I knew Charles Dickens loved William Shakespeare, but until I started playing Ebenezer Scrooge in the Goodman Theatre production of A Christmas Carol, I never appreciated the full extent to which Shakespeare haunts Dickens’s beloved holiday classic.
It’s not just Shakespeare’s ghostly characters who hover over Scrooge’s redemptive journey. As Michael Patrick Hearn reveals in The Annotated Christmas Carol, references to many Shakespeare plays pepper Dickens’s novella. Though Dickens explicitly cites the ghost of Hamlet’s father in his fourth paragraph, his famous observation in the first — that “Old Marley was dead as a door-nail” — is an expression Dickens “likely knew,” says Hearn, from the second parts of both Henry IV and Henry VI. In 2 Henry IV, Pistol explains that old king Henry is as dead “as nail in door,” but in 2 Henry VI, rebel Jack Cade uses the full expression in his final moments as a futile threat: “If I do not leave you all as dead as a doornail, I pray god may never eat grass more.” Though the phrase dates to Piers Plowman in 1362, Dickens’s familiarity with it through Shakespeare came from being a lifelong fan of his plays, having seen performances as a child and acting in amateur productions as a young man.
As I’ve argued before, Dickens’s famous Ghosts of Christmas Past and Future were almost certainly inspired by Shakespeare. In Act 5, scene 3 of Richard III, the titular monarch is tormented on the night before the Battle of Bosworth Field by the spirits of eleven different people he’s either killed or had killed; and in Act 4, scene 1 of Macbeth, the three witches show Macbeth a parade of eight Scottish kings-to-come, all descendants of Banquo. Compared to Richard’s Ghosts of Victims Past and Macbeth’s Ghosts of Monarchs Future, Scrooge is visited by a comparatively paltry four spirits, but he heeds their warnings more successfully than either of Shakespeare’s kings.
Dickens learned from Shakespeare not only the narrative power of ghosts, but also how they dress and what they sound like. Just as the ghost of King Hamlet appears in “that fair and warlike form / In which the majesty of buried Denmark / Did sometimes march,” so too does Dickens describe the ghost of Jacob Marley looking “the very same” as he did in life, “in his pig-tail, usual waistcoat, tights, and boots.” Even Dickens’s description of the Ghost of Christmas Past resembles Shakespeare’s description of Cordelia from King Lear. The Ghost’s “voice was soft and gentle,” Dickens writes. “Singularly low.” Similarly, Cordelia’s “voice was ever soft, / Gentle and low,” Lear remembers after her death. Malcolm Andrews, in Dickens and the Grown-up Child (cited by Hearn), argues that the echo between the two descriptions “is quite appropriate” as “Lear’s effort to revive the child he had renounced is analogous to Scrooge’s confrontation with the childhood memories he has long repressed.”
Dickens also learned from Shakespeare a ghost’s schedule and what happens when they materialize. When Jacob Marley’s ghost first appears, Dickens writes that “the dying flame [of Scrooge’s candle] leaped up,” an image he could well have borrowed from Julius Caesar where, when the ghost of Caesar appears in Act 4, scene 3, Brutus exclaims “How ill this taper burns!” And when Marley tells Scrooge that the first ghost will appear “when the bell tolls One,” it’s because he too has read his Shakespeare: “The bell then beating one” is also when King Hamlet’s ghost walks the battlements.
Dickens knew what to borrow from Shakespeare but also what to ignore. He invokes the example of Hamlet’s father being dead to underscore the importance of understanding that Marley is similarly “dead: to begin with” for the story to take hold. But to Marcellus’s observation on the Elsinore battlements that during “that season…wherein our Savior’s birth is celebrated…they say no spirit dare stir abroad” (a legend Shakespeare might well have invented, according to Hearn), Dickens essentially responds, “Really? Watch me.”
It would be nice to report that the most famous phrase in A Christmas Carol — “God bless us, every one” — is also drawn from Shakespeare, but such does not appear to be the case. Are there similarities between Tiny Tim and doomed Mamillius from The Winter’s Tale and young Arthur from King John? Probably not, since both of Shakespeare’s young characters feel tragically real, whereas, as Ethan Warren points out in his definitive analysis of the best film adaptation of A Christmas Carol, Tiny Tim is “perfectly aware that he is more useful as a symbol than a person,” being an impossibly angelic tot who “hope[s] that the people [see] him” as a representation of the man whose birth we “remember upon Christmas Day.”
People were pointing out references to Shakespeare in A Christmas Carol almost as soon as it appeared. When Dickens read his story onstage in 1858, his performance as Scrooge was compared favorably to another famous theatrical moneylender, Edmund Kean’s Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. And Kate Field pointed out in 1871 that “There is something positively and Shakespearianly weird in the laugh and tone of the charwoman,” who with her companions the laundress and undertaker, resemble “unconsciously the three witches of Macbeth.”
Dickens references Shakespeare in his writing more than any other author, and his signature in the guest book at Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-Upon-Avon, which he visited in 1838, can still be seen today. As his character Mrs. Wittiterly explains in Nicholas Nickleby, “After you’ve seen the place and written your name in the little book, somehow or other you seem to be inspired.” There’s a musicality to Dickens’s language, which, while not iambic, is poetic and memorable, and is both pleasant on the tongue and fun to speak.
It’s doubtful that Dickens needed Shakespeare to understand the meanings of “wassail,” both as noun and verb, but in a new song written for this year’s Goodman production, composer Andrew Hansen makes the Shakespeare-Christmas Carol connection even more explicit. “Wassail for all, this merry Christmas Eve,” sing the Fezziwig partygoers, “A winter’s tale for all, this merry Christmas Eve!”
Related blog posts
Have yourself a merry Shakespeare Christmas
It’s that time of year, when some of us have visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads, many are looking forward to (or dreading) gathering with family and friends, and a certain subset of us wonder, somewhat longingly and…
A tale of three playbills: The Lighthouse, The Frozen Deep, and The Merry Wives of Windsor
See playbills from the Folger collection of amateur (and fundraising) performances by Charles Dickens, from Wilkie Collins to Shakespeare.
Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.