Shakespeare and ‘A Christmas Carol’

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photo by Paul Prescott

On Saturday evening nine of us met to read Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol from end to end. We read around a log fire, taking up the narrative voice in turn for as long as we wanted; ‘roles’ were assigned for the moments of direct speech. I was happily type-cast as Fred, Scrooge’s nephew.


Dickens is a great Shakespearian. You could argue that The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust wouldn’t have started without his influence and encouragement. That’s why when you visit the exhibition before going into Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Dickens’s face is one of the ones you pass in our ‘Shakespeare Hall of Fame.’

So, it’s never a surprise to encounter Shakespearian allusions in Dickens’s work. It is as if he is unable to write without mentioning Shakespeare. On Saturday evening, we quickened with holiday humour (or was it Christmas spirit?) each time we came across an allusion.

I’m not going to list all of them (you should see Valerie Gager’s excellent studies on Shakespeare and Dickens for that), but the first occurs close to the beginning. Dickens is re-iterating that ‘Marley was dead, to begin with’ (I love that comma in the opening sentence and the way it emphatically opens the mystery and the magic now unfolding). That Marley was dead ‘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, there 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 middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot – say St Paul’s Churchyard, for instance – literally to astonish his son’s weak mind.’ And so we are plunged into a world of vengeful phantoms, spirits, or goblins damned, where Jacob Marley’s ghost is sure to walk abroad…

When the ghost of King Hamlet appears to his son, Horatio, and Marcellus, the latter declares that ‘something is rotten in the state of Denmark’ (Hamlet 1.4.67). Dickens certainly knew that something was rotten in the City of London with the souls of its citizens jostling cheek by jowl in poverty (like the unhandsome Cratchits) or riches (like Scrooge himself). It takes the season of Christmas, a season which reminds us of the supernatural in the natural to help turn our hearts. As Fred says: it’s ‘the only time in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.’

Hamlet also unlocks the key to the collapsing time-frame of A Christmas Carol. Towards the end, Scrooge cannot understand how the ghost of Marley, and the ghost of Christmas Past, Present, and Future all managed to visit him in one evening. He is surprised and overwhelmed when he wakes up the next morning to discover it’s Christmas Day, and that he can start to live with grace and love and a mutuality of feeling for his fellow human beings. But, if Scrooge had read his Hamlet, he would know (again from Marcellus) that Christmas is the one time of the year when evil spirits don’t walk abroad:

Some say that ever ’gainst that season comes
Wherein our saviour’s birth is celebrated
The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit can walk abroad,
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallowed and so gracious is the time. (Hamlet 1.1.138-145).

The spirits that visit Scrooge are the spirits of the season itself, past, present, and future. They are part of what is ‘so hallowed and gracious’ about Christmas, and they make Scrooge think of himself and the world differently. After we’d finished our reading, we went out into Stratford and sang impromptu carols.

So, to paraphrase Dickens’s preface, may this blog haunt your house pleasantly and, from his ending, ‘as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!’

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson
  • Yvonne Hudson

    Delightful seasonal thoughts and Dickens, too! My literary series, Poets Corner in Pittsburgh, PA, USA, just did two readings of A CHRISTMAS CAROL in the version Dickens himself presented. The text is fresh and clever and stands on its own without theatrics–we can’t wait to do it again! (but not until we’ve had programs around Twelfh Night, Henry VIII, and Shakespeare’s birthday, of course!)

  • Anonymous

    I bow to greater knowledge/nerdiness/memory of the dear dr’s exploits. :-))

  • Duncan

    The other connection between Dickens and Shakespeare is that Simon Callow has played both in one-man shows.

  • Ruth

    The Ninth Doctor loved Dickens’ ghost stories (see “The Unquiet Dead”).

  • Ruth

    What a delightful post – I was there with you in spirit and I would have thoroughly enjoyed myself in your company, I’m sure. It certainly makes sense that, obsessed with the theatre as he was, Dickens would know his Shakespeare. Maybe someone clever will write a dialogue between the two great men someday!

  • Ty Unglebower

    I am happy to see that it is not just me, a simple actor, who notes the connection between the two geniuses, but also the experts among as as well!

    I always thought Dickens as a sort of more “modern” (comparatively speaking of course) example of Shakespeare.

  • Anonymous

    Dear sir, On the timebending attributes of ghosts in Shakespeare and Dickens, surely as evryskoolkiddonoe, it’s all down to the Tardis;David Tennant and Patrick Stewart, (Hamlet ,2009 & Scrooge, 2008) are well known travellers in time and space and I believe the 11th Doctor will himself be Christmas hopping in a few days time..Praps our modern Doctor is another who opens up their shut-up hearts freely…
    (would have loved to be a webcam on your readings wall….)

  • C. LaPrade

    What a lovely blog. I quite enjoy sharing ghost stories around the holiday season. Sadly, though, this tradition seems to be slowly disappearing, at least here in Canada at any rate.

    Dickens, however, was clearly alert to it, and Shakespeare as well, albeit through the broader genre of winter tales. In fact, Hamlet’s opening scene established what is now a common formula for the telling of ghost stories. Three comrades gather ’round to hear what is essentially a ghost story related by Horatio, and, just at the moment when their storyteller begins to speak of the apparition, their group is thrown into a flury when ghostly Old Hamlet actually appears before them.

    So, to quote a familiar carol, here’s to “scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Chistmases long, long ago.”

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