Quite often, when I look at Shakespeare’s Birthplace, or to walk past it, I think of Charles Dickens. I think about how I wouldn’t be seeing Shakespeare’s House cared for by The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust without him. In short, I wouldn’t be working in my current job without the encouragement and effort Dickens contributed to helping The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust get started. He even put on special benefit performances to help raise money for the Birthplace’s first curator. This is why an image of Dickens can be seen in our Shakespeare Hall of Fame which hundreds of thousands of visitors walk through each year to move from the introductory exhibition into the garden of the Birthplace itself.
The great man is 200 years old next Tuesday 7 February, and there is going to be an informal gathering in The Shakespeare Centre to wish him a Happy Birthday. Ten of us will read an extract of Dickens and say why we’ve chosen it. No doubt it will be a time when those who gather will be reminded of the tremendous and palpable energy that shoots through his work, as it did though his own life. Some of the passages will be satirical; some will be sentimental; some will be descriptive; some will be absurd; some will make us laugh out loud; and all of them will be theatrical, and all of them will be alive and kicking.
Here’s an extract from Nicholas Nickleby (from chapter 27) to whet the appetite, and one which reminds us of Dickens’s playful but tough satirical edge, his delight in the absurd, and close sense of affiliation to Shakespeare’s Birthplace and to Stratford-upon-Avon itself:
“‘I’m always ill after Shakespeare,’ said Mrs Wititterley. ‘I scarcely exist the next day; I find the re-action so very great after a tragedy, my lord, and Shakespeare is such a delicious creature.’
‘Ye-es!’ replied Lord Verisopht. ‘He was a clayver man.’
‘Do you know, my lord, I find I take so much more interest in his plays, after having been to that dear little dull house he was born in! I don’t know how it is, but after you’ve seen that place and written your name in the little book, somehow or other you seem to be inspired; it kindles up quite a fire within one.’
‘I think there must be something in the place,’ said Mrs Nickleby… ‘After we had seen Shakespeare’s tomb and birth-place, we went back to the inn there, where we slept that night, and I recollect that all night long I dreamt of nothing but a black gentleman, at full length, in plaster-of-Paris, with a lay down collar tied with two tassels, leaning against a post and thinking; and when I woke in the morning and described him to Mr Nickleby, he said it was Shakespeare just as he had been when he was alive, which was very curious indeed. Stratford – Stratford, ….. I recollect I was in the family way with my son Nicholas at the time, and I had been very much frightened by an Italian image boy that very morning. In fact, it was quite a mercy, ma’am, that my son didn’t turn out to be Shakespeare, and what a dreadful thing that would have been!’
If you do remember it’s Dickens’s birthday next Tuesday, pause a while and – even if you don’t like his work – think how undeniable he is an artist, and how generous is his understanding of what makes us all tick. And at 12.30pm next Tuesday, know that he is being celebrated in The Shakespeare Centre, of which he was one of the early founders.
Later this year, on the evening of Sunday 8 July, we will be hosting a special, light-hearted Dickens programme as part of The Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival.
But what does Dickens mean to you? And how will you be marking his bicentenary?