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 Charles Dickens Wrote About James VI of Scotland – James I of England

Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

Here is just some of what Charles Dickens wrote in A Child’s History of England (1851-53) about James VI of Scotland, who became King James the First of England upon the death of Queen Elizabeth on March 24, 1603:

“’Our cousin of Scotland’ was ugly, awkward, and shuffling both in mind and person. His tongue was much too large for his mouth, his legs were much too weak for his body, and his dull goggle-eyes stared and rolled like an idiot’s.  He was cunning, covetous, wasteful, idle, drunken, greedy, dirty, cowardly, a great swearer, and the most conceited man on earth.

“His figure – what is commonly called rickety from birth – presented a most ridiculous appearance, dressed in thick padded clothes, as a safeguard against being stabbed (of which he lived in continual fear), of a grass-green color from head to foot, with a hunting-horn dangling at his side instead of a sword, and his hat and feather sticking over one eye, or hanging on the back of his head, as he happened to toss it on.

King James (1566-1625)

“He used to loll on the necks of his favorite courtiers, and slobber their faces, and kiss and pinch their cheeks; and the greatest favorite he ever had [Buckingham] used to sign himself in his letters to his royal master, His Majesty’s ‘dog and slave,’ and used to address his majesty as ‘his Sowship.’

“His majesty was the worst rider ever seen, and thought himself the best.  He was one of the most impertinent talkers (in the broadest Scotch) ever heard, and boasted of being unanswerable in all manner of argument.  He wrote some of the most wearisome treatises ever read – among others, a book upon witchcraft, in which he was a devout believer – and thought himself a prodigy of authorship.

King James

“He thought, and wrote, and said, that a king had a right to make and unmake what laws he pleased, and ought to be accountable to nobody on earth.

“This is the plain true character of the personage whom the greatest men about the Court praised and flattered to that degree, that I doubt if there be anything much more shameful in the annals of human nature.”

Well, you might say that Dickens had a less-than-favorable opinion of this monarch, whose occupation of the English throne was engineered by Secretary Robert Cecil during the final two years of Elizabeth’s reign (when Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton was imprisoned in the Tower of London).

Dickens concluded his history of the reign of King James (1603-1625) by writing:

“I know of nothing more abominable in history than the adulation that was lavished on this King and the vice and corruption that such a barefaced habit of lying produced in his Court … a creature like his Sowship set upon a throne is like the Plague, and everybody receives infection from him.”

The Relevance of the Shakespeare Authorship Question — Viewed in Relation to Biographies of Dickens: “There were two people in him, he told me…”

What’s the need for knowing more about the author of the Shakespeare works?

Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

Well, in today’s issue of the New York Times Book Review (November 6, 2011), there’s a critical survey of two new biographies of Charles Dickens, who has been called the most central and yet the most eccentric literary figure of his age; and the reviewer, David Gates, quotes from a letter by Fyodor Dostovyevsky written some years after meeting Dickens in 1862:

“He told me that all the good, simple people in his novels … are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity towards those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love …

A picture of Dickens at age 18

“There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite.  ‘From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel, I try to live my life.’”

As Gates observes, this confession by Dickens is amazing, but only “because it’s the image-conscious Dickens himself coming out and saying what anybody familiar with his work and his life has always intuited.”

Charles Dickens - a complicated man

Reading certain works such as Hamlet, King LearOthello and the Sonnets, we have intuited some of the author’s inner conflicts (realizing it or not); and while it’s difficult, nay, impossible to learn any of the causes from what’s known about Will of Stratford’s life, there’s plenty in the life of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford to help explain – and better understand – the writings of Shakespeare.

Edwin Forrest (1806-1872) as King Lear

This is just one more example, among uncounted others, of why we keep hungering for biographies of authors – in this case, Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin (Penguin) and Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist by Robert Doughlas-Fairhurst.

The first biography of Dickens appeared two years after he died in 1872, at 58, “and its successors keep coming,” Gates writes, adding, “The Dickens biographies published just in the past 25 years make an impressive stack.  Given his uncanny genius and the vivid complexity of his life, that’s not a complaint.”

Right.  And one day, I predict, we’ll be saying the same thing about biographies of Edward de Vere.

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