We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Emily Dickinson's Shakespeare

Paraic Finnerty

Publication Year: 2006

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 nineteenth-century 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 nineteenth-century America, to identify with Shakespeare’s most controversial character, Othello, thereby defying expectations once again.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Title Page

pdf iconDownload PDF (44.6 KB)
pp. iii

Copyright Page

pdf iconDownload PDF (34.7 KB)
pp. iv

Table of Contents

pdf iconDownload PDF (58.5 KB)
pp. v-vi

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (58.9 KB)
pp. vii-viii

This book could not have been written without the generous support of a number of individuals and awarding bodies. To begin, I thank Guy Reynolds, Sasha Roberts, Domhnall Mitchell, and Mary Loeffelholz for their advice, guidance, and enthusiasm; they have shaped this book in important and invaluable ways, and I am indebted to them for their comments and suggestions.....

read more

Introduction - "Whose Pencil - here and there - / Had notched the place that pleased Him"

pdf iconDownload PDF (149.3 KB)
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 beside...

read more

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's Club, and Richard Henry Dana Sr.

pdf iconDownload PDF (218.3 KB)
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...

read more

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

pdf iconDownload PDF (200.8 KB)
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...

read more

Chapter Three - "Shakespeare was never accused of writing Bacon's Works": American Shakespeare Criticism, Delia Bacon, James Russell Lowell, and Richard Grant White

pdf iconDownload PDF (169.9 KB)
pp. 61-77

In August 1881 Dickinson, unsatisfied with William Dean Howells’s novel A Fearful Responsibility, which was appearing in installments in Scribner’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..

read more

Chapter Four - "He has had his Future who has found Shakespeare": American Nationalism and the English Dramatist

pdf iconDownload PDF (170.4 KB)
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,”...

read more

Chapter Five - "Pity me, however, I have finished Ramona. Would that like Shakespeare, it were just published!": Shakespeare and Women Writers

pdf iconDownload PDF (209.0 KB)
pp. 95-116

In a November 1871 letter to Higginson, alluding to Helen Hunt Jackson’s recently published Verses (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...

read more

Chapter Six - "Shakespeare always and forever": Dickinson's Circulation of the Bard

pdf iconDownload PDF (195.6 KB)
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...

read more

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

pdf iconDownload PDF (185.5 KB)
pp. 140-160

Of the fragile pages in the sixth volume of the Dickinsons’ family Shakespeare, those containing the final three acts of Antony and Cleopatra are 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...

read more

Chapter Eight - "Heard Othello at Museum": Junius Brutus Booth, Tommaso Salvini, and the Performance of Race

pdf iconDownload PDF (196.5 KB)
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 hearing Othello, when in fact she saw it performed, at the Boston...

read more

Chapter Nine - "Hamlet wavered for all of us": Dickinson and Shakespearean Tragedy

pdf iconDownload PDF (212.3 KB)
pp. 181-205

In the summer of 1877, Dickinson sent a cape jasmine to Thomas Wentworth 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...

read more

Conclusion: "Touch Shakespeare for me"

pdf iconDownload PDF (61.4 KB)
pp. 206-207

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...


pdf iconDownload PDF (637.7 KB)
pp. 209-259


pdf iconDownload PDF (737.3 KB)
pp. 261-267

Back Cover

pdf iconDownload PDF (733.0 KB)

E-ISBN-13: 9781613760901
E-ISBN-10: 1613760906
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558495173
Print-ISBN-10: 1558495177

Page Count: 280
Publication Year: 2006

Research Areas


UPCC logo

Subject Headings

  • American poetry -- English influences.
  • Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616 -- Allusions.
  • Shakespeare, William, -- 1564-1616 -- Appreciation -- United States.
  • Dickinson, Emily, 1830-1886 -- Knowledge -- Literature.
  • Shakespeare, William, -- 1564-1616 -- Influence.
  • You have access to this content
  • Free sample
  • Open Access
  • Restricted Access