First Faculty Advisor
First Faculty Reader
Shakespeare's birthplace, P. T. Barnum, Charles Dickens, humbug
In the twenty-first century age of globalization, debates over global versus national ownership of cultural heritage remain at the forefront of public consciousness. The cultural ownership of William Shakespeare, who is idealized as both a distinctly British icon and a global literary influence, has become contested ground; but, in fact, as I argue, this tension first boiled to the surface in 1847. In the spring of that year, newspapers advertised that Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon would soon go up for public auction. Rumors immediately began circulating that the American showman P. T. Barnum, who had recently barnstormed through England with the “Greatest Show on Earth,” was intent on purchasing it for his menagerie of cultural oddities. In opposition to this foreign threat, a full-blown rescue campaign driven by British media fear-mongering was launched in order to save Shakespeare’s home for the nation. Soon, these efforts drew in Britain’s own premier showman of the 1840s, Charles Dickens. This episode and its subsequent mythologization, bringing Barnum and Dickens together in what I will term a “celebrity showdown,” serves as an important flashpoint for several strands of early Victorian discourse, including heritage tourism, print media and ephemera, and transatlantic celebrity culture. Drawing upon a wealth of archival material from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the British Library, and other collections, I argue that the events surrounding the 1847 public auction of Shakespeare’s birthplace illustrate how a rapidly developing culture of print media spurred to life Victorian consciousness of cultural heritage and new forms of cultural memory.
BYU ScholarsArchive Citation
Clayton, Abigail, "Who Owns the Bard?: P. T. Barnum, Charles Dickens, and the Shakespeare Birthplace Showdown of 1847" (2020). Undergraduate Honors Theses. 106.