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Shakespeare and Dickens: Soul Brothers

English Literature has two inescapably giant figures: William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. We know much about one and almost nothing of the other. This didn’t bother Dickens who found it a ‘great comfort’ that so little was known of Shakespeare’s life, stating ‘I tremble every day lest something should turn up.’ Given the scandal surrounding his divorce, he may also have wished that more of his own life had been left a ‘fine mystery’.

Although so little is known about Shakespeare, what we do no suggests innumerable similarities and echoes between his life and Dickens’. Of these many are superficial, such as the fact that both had fathers named John; both were born outside London but made their fortunes there, both through writing and acting; both died in their fifties, both returning to die in the places they grew up.

They passed most of their lives in the reigns of long-lived female monarchs – periods which each saw a huge expansion of overseas trade, growth of empire and social change. Much of their work reflected the turbulent and uncertain times in which they lived and both worked in what were then comparatively new art forms which they helped master and define.

Other parallels between the two men are more significant, both coming from similar social backgrounds. Although less is known of Shakespeare’s circumstances, it seems likely that both he and Dickens grew up in comfortable but far from affluent homes. One father was a successful glove maker, the other a clerk in the naval office. Both sons received a grammar school education, but in each case the boys were in early adolescence when their fathers suffered financial and social catastrophe.

It’s not entirely clear what happened to John Shakespeare, but it’s evident that he suffered a business reverse and lost his position as alderman, while John Dickens went bankrupt and was thrown into debtors’ prison. Charles was sent to work in a boot blacking factory, an experience that haunted him for the rest of his life. It’s uncertain what happened to William, but it’s hard to believe the collapse of a secure home and public disgrace for the family didn’t also leave its mark.

Having observed how vulnerable people of slender means might be, it is not perhaps surprising that both men should have had a tough commercial attitude to their work. They wrote to make money and both were prolific, producing a constant supply of high quality writing at incredible speed, both, incidentally, delighting in metaphor.

Both men were also great collaborators. Shakespeare is known to have added lines to the work of other dramatists and collaborated with others on his own (including the unsavoury George Wilkins) while Dickens worked intimately with a succession of illustrators. More than anything, both men were great crowd pleasers and equally brilliant comic authors.

If both created wonderful comic characters, other parallels are harder to sustain. For while Shakespeare wrote consistently strong and significant parts for women, most of Dickens’ female characters are insipid, sentimental creations (unless also partly comic likely the incomparable Betsy Trotwood, or part-grotesque like Miss Haversham or comic-grotesque like Sarah Gamp). And while Shakespeare’s greatest work is arguably found in his tragedies, Dickens tended to deal in melodrama, rarely seeming to hit an authentic tragic note.

There is inevitably another large difference between the two authors; for while Shakespeare could have known nothing of the later writer, Dickens revered the bard. We know he had first wished to become an actor, spent his last years performing rather than writing, loved amateur theatricals, acted in at least one of Shakespeare’s plays (The Merry Wives of Windsor) and referenced him many times in his work. He also helped raise funds to acquire Shakespeare’s birthplace and establish the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust – for which he has been honoured with a place in the Trust’s ‘Shakespeare Hall of Fame’.

Shakespeare and Dickens both married young. Dickens divorced his wife after she had borne him ten children and grown plump and unexciting in the process. We have no idea about the state of Shakespeare’s marriage. The fact that he bequeathed Anne his second best bed has been advanced as evidence that he was emotionally estranged from her and wished her a posthumous humiliation. It has also been suggested that it was the second best bed they shared together (the best being reserved for honoured guests) and that the gesture was tender and romantic.

We have equally little idea about Shakespeare the man. Dickens was known to be hugely convivial, forever raising toasts and slapping backs. I suspect Shakespeare to have been as amiable, if less raucous. He must have been a loyal and sociable man to have spent so many years in a tight-knit company of actors.

He also appears much loved. In a prefatory poem to the First Folio of Shakespeare’s work and dedicated ‘To the Memory of my Beloved Master William Shakespeare’ Ben Jonson wrote of him as, ‘Soul of the Age…the wonder of our stage’ as well as describing him as ‘gentle Shakespeare’, the ‘Sweet Swan of Avon’ and ‘Star of Poets’.

This may all sound like conventional eulogizing, but in TimberJonson also wrote of Shakespeare, ‘He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature.’ If nothing else, the adjectives he uses, ‘beloved’, ‘gentle’, sweet’, ‘honest’, ‘open’ and ‘free’ are at least consistent.

Shakespeare and Jonson would have known one another as Shakespeare’s company produced several of Jonson’s plays and Shakespeare certainly acted in at least one of them (Every Man in his Humour). It’s also said they drank together at the Mermaid Tavern.

Had Dickens been able to join him there in place of Jonson, I have no doubt they would have got on famously; supping ale, swapping jokes, talking books, exchanging plots and drinking more ale – all before linking arms and disappearing drunkenly into the darkness of a muddy London street.


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