Charles Dickens is noted as being a doubter of Shakespeare. And although it is thought that he did not believe in the traditional Shakespeare authorship claim it is not clear who he thought Shakespeare was. He is often quoted as saying: “It is a great comfort, to my way of thinking, that so little is known concerning the poet. The life of Shakespeare is a fine mystery and I tremble every day lest something turn up.”
— Complete Writings 37:206
Could Dickens have been referring to something else entirely in that statement? Let us take a brief glimpse back in time.
Charles Dickens was very instrumental in setting up the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon. Apparently he and his colleagues were actively involved in raising the 3000 pounds needed to purchase Shakespeare’s house. He was in stiff competition with P.T. Barnum, who wanted to ship the house back to the US brick-by-brick. Because Dickens was in the process of cementing the Shakespeare myth, along with some of his notorious friends such as J.P. Collier, the prolific Shakespeare document forger, he was truly comforted that so little was known about the poet. He really didn’t want anything to turn up lest it ruin everything he was working for.
Dickens himself was a British icon, part of the national mythology. He lived in a time that was turbulent and troublesome for the empire. While Britain was at the peak of its power in the reign of Queen Victoria, where ‘the sun never sat on the British empire,’ there were some worrisome shadows on the horizon. Britain had lost its American colonies due to a successful revolution against British tyranny, and the French had forged their own successful revolution against an oppressive monarchy. These troublesome foreign revolts caused much unrest in a country that also had such a huge disparity between rich and poor. And perhaps because Dickens grew up poor he so firmly believed that the national identity of Britain must be cemented by historic literary personages. National pride in a country’s strong literary past is certainly a unifying force. The newly formed America had its Washington Irving and Longfellow, and the French had a long list of literary luminates: Montaigne, Voltaire, and Hugo to name a few.
Dickens felt he could reverse this troubling British backwater literary trend by purchasing the Trust. He not only laid the foundations of the Shakespeare mythology by throwing the weight of his name behind the institution, he also helped create the birthplace of the Shakespeare Industry – a convenient pilgrimage point to visit the origins of the divine William.