We’ve spent a lot of time digging into Shakespeare in the years since we last read Nicholas Nickleby, and this time through the novel we paid a lot more attention to what Dickens said about Hamlet, Othello, and theater in general.
Dickens’s interest in Shakespeare was probably never higher than while he was writing Nickleby. Among other things, it was in 1838 that his close friend, the actor William Charles Macready, put on the first King Lear in two hundred years that actually used nothing but Shakespeare’s original text, with Lear’s fool restored to the play and without the “happy ending” that seventeenth- and eighteen-century directors had substituted for Shakespeare’s. The novel’s episodes involving an ensemble of provincial touring players give us an idea of what was on Dickens’s mind, drama-wise, during this period of his life.
Nickleby let Dickens get in some licks about some of his pet peeves. For instance, there was apparently a lot of nonsense passing for Shakespeare “criticism” in the 1830s, just as there is now. We meet, briefly, Mr. Curdle, who
had written a pamphlet of sixty-four pages, post octavo, on the character of the Nurse’s deceased husband in Romeo and Juliet, with an inquiry whether he really had been a ‘merry man’ in his lifetime, or whether it was merely his widow’s affectionate partiality that induced her so to report him.
One can only wonder what Dickens would have thought of some of the arcane titles of masters and doctoral theses being written today.
And there was apparently also misguided sentiment for Shakespearean actors of bygone days:
“It’s not as if the theatre was in its high and palmy days . . . the drama is gone, perfectly gone. . . . What man is there, now living, who can present before us all those changing and prismatic colours with which the character of Hamlet is invested?” exclaimed Mrs Curdle.
‘What man indeed — upon the stage,” said Mr Curdle, with a small reservation in favour of himself. “Hamlet! Pooh! ridiculous! Hamlet is gone, perfectly gone.”
Dickens and his friends at the Shakespeare Club, which was active during 1838 and 1839, must have passed at least some of their time making fun of drama purists who insisted that plays exhibit Aristotle’s “unities.” We couldn’t help thinking that Mr. Curdle’s notion of “the unities” wasn’t much different, or any more precise, from what devotees of a certain modern-day cult think and say about “diversity”:
“I hope you have preserved the unities, sir?” said Mr Curdle.
“The original piece is a French one,” said Nicholas. “There is abundance of incident, sprightly dialogue, strongly-marked characters—”
“—All unavailing without a strict observance of the unities, sir,” returned Mr Curdle. “The unities of the drama, before everything.”
“Might I ask you,” said Nicholas, hesitating between the respect he ought to assume, and his love of the whimsical, “might I ask you what the unities are?”
Mr Curdle coughed and considered. “The unities, sir,” he said, “are a completeness—a kind of universal dovetailedness with regard to place and time—a sort of a general oneness, if I may be allowed to use so strong an expression. I take those to be the dramatic unities, so far as I have been enabled to bestow attention upon them, and I have read much upon the subject, and thought much. . . . — I don’t know whether I make myself understood?”
“Perfectly,” replied Nicholas.
Dickens’s point, of course, was that great plays like Hamlet and Henry V, not to mention then-new plays like Victor Hugo’s Hernani, paid no regard to the “unities” whatsoever and succeeded because of their “abundance of incident, sprightly dialogue, [and] strongly-marked characters.”
And Dickens clearly had affection for actors who went above and beyond in preparing to play their roles. As his character Vincent Crummles says,
“We had a first-tragedy man in our company once, who, when he played Othello, used to black himself all over. But that’s feeling a part and going into it as if you meant it; it isn’t usual; more’s the pity.”
Dickens presumably would have appreciated modern-day “method” actors like Robert Duvall and the late Marlon Brando who spend months immersing themselves first-hand in the culture of their characters.
We had failed to notice, until we saw it pointed out in this fine essay by Dr. Paul Schlicke, that the principal storyline in The Old Curiosity Shop resembles that of King Lear. We can’t detect any such direct correlation between Nicholas Nickleby and a Shakespeare play. Still, when we read the speech in chapter 61 in which Nicholas tells his sister Kate that the two of them will grow old as bachelor and old maid together (“But rich or poor, or old or young, we shall ever be the same to each other, and in that our comfort lies”), we felt certain we were hearing an echo of Lear’s wonderful speech to Cordelia: “Come, let’s away to prison. We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.”
And Dickens wrapped up this novel the same way that Shakespeare ended several of his plays: with arbitrary weddings for all the deserving characters. Dickens didn’t prepare us for the mating up of Miss La Creevy and old Tim Linkinwater any better than Shakespeare prepared us for the pairing of Paulina and old Camillo at the end of Winter’s Tale (still fresh in our mind from seeing this year’s wonderful production of that play in Stratford, Ontario; see this post).