Emily Dickinson's Shakespeare

Emily Dickinson's Shakespeare

Páraic Finnerty
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    Emily Dickinson's Shakespeare
    Book Description:

    One of the messages that Emily Dickinson wanted to communicate to the world was her great love of William Shakespeare—her letters abound with references to him and his works. This book explores the many implications of her admiration for the Bard. Páraic Finnerty clarifies the essential role that Shakespeare had in Dickinson’s life by locating her allusions to his writings within a nineteenthcentury American context and by treating reading as a practice that is shaped, to a large extent, by culture. In the process, he throws new light on Shakespeare’s multifaceted presence in Dickinson’s world: in education, theater, newspapers, public lectures, reading clubs, and literary periodicals. Through analysis of letters, journals, diaries, records, periodicals, newspapers, and marginalia, Finnerty juxtaposes Dickinson’s engagement with Shakespeare with the responses of her contemporaries. Her Shakespeare emerges as an immoral dramatist and highly moral poet; a highbrow symbol of class and cultivation and a lowbrow popular entertainer; an impetus behind the emerging American theater criticism and an English author threatening American creativity; a writer culturally approved for women and yet one whose authority women often appropriated to critique their culture. Such a context allows the explication of Dickinson’s specific references to Shakespeare and further conjecture about how she most likely read him. Finnerty also examines those of Dickinson’s responses to Shakespeare that deviated from what might have been expected and approved of by her culture. Imaginatively departing from the commonplace, Dickinson chose to admire three of Shakespeare’s most powerful and transgressive female characters—Cleopatra, Queen Margaret, and Lady Macbeth—instead of his more worthy and virtuous heroines. More startling, although the poet found resonance for her own life in Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth, she chose, in the racially charged atmosphere of nineteenthcentury America, to identify with Shakespeare’s most controversial character, Othello, thereby defying expectations once again.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-090-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. INTRODUCTION “Whose Pencil – here and there – / Had notched the place that pleased Him”
    (pp. 1-14)

    In the Emily Dickinson Room at the Houghton Library at Harvard is the Dickinson household’s eight-volume pictorial and national edition of Shakespeare, edited by Charles Knight; Edward Dickinson purchased this for his family in 1857.¹ The Dickinsons, like many of their contemporaries, marked their books, and this edition of Shakespeare is no exception.² The contents page of the incredibly fragile fifth volume contains crosses besideRomeo and Juliet, Hamlet, andOthello, and betweenTimon of AthensandKing Lear. Curiously, fourteen of the sixteen other pencil markings in the rest of the edition are found beside various lines fromOthello....

  5. CHAPTER ONE “There’s nothing wicked in Shakespeare, and if there is I don’t want to know it” Advising Women Readers, Amherst’s Shakespeare Club, and Richard Henry Dana Sr.
    (pp. 15-38)

    The poet’s sister, Lavinia Dickinson, in 1851 kept a diary that offers much information about the sisters’ social activities in Amherst. One important part was a “reading circle” that convened on the evening of March 21 and had its final meeting on July 25.¹ Based on information supplied by the diary, the circle most likely included Amherst College tutors Henry Luther Edwards, William Howland, and William Cowper Dickinson; Amherst College students John Elliot Sanford, Richard Salter Storrs, Charles Fowler, and Milan C. Stebbins; the then principal of Amherst Academy, John Laurens Spencer; and a former Amherst student who worked at...

  6. CHAPTER TWO “I read a few words since I came home – John Talbot’s parting with his son, and Margaret’s with Suffolk” Reading and Performing Shakespeare, Fanny Kemble, and the Astor Place Riot
    (pp. 39-60)

    In 1864, from late April to November 21, and again in 1865, from April 1 to October, Emily Dickinson underwent a course of eye treatment with Henry W. Williams in Boston, during which she stayed in Cambridge with her cousins, Louise and Frances Norcross. Between these two visits, in March 1865, she wrote the following to Louise: “I read a few words since I came home - John Talbot’s parting with his son, and Margaret’s with Suffolk. I read them in the garret, and the rafters wept” (L304). At this time, she also told her cousins that her eyes were...

  7. CHAPTER THREE “Shakespeare was never accused of writing Bacon’s Works” American Shakespeare Criticism, Delia Bacon, James Russell Lowell, and Richard Grant White
    (pp. 61-77)

    In August 1881 Dickinson, unsatisfied with William Dean Howells’s novelA Fearful Responsibility, which was appearing in installments inScribner’s Monthly, asked Mrs. Holland, the wife of its editor, “Who wrote Mr. Howells’ story?” (L721). She continued, “Certainly he did not. Shakespeare was never accused of writing Bacon’s works, though to have been suspected of writing his, was the most beautiful stigma of Bacon’s Life - Higher, is the doom of the High.” Just as to accuse Shakespeare of writing Bacon’s works would be demeaning to the bard, to accuse Howells of writing his latest, less than impressive, novel would...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR “He has had his Future who has found Shakespeare” American Nationalism and the English Dramatist
    (pp. 78-94)

    In reply to a letter from Franklin B. Sanborn that probably gave her information about recent books and asked for a literary contribution, Dickinson wrote, “Thank you, Mr Sanborn. I am glad there are Books. They are better than Heaven for that is unavoidable while one may miss these. Had I a trait you would accept I should be most proud, though he has had his Future who has found Shakespeare” (L 402). Johnson has dated the letter “about 1873,” and by this time Sanborn was no longer the resident editor of theSpringfield Republicanand had returned with his...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE “Pity me, however, I have finished Ramona. Would that like Shakespeare, it were just published!” Shakespeare and Women Writers
    (pp. 95-116)

    In a November 1871 letter to Higginson, alluding to Helen Hunt Jackson’s recently publishedVerses(1870), Dickinson wrote, “Mrs. Hunt’s Poems are stronger than any written by Women since Mrs - Browning, with the exception of Mrs. Lewes - but truth like Ancestor’s Brocades can stand alone” (L368). Despite her praise for the achievement of these women poets, she concludes by noting, “While Shakespeare remains Literature is firm - An Insect cannot run away with Achilles’ Head.” It appears that compared with Shakespeare even her favorite women writers are no more than pathetic and ludicrous insects. This is strange considering...

  10. CHAPTER SIX “Shakespeare always and forever” Dickinson’s Circulation of the Bard
    (pp. 117-139)

    Regarding Dickinson’s reading of Shakespeare, the poet’s niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, wrote, “Shakespeare always and forever; Othello her chosen villain, with Macbeth familiar as the neighbors and Lear driven into exile as vivid as if occurring on the hills before her door.”¹ In fact, in her letters, Dickinson through allusion transforms herself and her friends into Shakespeare’s characters. This is hardly surprising considering that an expected acquisition of Shakespeare was promoted in her culture by its theaters, its magazines and journals, its Lyceums, its literary clubs, its scholarship, its publishing industry, its contemporary novels and poems, and, eventually, its schools...

  11. CHAPTER SEVEN “Then I settled down to a willingness for all the rest to go but William Shakespear. Why need we Joseph read anything else but him” Dickinson Reading Antony and Cleopatra
    (pp. 140-160)

    Of the fragile pages in the sixth volume of the Dickinsons’ family Shakespeare, those containing the final three acts ofAntony and Cleopatraare particularly loose, almost detachable. On page 490, there is also a faint, neat pencil mark along the right-hand side of the passage that begins with the line “Egypt, thou knew’st too well” and ends on the next page with “Thy beck might from the bidding of the gods / Command me” (III xi 56–61). Pages 516–17, which contain Antony’s death scene (IV xv), have a piece of pink string carefully enclosed between them. The...

  12. CHAPTER EIGHT “Heard Othello at Museum” Junius Brutus Booth, Tommaso Salvini, and the Performance of Race
    (pp. 161-180)

    Dickinson and her sister Lavinia stayed in Boston with their aunt Lavinia Norcross between the sixth and twenty-second of September 1851; on September 9, Lavinia recorded in her diary, “Heard Othello at Museum.”¹ The antitheatrical prejudice of the day is implicit in Lavinia’s reference to hearingOthello, when in fact she saw it performed, at the Boston Museum, a theater on Tremont Street.² In 1841, Moses Kimball had established the hall, calling it the Boston Museum to deflect attention from the fact it was a theater and avoid the deep-rooted objections Boston had to dramatic entertainment. Kimball’s museum was more...

  13. CHAPTER NINE “Hamlet wavered for all of us” Dickinson and Shakespearean Tragedy
    (pp. 181-205)

    In the summer of 1877, Dickinson sent a cape jasmine to Thomas Went-worth Higginson’s wife, with the following message: “I send you a flower from my garden - Though it die in reaching you, you will know it lived, when it left my hand - Hamlet wavered for all of us - ” (L512). Her message makes the simple gift of a flower a transaction equivalent to a Shakespearean tragedy. It also underlines the way Dickinson ascribed human feelings and characteristics to her flowers, here elevating the death of a jasmine through reference to English theater’s greatest tragic hero.¹ This...

  14. CONCLUSION “Touch Shakespeare for me”
    (pp. 206-208)

    When Emily Dickinson’s many hyperbolic statements of praise for Shakespeare, and her abundant references to his works, are examined within the historical context from which they emanated, they are rarely found to be straightforward. Provocative and timely, they reflect the fact that Dickinson read Shakespeare as a member of a culture in which he was a problematic actor who figured in its dialogue on a range of social and cultural issues. Her response to and conception of Shakespeare developed at a time when he was treated with reverence—in effect, as the greatest “American author.” In her letters she presents...

  15. NOTES
    (pp. 209-260)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 261-268)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 269-270)