Dickens turns 205 today. The birthday of a Victorian author, even one as famous as Dickens, may not seem an obvious day of reflection for Shakespeareans, but Dickens himself was an ardent Shakespearean. He himself celebrated Shakespeare’s birthday each year, and it is only fair that the favour be returned. There are numerous avenues to discuss of Dickens’s love for Shakespeare – his contribution to the birthplace, his acting in several productions of Renaissance plays, or his frequent use of Shakespearean quotation, plot and themes in his writing. What I want to focus on here is perhaps his most direct Shakespearean adaptation: the play O’Thello.
Very little survives of this amateur dramatic piece, written when Dickens was in his early twenties and only beginning to get his shorter pieces printed in the press. His father, John Dickens, was cast in the role of the Doge, referred to throughout as ‘The Great Unpaid’ as a nod to John’s own frequent financial difficulties. True to form, in later years as his son’s fame grew, John Dickens turned that to his advantage by selling off individual pages of his script for O’Thello. All that we have today therefore is a resulting incomplete selection of his script acquired in this way, made even more fragmentary as it is a cue script. Thus each page gives John’s lines in full, with only the final words of any preceding speeches to cue him in.
What we do know is that the play was clearly a burlesque – a parody of Shakespeare’s original with frequent references to drink. Such adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays were popular in the nineteenth century. To best illustrate the tone of the play, take the following song, which John’s script records in full, to be sung by The Great Unpaid (the Doge), E Argo, Desdemona and Dull Mike (Cassio):
GU Bring the porter in the pewter
And be sure they draw it mild
E argo If he suspects his wife he’ll shoot her
And I am for vengeance wild
Cass Let’s be happy
Lots of baccy
Let the cheerful smoke abound
Desd Dancing Lightly
Let the merry song go round
GU Right fal la ral la ral lide
E argo Right fal la ral liddle dol de
Caa Right fal la ral la ral lide
Desd Right fal la ral liddle dol de
Cho: Right fal la ral de
It’s not exactly Shakespeare; but nor is it quite what Dickensians would expect from their author either. It is important to note that this is an unpublished play, intended for private performance between Dickens and his family. If anything then it shows Dickens with his guard down, not striving for perfection in his written work but happy to aim for silliness, and it is telling that this play was written around the same time as Dickens’s short fictional sketch ‘Mrs Joseph Porter’ (first published in January 1834 as ‘Mrs Joseph Porter “Over the Way”’). In the play an amateur performance of Othello quickly descends into farce, with Iago playing his part in wellington boots, Roderigo has a tall hat that keeps knocking against scenery, and an enthusiastic audience member continuously shouts out corrections whenever lines are misread, John’s manuscript dates Dickens’ play as 1833, but increasingly Dickensian scholars have challenged this assumption, pointing to the one reference Dickens makes to it in a letter of April 1834 and suggesting the mistake is on John’s part, and that the play was actually written after Mrs Joseph Porter, to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday. The significance of this ordering is that the comic fiction inspires an actual play, rather than the play inspiring a short story about a disastrous performance. If we think O’Thello comes first, as John suggests, then the resulting narrative would be Dickens writing a play about Othello, and then later using some of that experience in his fictional sketch, suggesting in turn that the play was not a complete success. But, if we assume ‘Mrs Joseph Porter’ came first, and that having written of a disastrous performance Dickens decides to write his own nonsense version of Othello, then it gives Dickens more self-awareness in the script, writing his play with full awareness of potential pitfalls and pranks, but cheerfully doing so regardless. Burlesques such as these mocked the actors as much as the plays. It should not be read, therefore, simply as Dickens parodying Shakespeare. Far from it. Shakespeare was a familiar source and friend that could be used thus as a mirror for Dickens, and his family, to parody themselves.
The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.