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Danson dazzles with tales of Shakespeare
By Jennifer Greenstein Altmann
Princeton NJ — Professor of English Larry Danson paced the stage in McCosh 46, a worn copy of “The Taming of the Shrew” in his hand. Danson was knee-deep into his discussion of one of William Shakespeare’s earliest comedies — a playful work that humorously examines married life and how to deal with a cantankerous wife — and had arrived at Act 4, Scene 1.
“What’s Petruchio doing there?” Danson asked about the scene, in which Petruchio is discussing how he will treat Kate, his betrothed. “He claims what he’s doing is holding up a mirror. ‘She’s a shrew. I’ll show her what a shrew really looks like. I’ll become a male shrew, and if she shrews, I’ll out-shrew her!’
Larry Danson, professor of English, has been sharing his passion for Shakespeare with Princeton students for 30 years. Performing parts of the text “is a calculated effort to engage the students,” he said. “I can’t read Shakespeare without putting some spin on it.” (photo: Denise Applewhite)
“Act 4, Scene 1. Petruchio,” Danson said, and began reading from the text, assuming the tone of voice and posture suited to Shakespeare’s words.
“Thus have I politicly begun my reign,
And ’tis my hope to end successfully.
My falcon now is sharp and passing empty;
And till she stoop she must not be full-gorged.”
Danson has been imparting the meaning of Shakespeare’s plays to Princeton students since the mid-1970s, and he has become a legend for the acuity and zeal he brings to that task.
“Studying Shakespeare with Professor Danson was an incredibly exciting classroom experience,” said Hop Wells, a member of the class of 2006 who is teaching English at St. Paul’s School in London this year and aspires to be a novelist. “For a student like me who loves literature and hopes to pursue a career in it, Professor Danson was inspirational.”
Decades of studying Shakespeare have only enhanced Danson’s devotion to the Bard’s artistry.
“There is a wonderful depth of inventiveness and verbal texture to Shakespeare, which means that you don’t run out of him,” said Danson, who in graduate school debated whether he should focus on William Blake or Shakespeare. After receiving a bachelor’s degree at Dartmouth College, Danson earned a master’s degree at Oxford University and a Ph.D. at Yale University. He joined the Princeton faculty in 1968. “I think I was very fortunate to do something that turned out to be the thing that I’ve continued to love.”
When he teaches “Shakespeare I” and “Shakespeare II,” surveys of, respectively, the early plays and the later plays, Danson finds that he is still learning new ways to read Shakespeare’s texts. “Many times, still, I go into a precept and somebody points something out to me — or together we find something — that I actually hadn’t thought of before,” he said.
Danson’s passion for his subject is clear when he takes the lectern, where he often delivers Shakespeare’s dialogue and soliloquies with the dramatic bent they deserve. Shedding his reading glasses, Danson raises his voice, strides across the stage and strikes a pose as he intones the 16th-century words, often from memory.
“Shakespeare was meant to be performed, and no one teaches that lesson better than Professor Danson,” said Samantha Brand, a member of the class of 2005 who is currently a student at Benjamin Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. “I remember in my freshman Shakespeare class when he read the final scene of Othello aloud. Othello is adamant in taking revenge on the sleeping Desdemona. ‘She must die, else she’ll betray more men.’
“When he read, his voice was resolute but lilting and vulnerable. To get that conflict of character across to everyone, the reading was much more effective than just description. Professor Danson wanted us to understand that Shakespeare is not a passive experience. Learning about Shakespeare is as much about engaging with the text — playing around with it — as it is about reading it. And your own understanding is enhanced by critiquing how others understand the language.”
“Shakespeare was meant to be performed, and no one teaches that lesson better than Professor Danson,” said Samantha Brand, a 2005 alumna. She added, “Professor Danson wanted us to understand that Shakespeare is not a passive experience.” (photo: Denise Applewhite)
Performing parts of the text “is a calculated effort to engage the students,” Danson said. “I can’t read Shakespeare without putting some spin on it. I guess I have a histrionic nature. At some point I became sufficiently uninhibited.”
According to Claudia Johnson, chair of the English department, “The popularity of Larry’s Shakespeare courses is legendary, and for good reason. He is restlessly curious and inventive, and he conveys to students the same sense of challenge and excitement.” Danson was awarded the 250th Anniversary Fund Award for Innovation in Undergraduate Teaching in 1997 and 2000.
“Professor Danson presents Shakespeare’s plays in a way that is not apologetic for our occasional difficulty in understanding them and that revels in their sophisticated artistry,” said junior Will Ellerbe.
Danson turned to the Internet nearly a decade ago to help students grapple with the Bard, creating a set of online resources and exercises he called “The Electric Shakespeare.” He included video clips of two filmmakers’ versions of the same scene, offering, for example, the moment when Lady Macbeth makes her first appearance as conjured by directors Roman Polanski and Orson Welles. He shows these clips in class as well, to help students relate to the material. The site (www.princeton.edu/~danson/Lit131/Intro.htm) also has a handbook that explains terms such as blank verse and gives essay-writing suggestions. Though the site still exists, Danson now includes and updates much of its material on his Blackboard site for his courses.
While Danson has devoted much of his scholarly career to Shakespeare, he also has written on other topics, including Shakespeare’s contemporaries in Renaissance drama. In addition, he wrote “Max Beerbohm and the Act of Writing,” which explores parody, satire, caricature and self-creation, and “Wilde’s Intentions: The Artist in His Criticism,” about Oscar Wilde’s critical theory in relation to his other writing. His 2000 book, “Shakespeare’s Dramatic Genres,” published by Oxford University Press, is a guide to the genres of Elizabethan theater and an examination of the full range of Shakespeare’s comedies, histories and tragedies.
This semester Danson has introduced a new course, “Knowing Innocence,” which explores the notion that once we understand innocence, we have already lost it. The readings for the class run through various genres and time periods — from Genesis to Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw,” from Mary Shelley to Margaret Mead. “Innocence is an evanescent but powerful idea,” Danson said. “It is a myth that is being constantly re-invented.”
The idea for the course came to Danson from a passage in Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” about the power of nostalgia for the innocence of childhood. “The myth appears in so many diverse forms, in so many different eras, that I realized it would be a good focus for a wide range of readings and for discussion,” he said.
Danson also co-teaches, with professor Michael Wood, a course on Shakespeare and film that explores the nature and interaction of those two very different media.
Several years ago he took a couple of students, including Brand, to see a film adaptation of “The Merchant of Venice.” Walking home from the theater, Danson and his students analyzed how the filmmakers altered Shakespeare’s text to suit their cinemagraphic needs.
“It was a dream come true to study with a teacher like Professor Danson,” said Brand. “He makes you fall in love with Shakespeare over and over. Whenever I attend a production of Shakespeare or open one of his plays or sonnets, I think of Professor Danson.” δ