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.

And Now a Word from Our Forger….

One of the great stories in the Shakespeare world is that of John Payne Collier, who in 1850 was among the foremost scholars of his generation:  a man of prodigious learning, the preeminent editor of the Bard, the author of more than forty books of critical commentary and literary history.  A decade later, however, he was the object of universal contempt and scorn – accused of outrageous crimes of forgery and theft, and one of the most despised men in England.  Despite attempts to exonerate Collier, the consensus of scholarly opinion has remained convinced of his guilt.

John Payne Collier (1789-1883)

On my shelf is an 1844 edition of Collier’s seven volumes entitled The Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare with A Life of the Poet, and Notes, Original and Selected, published in 1836, and if you read just the opening sentences of his “Life” of Shakespeare it becomes immediately clear, in my view, why he began to invent stuff – especially given the lines below that I have emphasized by italics:

“Little more than two centuries has elapsed since William Shakespeare conversed with our tongue, and trod the self-same soil with ourselves; and if it were not for the records kept by our Church in its registers of births, marriages, and burials, we should at this moment be as personally ignorant of the ‘sweet swan of Avon’ as we are of the old minstrel and rhapsodist of Meles.   That William Shakespeare was born in Stratford upon Avon; that he married and had three children; that he wrote a certain number of dramas; that he died before he had attained to old age, and was buried in his native town, — are positively the only facts, in the personal history of this extraordinary man, of which we are certainly possessed; and if we should be solicitous to fill up this bare and most unsatisfactory outline, we must have recourse to the vague reports of unsubstantial tradition, or to the still more shadowy inferences of lawless and vagabond conjecture.”

After Collier had spent so many hours digging for Shakespeare’s life as a writer and theater man and without finding anything at all, without question he was tempted to “fill up this bare and most unsatisfactory outline” of the man – as if he had a suit of clothes without a body inside it!  And given the extent to which this fabrication eventually grew … given the extent of the illusion that he and others created … it’s no wonder that we’ve had so much trouble trying to recognize the true Shakespeare!

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