A discussion between Dr Charlotte Mathieson and Professor Stanley Wells, chaired by the Rev. Dr Paul Edmondson
Published April 2012
2012 was a year of celebration for the author Charles Dickens, whose 200th birthday fell in February of that year. To mark the occasion, the Rev. Dr Paul Edmondson and Professor Stanley Wells of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and Dr Charlotte Mathieson, Dickens scholar in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick, filmed a short documentary about Shakespeare’s influence on Dickens, exploring a very special connection between Dickens and Shakespeare’s birthplace.
Dickens’s lifelong enjoyment of Shakespeare’s works began in his early years, viewing productions of the plays in the London theatres and later putting on amateur dramatics with his friends. But it was in 1838 that this interest took an important turn when, on a trip to the region, Dickens travelled to Stratford-upon-Avon and visited the house in which Shakespeare was born. In his letters, Dickens writes of how the group “sat down in the room where Shakespeare was born, and left our autographs and read those of other people and so forth”; the visitors’ book with Dickens’s signature still remains in the Birthplace today. In his next work, Nicholas Nickleby (1838-9), Dickens drew on the visit to humorous effect, expressing the strength of feeling experienced by visitors to Shakespeare’s birthplace: the character Mrs Wititterly states, “I don’t know how it is, but after you’ve seen the place and written your name in the little book, somehow or other you seem to be inspired; it kindles up quite a fire within one.”
While this is the only mention of the birthplace in Dickens’s works, Dr Mathieson explained that the influence of Shakespeare is evident throughout much of Dickens’s writing: there are many direct quotations and references to Shakespeare, as well as more subtle thematic resonances such as father-daughter relationships which resonate with Shakespeare’s King Lear.
The influence of Shakespeare as dramatist is also apparent throughout Dickens’s fiction and journalism; as Professor Wells detailed, Dickens was very involved in Victorian theatrical life and friends with many actors of the day, including Charles Macready, and Dickens would have seen many of Shakespeare’s plays in performance. This inspired a particularly memorable description of a performance of Hamlet in Great Expectations (1860-1), a comically bad production which has the rowdy audience cheering and shouting throughout – no doubt inspired by Dickens’s own visits to some of the more lively playhouses of the day.
Professor Wells also suggested that “Dickens himself was a sort of Shakespearean character: he had that sort of flamboyance, he loved performing”. This is evident in his later years, when Dickens toured around the country giving performed readings from his works. Although physically exhausted by these performances, Dickens evidently took great enjoyment from the opportunity to perform and interact with his audiences.
Dickens also enjoyed directing and producing theatricals himself, and performances of Shakespeare came to play a crucial role in the history of the Shakespeare birthplace. In 1847 the birthplace was put up for sale, and very nearly purchased by an American entrepreneur. The London and Stratford Shakespeare Committees, with which Dickens was involved, raised the money for the purchase and succeeded in securing the house as a national memorial. Following this, Dickens put on productions of The Merry Wives of Windsor and Ben Jonson’s Every Man in his Humour in order to raise money for a curatorship of the birthplace. The playbills for these performances remain in the collection at the birthplace collections.
In 1864 the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth was celebrated in Stratford-upon-Avon and some attempts were made to fund a memorial to Shakespeare; but Dickens was more ambivalent about this project – he had already helped to save the most important Shakespeare memorial site. Thanks to the work of Dickens and his contemporaries, the Shakespeare Birthplace remains as one of Britain’s most important pieces of literary heritage and in this bicentenary year gives us another reason to celebrate the life and works of Charles Dickens.
Charlotte Mathieson is an Associate Fellow in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick. Her PhD research looked at 19th-century representations of travel in the novel.
Stanley Wells is one of the world's foremost Shakespearians. He is a Life Trustee and Former Chairman of The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (1991-2011), and now holds the title of Honorary President. He is also Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of Birmingham, and Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, of which he was for many years Vice-Chairman. He holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Warwick.
Paul Edmondson is Head of Knowledge and Research at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. He is also Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival, a trustee of The Rose Theatre Trust, co-series editor for Palgrave Macmillan's Shakespeare Handbooks, and co-supervisory editor of the Penguin Shakespeare. He has published widely on Shakespeare and was ordained a priest in The Church of England in 2011.