What Martin Chuzzlewit owed to Measure for Measure

Now we’re finding the footprints of Shakespeare everywhere. Several months ago (see this post), we mentioned something that various scholars have observed: the main plot of The Old Curiosity Shop follows that of King Lear. In Lear, of course, the old king rashly gives up everything to his unworthy elder daughters, then finds himself a homeless wanderer and a fugitive, stripped of his reason. He’s restored to peace and sanity by a reunion with his youngest daughter Cordelia before first she, then he, dies.

Charles Dickens

Something a lot like that happens in The Old Curiosity Shop. Little Nell’s grandfather foolishly fritters away everything in gambling dens and lapses into senility, then becomes a wandering fugitive, protected by Little Nell. In a small Shropshire village, the old man finds peace and follows Little Nell to the grave.

We hesitate to think we’re the first to notice that the main storyline in one of Dickens’s less popular novels, Martin Chuzzlewit, is even more closely related to a Shakespeare play. And by no means have we surveyed the vast field of Dickens criticism. But we haven’t seen the relationship between Chuzzlewit and Measure for Measure noted anywhere else.

In Measure for Measure, the Duke of Vienna, blaming himself for letting morals decline during his lenient rule, and also quietly outraged by the hypocrisy of one of his chief deputies, concocts an elaborate plan for putting things right. He starts by announcing that the deputy, Angelo, will take over his job (absolute ruler of Vienna) while he’s gone on a long trip. Everyone else thinks Angelo is a paragon of virtue, but the Duke knows better; he’s disgusted with Angelo for jilting a young woman and meanly casting aspersions on her character — all because a dowry he had expected from her family had been lost.

Angelo and Isabella

The Duke arranges to stay around town in disguise. Sitting in the Duke’s chair, the self-righteous Angelo takes a hard line against fornication and sentences young Claudio to death for bedding his fiancée before they could be married. But when Claudio’s sister Isabella comes to Angelo to make a personal plea for her brother, Angelo himself is overcome with lust. He refuses to pardon Claudio unless Isabella yields herself to him.

Isabella tells Angelo that to save Claudio, she’ll come to his bed, but the duplicitous deputy gives secret orders for Claudio to be executed anyway. In the nick of time, the watchful Duke emerges from the shadows, springs into action, saves Claudio from the chopping block, exposes Angelo as a hypocrite, and oversees a series of weddings.

The main plot of Martin Chuzzlewit (of course there are various minor plots) has striking parallels. Old Martin Chuzzlewit, wealthy and powerful, is regretting some of his failings (especially his relationship with his grandson and heir, young Martin Chuzzlewit); he’s also revolted by the hypocrisy and pretensions of his relative Seth Pecksniff. He concocts an elaborate plan for putting things right in which he pretends to withdraw from the scene by seeming to fall into senility, pretends to trust Pecksniff as his only friend, and lets Pecksniff speak and act for him. Pecksniff has a great reputation for benevolence and for skill as an architect, but old Martin knows Pecksniff for a colossal hypocrite and a fraud.

Pecksniff rises to the bait. To ingratiate himself with old Martin, he drives away young Martin, who had been his architectural student and who had become engaged against old Martin’s will to the old man’s young secretary and companion, Mary Graham. Found out by his faithful assistant and greatest admirer, Tom Pinch, Pecksniff expels him as well on the lying pretext that Pinch has improper intentions on Mary.

Old Martin gives Pecksniff his comeuppance in an illustration by Wray Manning from our Heritage Press edition of Martin Chuzzlewit

Pecksniff then makes unwelcome advances toward Mary Graham (Victorian sensibilities required Dickens to be far less explicit here than Shakespeare was with Angelo and Isabella). He blackmails Mary by threatening harm to young Martin if she complains of him to old Martin. In the ripeness of time, old Martin emerges from his feigned state of incapacity to expose Pecksniff publicly as a liar and a hypocrite. He reconciles with young Martin and gives his blessing to a series of weddings.

At the heart of both Shakespeare’s play and Dickens’s novel, therefore, is a morality tale of the exposure and punishment of a hypocrite. Parallels abound, but the most important are these:

(a) in each story a powerful senior figure appears to leave the arena, but in fact continues to manipulate people and events from the shadows, like a Greek god;

(b) he confers authority to act for him on a supposed paragon of virtue who is in fact a hypocrite, expecting that the hypocrite will expose himself by abusing his authority,

(c) in the course of his stewardship, the supposed paragon lusts after a virtuous, much younger woman and blackmails her with threats of harm to someone she loves, and

(d) the senior figure reappears and presides over an melodramatic, orchestrated denouement in which he exposes and disgraces the hypocrite.

Barnard's portrait of Pecksniff

Not coincidentally, the schemes for exposing Angelo (in Measure for Measure) and Pecksniff (in Martin Chuzzlewit) as hypocrites both seem unnecessarily complicated. Why couldn’t the Duke simply have stripped Angelo of his position and made him marry the girl he had jilted? And why did old Martin need to pretend to be taken in by the unctuous Pecksniff — why should he have had anything to do with Pecksniff at all? One can only assume that the Duke conferred authority upon Angelo — and that old Martin did the same with Pecksniff — so that their falls would be all the greater.

The schemes of the puppet-masters also seem shockingly unkind; the games go on too long. Even if one grants that Claudio has done wrong by bedding his fiancée before their marriage, Claudio’s punishment seems disproportionate. Claudio is made to believe that he is to be executed at daybreak, and the Duke himself, in the guise of a clergyman, visits Claudio to assure him that he is going to die.

In the same way, in Martin Chuzzlewit, though we rather enjoy seeing selfish young Martin taken down a peg, we feel that old Martin’s “tough love” has gotten out of hand when young Martin comes within an ace of dying of malaria in the swamps of America.

But it’s the blameless — the women and the womanish — in both tales who get the worst of it. Neither the Duke (in Measure for Measure) nor old Martin (in Martin Chuzzlewit) seems to care about the collateral damage flowing from their schemes. It’s bad enough that the Duke blithely lets Isabella believe that her brother is truly in danger of execution. But the Duke also lets Isabella bear the insult of Angelo’s demand for sexual favors, and he seems not to care that she must face the moral dilemma of whether to sacrifice her virtue to save her brother’s life. Claudio’s betrothed, Juliet, is another victim; she is actually in labor when she is told that her lover and the father of her unborn baby is about to be executed.

Pecksniff with old Martin Chuzzlewit

In the same way, old Martin makes the innocent Mary Graham believe that she and young Martin will never be married; worse yet, he lets Mary endure Pecksniff’s groping and leering and the insult of his blackmailing. Like Isabella in Measure for Measure, Mary too is made to face a moral dilemma: should she expose the old goat to old Martin, as justice and her honor requires, when to do so will harm young Martin, to whom she owes her love and loyalty? The decent Tom Pinch is another collateral victim; old Martin Chuzzlewit stands passively by while Tom is stripped of his employment and driven from Pecksniff’s doors.

William Charles Macready. This portrait is in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Knowing that Measure for Measure wasn’t especially popular in Dickens’s day, any more than it is now, we got to wondering how the play came to make such an impression on the novelist. As a young man Dickens was constantly at the theater, but he was only twelve years old in 1824, the last time Measure for Measure was played in London before Martin Chuzzlewit was written. One can assume that Dickens was familiar with all of the Shakespeare plays, but the references to the plays in his novels suggest that as a creative writer Dickens was impacted mostly by the dozen or so Shakespeare plays that he saw performed, the ones frequently performed at Drury Lane or Covent Garden, like Macbeth and King Lear.

We think, after a little research, that the answer probably has to do with Dickens’s close friendship with the distinguished actor William Charles Macready. As we noted in an earlier post, Dickens was even more than usually immersed in Shakespeare during the period (1837 to 1843) when he was writing Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, and Martin Chuzzlewit. And on June 16, 1837, Dickens was introduced to Macready, the leading figure in London theater, a pre-eminent Shakespearean actor, and a student of Shakespeare. They promptly became close friends.

Over the next 40 months, Macready recorded in his journal at least 31 occasions in which he spent time with Dickens — dining with him and sometimes Mrs. Dickens too, going here and there with Dickens, consulting with Dickens about Macready’s theatrical projects, reading new plays recommended by Dickens, being visited by Dickens in his dressing room after performances, being toasted by Dickens at the Shakespeare Club. (Among other things, Macready advised Dickens of the “utter impracticability” of adapting Oliver Twist for the stage.) Dickens clearly reveled in his friendship with Macready; he dedicated Nicholas Nickleby to Macready and sent him an inscribed copy.

In the latter part of 1837 Macready took over the management of the Covent Garden Theatre and made Shakespeare a staple of its repertoire. Macready’s journal indicates that Dickens became personally involved with Macready’s work at Covent Garden, which included revivals of Macbeth, King Lear, The Tempest, Henry V, and other plays. It also records that Macready wrestled with whether some of the lesser-known Shakespeare plays could be effectively performed as written; he studied The Winter’s Tale closely and mounted it at Covent Garden in the latter part of 1837, but rejected Timon of Athens outright.

One of the plays that Macready was considering was Measure for Measure. The play was not nearly as obscure as Timon; in fact, Macready himself had played the part of the Duke at Drury Lane in 1824. On several dates in August 1837, Macready noted in his journal that he was laboring over the task of memorizing (or perhaps re-memorizing) the Duke’s lines.

In the end, Macready didn’t revive Measure for Measure at Covent Garden after all, nor, apparently, did he ever perform the role of the Duke on stage again. But given the new intimacy between Macready and Dickens at this time and for the next several years, it is no stretch to infer that Macready and Dickens discussed Measure for Measure and the character of the Duke, vetted ideas as to how the play might be staged, and perhaps even rehearsed lines together, thus impressing the story of the play on Dickens’s creative subconscious.

Measure for Measure wasn’t played again in London until 1846 (without Macready). In the meantime, Dickens picked up the threads of Macready’s aborted project and transformed the sixteenth-century story of the Duke, Angelo, and Isabella into the nineteenth-century story of old Martin, Pecksniff, and Mary Graham. The first of 20 monthly installments of Martin Chuzzlewit appeared in January 1843.