Writers with an image problem: William Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson

In the contemporary world, we are bombarded with images from our laptops and televisions, on billboards and in magazines. These images may be advertising something, but often they seem only to advertise a way of life, a celebrity, unobtainable to all but a select few. Celebrities are more recognizable in some cases then our distant relatives, and our view of these famous figures is distorted on the one hand by extreme Photoshopping which makes them more ‘beautiful’, and on the other by candid snaps which expose their all-too-flawed humanity in gossip magazines’s ‘circles of shame’.

Writers are not often the victims of paparazzi attention in today’s world, yet the way in which we ‘see’ writers, especially historical writers, is often conditioned by external cultural and historical forces in ways that we might not at first recognize.

Shakespeare, possibly the greatest literary celebrity in the English language, exists in our visual field through a variety of representations from the engraving by Martin Droeshout on the front of the First Folio to his portrayal by Joseph Fiennes in the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love. His must surely be a face we might be expected to know well, although you may be surprised to learn that arguments are still ongoing about the authenticity of Shakespeare’s portraits.

William Shakespeare – ‘Chandos portrait’. (After a previous owner, James Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos). The first portrait to be acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in 1856.

The Chandos portrait (above) is, according to the National Portrait Gallery, the only verified portrait of Shakespeare painted from life. The Cobbe Portrait (below) was unveiled in 2009, and it also supposedly depicts the famous bard painted from life. The fierce debate which continues about the authenticity, provenance and likeness of these portraits shows that the image of a writer is not simply a mug shot for a book cover, but a matter of some importance to generations of scholars and readers.

William Shakespeare? – Cobbe portrait, an early Jacobean panel painting. So-called because of its ownership by Archbishop Charles Cobbe (1686-1765)).

The poet Emily Dickinson is also a writer with something of an image issue. The only verified photograph of the reclusive poet is a 1847 daguerreotype showing the poet in her late teens. This was around three years before she even began writing poetry. Her earliest known poem is  ‘Awake ye muses nine, sing me a strain divine, / Unwind the solemn twine, and tie my Valentine!’, dated 4th March 1850 and published in the Springfield Daily Republican in 1852.

Emily Dickinson, Amherst College Archives & Special Collections

A later image from 1859, purportedly showing Dickinson with her friend Kate Scott Turner, has been subjected to scholarly enquiry, computer work, ophthalmological report, and even comparison to 1850s fashion and textiles. It seems probable that it is Dickinson, so some 150 years after the photograph was taken, new eyes are seeing this Dickinson for the first time.

Emily Dickinson and her friend Kate Scott Turner, 1859 (?) – Amherst College Archives & Special Collections.

Writers should be known for their writing before their face or clothing, and for the imagery of their work rather than that captured by a camera lens or painter’s brush. However, author portraits accompany their work through time, they are something else that the writer has left behind, and readers can be forgiven for attempting to interpret their enigmas as fervently as they do the literature in question.

If you want to find out more about William Shakespeare or Emily Dickinson, Great Writers Inspire has free collections which include podcasts, ebooks, articles, and more created and curated by the University of Oxford.

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