Charles Dickens had his doubts who Shakespeare really was. The date was June 13, 1847. He wrote his friend, Mr. William Sandys, concerning as much:
“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.”
Why would Dickens tremble “lest something should come out?” And what might that ‘something’ be?
Shakespeare had a profound influence on Charles Dickens who viewed him as “the great master who knew everything.” He was a member of the Shakespeare Club and hobnobbed with leading Shakespearean actors, scholars and critics. William Charles Macready, the famous tragic actor, was one of his closest friends.
In 1848 Dickens was active in purchasing Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon before PT Barnum bought Shakespeare’s house and turned it into a circus sideshow, “a truly heart-stirring relic of England’s immortal bard.”
Dickens was also deeply horrified by the effects of the Industrial Revolution on the poor and most particularly the children. He thought about writing a series of pamphlets and essays corning the topic but felt a soulful Christmas narrative would reach the broadest segment of the population versus a strictly pedantic approach. Like the writer Washington Irving, he felt the staging of a nostalgic English Christmas would capture the sense of a social harmony that had been lost in the modern world. A world he saw as increasingly cruel and intemperate.
Perhaps because Dickens grew up poor and knew the trials and tribulations of the underclass he would understand Shakespeare to be a champion of the underdog. After all, Shakespeare could write for the groundlings as well as the nobility.
Perhaps the above insights concerning Dickens gives us enough understanding into his character as to who he thought was Shakespeare. Perhaps he left some clues, as Shakespeare did, in his writings.
A Christmas Carol is composed of five parts or ‘staves’ as Dickens called them, reflecting a Vitruvian star shape, symbolic of perfection and harmony, or a musical composition–on which a complete tale of the redemption of a man will be written.
Indeed, we get a clue as soon as the tale begins. The name Marley is a dead give away. Christopher Marlowe was sometimes called Marley. And Marley is dead, and has been dead for seven years. The seven years is a constant refrain through the play. What is the significance of of the number seven? Christopher Marlowe wrote seven plays.
Dickens seems eager to embed the related ideas of Shakespeare, Hamlet and Saint Paul’s Churchyard in his reader’s imagination early on in the composition:
There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, they would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other dark in a breezy spot – say Saint Paul’s Churchyard for instance – literally to astonish his son’s weak mind.¹
These lines are pregnant with visual significance if you know anything about Christopher Marlowe and his alleged death. The printer Thomas Thorpe, best known for his dedication of Shakespeare’s sonnets to Mr. W.H., also had praised Marlowe, calling him “that pure Elemental wit…whose ghost or Genius is to be seen walking the St Paul’s Churchyard in at least three or four sheets.” An obvious double entendre with the word sheets, as sheets could be used to disguise who he was, or sheets of paper, as broad sheets of verse or prose. Saint Paul’s Churchyard was also a market and book venue, many a writer could be seen haunting the yard, especially someone like Christopher Marlowe.
The main body of A Christmas Carol is comprised of the warnings of spirits who come to foretell the future after showing Ebenezer Scrooge, the money counter, his present and past. Ebenezer is increasingly unnerved by the spirits’ visions — perhaps after seeing what he has become after his past is played before him and his life is then drawn into a dreary future of unhappiness and death. He has no one, and no one cares he is dead.
We are reminded of The Merchant of Venice and Shylock’s utterances concerning a pound of flesh. Indeed, this is precisely what Ebenezer Scrooge is becoming, nothing but a dealer of human misery, and counting his pence regarding. But because of these spiritual visions, Ebenezer is redeemed.
He is redeemed by a child. Perhaps the character of Tiny Tim is set to resemble the Christ Child. The ultimate satisfaction and saving grace come from the Christmas proclamation of this child, Tiny Tim, who exclaims, “God bless us, every one!”²
Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. Chapman and Hall, 1843. Kindle Edition. p. 7-8, 105.