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.

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Yes, If I had been there, the SAQ would be settled.

    • I know! I told my wife, “Dickens didn’t know which Boswell to put on the case. If E.B., not J.B., had been there, why, this whole mix-up never would’ve happened!” Oh, well. Thanks for being on the case, anyway!


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