weekly comedy “As Time Goes By” has been “one of most enduring hits of the BBC and a public-broadcasting staple in America, as was your earlier series, ‘A Fine Romance,’ which you made with your late husband Michael Williams. Your work in the films Mrs. Brown and Iris earned you Academy Award nominations for best actress during a period when you were nominated four times in five years.”

Receiving a master of fine arts degrees were Nancy Beall, Laura Dansby, and Cathy Brookshire. A year ago, they were among the first students to earn a master of letters in the unique program offered in partnership with Shenandoah Shakespeare and combining scholarship with performance, using Blackfriars Playhouse, the only authentic re-creation of Shakespeare’s indoor theatre, as both classroom and laboratory.

Receiving their ceremonial hoods from Dench was a thrill, said graduates, who had a chance to talk with her. “She’s so down to earth,” said Beall, exuding what she described as “a happy sense of achievement.”

A tribute to Dench and her late husband at Blackfriars drew fans from all over the country to Staunton Saturday, May 15, a day before the Mary Baldwin graduation.