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Did Shakespeare, in any fashion, influence the great novelist Dickens? That is the question that I have set to find out. I assumed so, but I really wanted to find the pure truth about these great novelists, perhaps the best people ever to have perfected this art form. I looked for specific reasons and certain examples about these two men.
William Shakespeare is a genius of his art form, of that there is no question. His contributions and influence upon all literary movements to this day are innumerable. He advanced the status of playwriting in a time where actors and the theatre were not highly regarded (Martin, 105). Shakespeare wrote thirty-six plays, 154 sonnets and two narrative poems in his lifetime. A few of these acclaimed works are: The Comedy of Errors, Romeo and Juliet, Richard III, Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear. Shakespeare is considered to have the gift of being able to create complex psychological identities in his characters, and setting the standard in this area for all the writers to come. How Shakespeare came into his fame after his death is a great story. To the neo-classicists (people that believe that art is governed by rules set by Greco-Roman standards) in the 18th century, his works were regarded as a virtue for their ‘artlessness’ (Martin, 30). During the Victorian Age, there was a resurgence of patriotism, and that patriotism led the English to claim him as a vital part of their national heritage (Martin, 45). During this time period, Samuel Johnson, a popular critic, helped the resurgence of Shakespeare’s good reputation (Martin, 134). In the early twentieth century, the plays captured on film and on television encouraged the growth and the spread of his works. A.C. Bradley and E. Tillyard’s approach to Shakespeare’s literature became the basis of the teaching of Shakespeare. To this day, it seems as though no other author is more widely read, nor quite as respected. To almost everyone, his works are considered to be the best out of all other authors. The status of literature today would not be the same had it not been for the man named William Shakespeare.
Shakespeare had a huge impact upon the world of literature, so it is no surprise to find that Dickens indeed studied him as a boy (Kaplan, 185). To say that Dickens merely studied Shakespeare would be an injustice. He devoured all of Shakespeare’s work! He carried with him, at all times, a pocket Shakespeare (Kaplan, 185). He was Dickens’ favorite author as a young boy, and also one of the favorites of his maturity. He especially loved Macbeth and Richard III (Kaplan, 65). Dickens says of Richard III, “[Richard] made my heart leap with terror!” (Stone, 10). The following quote from Shakespeare’s Richard III, will give you an idea of what a villainous character Richard III is. He is referred to in this passage, from Act I, Scene I, as the “sun of York”.
“Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York
And all the clouds that loured upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.”
Shakespeare’s influence carried over into Dickens’ personal life as well. As a child, he lived near the town of Kent for some time. A home in this town resembled Gad’s Hill Place, the hill associated with Falstaff’s adventures in Henry IV (Kaplan, 185). In March of 1856 he bought this ‘Gad’s Hill Place’ and returned to his childhood home as a country gentleman, as Shakespeare did long ago (Kaplan, 185). Dickens says about this purchase, ” I used to look at it as a wonderful mansion (which God knows it is not) when I was a very odd little child with the first shadows of all of my books in my head” (Kaplan, 185). Still today, a monument of Shakespeare looks down upon Dickens’ grave, in Poet’s Corner (Kaplan, 187).
Shakespearean productions in the theatre and Dickens’ own flair for the theatre, was a big influence on Dickens. Shakespeare was quite a thespian, himself. He was an actor in the group Chamberlain’s men. As a very young child, Dickens acted in, wrote, and produced many plays, all at the same time (Kaplan, 105). He simply could not stay away from the theatre. In his later years, he built a miniature theatre, where he produced Shakespeare’s works. On April 23, 1833, Dickens performed plays in honor of Shakespeare’s birthday. As well as being the director, he played starring roles (Kaplan, 105). Dickens belonged to Shakespeare House, which was a collaboration of English authors, actors and playwrights created to keep Shakespeare’s influence in the theatre and plays alive. Several men: Dickens, Collier (an important Shakespeare editor), and Knight, (a prominent Shakespeare biographer), Forster, and Talfour, attempted to restore high artistic quality to the English theatres (Kaplan, 107). At this time, pantomime was a big pastime, and these men wanted a return to the old ways, where predominately Shakespearean plays were produced.
As you can see, there was a massive influence on Dickens by Shakespeare, from Shakespeare’s own works, and from the theatre which Dickens and Shakespeare so dearly loved. These influences are easily visible in Dickens’ work.
Dickens’ characters are parallel to those found in Shakespeare’s works at times. As you read more of both authors, you find that the similarity between characters is innumerable. For example, Madame Defarge and Lady Macbeth are very alike in some respects (Bloom, 105). They are both childless, and their dialogue with their husbands is very similar. Barnaby in Barnaby Rudge and all of Shakespeare’s fools are also similar in that their stupidity is always a disguise for underlying wit (Stone, 25). In A Christmas Carol, Dickens likens Jacob Marley to Hamlet’s father, as they are both doomed to walk at night, wandering about restlessly (Stone, 25).
The two authors’ tone and style of writing are clearly similar also. Dickens writes with a “mythopoeic” style, as well as Shakespeare, only Dickens uses more realistic forms (Davis, 301). A mythopoeic style is defined as being a style that combines the elements of myth and poetry, as one can discern from the name. Shakespeare was also a poet, and he is known for making blank verse a flexible and subtle writing device. In Barnaby Rudge, Dickens uses a meter very similar to blank verse (Internet, 1). As mentioned before, Macbeth and Richard III were favorites of Dickens, so it is not a shock to find the same elements of tone in these plays in the plots of Dickens books, where murder and extreme violence contribute to the plot (Davis, 301). In the masterpiece David Copperfield, Dickens alludes to Macbeth often (Stone, 26). Also in David Copperfield, death creates some interesting, unique omens, just like in Macbeth (Stone, 27). These two Englishmen also portray crowds in the same manner, for example, the French aristocracy (and the revolutionaries) in Tale of Two Cities, and the Montague and Capulet families in Romeo and Juliet (Bloom, 105). The groups are portrayed as the root of the evil that influences the plot, and ends in death for the heroes of the story, Carton and the pair of “star-crossed lovers”. Dickens and Shakespeare both manipulate the use of foreshadowing in all of their works. Practically no big event happens without some hint to the outcome that occurred earlier in the piece. They both seem to favor their darker characters more, as they see reflections of their own persona in these people. One example of this is Quilp in Old Curiosity Shop (Stone, 30). Yet another similarity is that Shakespeare and Dickens are great dramatic projectors (Bloom, 95). They can instill drama in any scene. A quote from the prestigious author/editor, Harold Bloom, supports this, and also summarizes the impact of Shakespeare’s works upon Dickens: ” A superb stage performer, he [Dickens] never stops performing in his novels, which is not the least of his many Shakespearean characteristics” (Bloom, 130).
The similarities between these two remarkable authors are truly abundant. Shakespeare’s influence on Dickens was massive, and it shows us how important it is for us to learn all about these great authors and take what we can from their works. If we truly like what we see, we might be able to attempt to incorporate it into our own personal writing style, just as Dickens did. It is not to say, however, that Dickens is just merely a Shakespearean follower, with no discernable style or uniqueness of his own. Dickens allowed himself to follow Shakespeare’s work and example and borrow Shakespeare’s ideas, but he still allowed himself to have his own style, and this style is purely his own.
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