What did Charles Dickens Think about the Shakespeare Authorship Question?

Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

What did Charles Dickens think about the Shakespeare Authorship Question?  Well, on 13 June 1847 he wrote to Mr. William Sandys, who is best remembered for his publication Christmas Carols Ancient and ModernIt is a great comfort, to my thinking, that so little is known concerning the poet.  It is a fine mystery; and I tremble every day lest something should come out.”

Dickens imagined (seriously, but in a humorous vein) what would have happened if someone had trailed around after Shakespeare, taking notes, the way the eighteenth-century biographer James Boswell kept a diary of his time spent with English literary figure Samuel Johnson.

A Phrenology map

People would have opened Shakespeare’s grave, Dickens wrote, and his skull would have been exhibited by practitioners of phrenology – an analytical method based on the belief that configurations of the skull indicate certain mental faculties and character traits.

What if a Boswell of the Elizabethan age had kept a diary of time spent with William Shakspere of Stratford upon Avon?  And what if another Boswell had trailed around after Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford?  For one thing, we would not have any Shakespeare authorship question!

The letter:

Charles Dickens to Mr. William Sandys
1, Devonshire Terrace, June 13th, 1847.

Dear Sir,

Many thanks for your kind note. I shall hope to see you when we return to town, from which we shall now be absent (with a short interval in next month) until October. Your account of the Cornishmen gave me great pleasure; and if I were not sunk in engagements so far, that the crown of my head is invisible to my nearest friends, I should have asked you to make me known to them. The new dialogue I will ask you by-and-by to let me see. I have, for the present, abandoned the idea of sinking a shaft in Cornwall.

I have sent your Shakesperian extracts to Collier.* It is a great comfort, to my thinking, that so little is known concerning the poet. It is a fine mystery; and I tremble every day lest something should come out. If he had had a Boswell, society wouldn’t have respected his grave, but would calmly have had his skull in the phrenological shop-windows.

Believe me,
Faithfully yours.

  • John Payne Collier (1789-1883), the English Shakespearean critic who was also found to have committed a great amount of forgeries.

What Winston Churchill Said About Questioning the Shakespeare Authorship

A favorite story among Oxfordians, which may or may not be apocryphal, is about what Sir Winston Churchill is said to have replied when it was suggested by someone – perhaps at the table during one of those talk-filled dinner parties, at which Churchill loved to hold forth – that he take a look at the 1920 book “Shakespeare” Identified in Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford by John Thomas Looney.  Churchill shook his head and retorted:  “I don’t like to have my myths tampered with!”

Sounds familiar!  Churchill was well aware of Shakespeare’s importance as a symbol of English national pride.  In A History of the English-Speaking Peoples he concludes his chapter on the Spanish armada with the stirring final words of the Bastard in King John:

Come the three corners of the world in arms,

And we shall shock them.  Nought shall make us rue

If England to itself do rest but true.

The photo of Churchill reprinted here was taken by Yousuf Karsh of Canada, whom I interviewed for PARADE magazine in 1978, when the great photographer was seventy.  Here’s a summary of what Karsh told me about how he had created this world-famous portrait, which became a symbol of Britain’s fighting spirit:

It was December 30, 1941, when an embattled Churchill gave a rousing speech to the Canadian Parliament and, afterward, marched into an anteroom where Karsh, then thirty-three, was waiting to take his picture.  The British prime minister glared at the camera.

“You may take one,” he growled, clamping a freshly lit cigar in the corner of his mouth.

“Sir, here is an ashtray,” the young photographer said.

Churchill dismissed the offer with a frown.  Moments passed.  Then suddenly Karsh snatched the cigar from the Great Man’s lips.  Scowling, Churchill thrust his head forward in anger and placed his hand on his hip as if in defiance.  At that moment, the photographer clicked his shutter.

The portrait was published on the cover of LIFE magazine and won Karsh international attention.   The real story is that this marvelous symbol of Britain’s fighting spirit, staring down his enemies, was actually the picture of a man who was angry at the theft of his cigar!

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