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By Maria Devlin McNair, Ph.D.

Why should a summer Shakespeare festival produce Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol? Because Carol is Dickens’ answer to some of Shakespeare’s most haunting questions. In Dickens’ opening lines, he references Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet” and the presence of a ghost:

“There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night …  than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark …”

But Dickens sees a connection beyond the ghosts, asserting that “Hamlet” is, in fact, a Christmas play. Hamlet opens, like Carol, in the dark and the cold (“ ’Tis now struck twelve …”; “ ’Tis bitter cold, / And I am sick at heart”); and the soldiers who witness the ghost have “expectation as well as fear.” which evoke apocalyptic warnings. Scholar Peter McCullough argues that Shakespeare is drawing from his culture’s associations with Advent. Christians in Advent “both looked forward in hope to the dawning of Christ and recall ‘with fear and trembling’ … Christ’s second coming at the Apocalypse.” 

The Ghost, who brings Hamlet his unbearable duty, ultimately represents only apocalypse. And Marley, the Ghost in Carol, initially resembles Hamlet’s ghost using identical phrases and similarly described:  (“Mark me!”) and (a “ponderous” sepulcher, a “ponderous” chain). Marley is ultimately an advocate. He has to come to help Scrooge escape the purgatorial torment in which he, like Hamlet’s ghost, is trapped. How does he do this? 

While Hamlet is most well known for the philosophical questions posed by its protagonist: “To be or not to be”; the murderer Claudius poses an equally urgent question: how can one find mercy after committing a great sin? He believes that this mercy will be freely given to anyone who can repent for their crimes, but asks, “what can [repentance do], when one cannot repent?” Something is holding Claudius back just as Scrooge is held back by greed.

Claudius cannot seek forgiveness for the murder because he remains possessed by the desire for the crown and the queen. Scrooge’s sins are more sins of omission than commission. There was no single, great crime he perpetrated; there were just countless good deeds deliberately left undone. He wished to cling tightly to his “effects,” to his personal property: “ Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!”

So what is it that can help loosen their grasp? Hamlet stages to prick his uncle’s conscience; one character says, “Purpose is but the slave to memory.” –  the line functions as a warning. But Dickens transforms it into an answer. How can we repent? By remembering. Scrooge is visited by three spirits who, says scholar Joseph Pearce, are “best described as angels. They are divine messengers (angelos, in Greek, means ‘messenger’).” And what they do is awaken his memory. 

Pearce writes that the ghosts serve to introduce a supernatural perception of reality. They will show us not only Scrooge but ourselves in a manner that has the power to surprise us out of our own worldliness and to open us to the” spiritual realities that we are prone to forget”.

Claudius doesn’t seem to have anything he can put before his consciousness that has enough counteracting force to overcome his attachment to his worldly goods and motivate him to change his life. That is the problem the spirits strive to solve. In their visits to Scrooge, they resurrect before him his school friends, his family, and co-workers. The spiritual realities of their love for him, and their claims on him, are things he has forgotten. The spirits help him remember, and these memories prove strong enough to displace his worldly goods in his attention and turn his mind to these other realities:

“During the whole of this time [seeing a Christmas party at his old employer’s], Scrooge had acted like a man out of his wits. His heart and soul were in the scene and with his former self. He corroborated everything, remembered everything, enjoyed everything, and underwent the strangest agitation.”

The third spirit arrives like the apocalyptic judge, showing Scrooge his own tomb, much as Hamlet stares at the skull and sees his own face. But in the end, Scrooge’s final doom is forestalled. The “agitation” first provoked by memory becomes a transformation of character, and he is given the chance to transform his future life accordingly.” Best and happiest of all, the Time before him was his own, to make amends in!”

Shakespeare resurrected several old stories to animate his Hamlet. Dickens did the same to write A Christmas Carol. Now, both stories are given new life in the wonderfully innovative Q Brothers Christmas Carol. We hope you enjoy this production and that you’ll join us again next summer for more adventures with Shakespeare. 

About the Scholar:

Maria Devlin McNair received her PhD in English literature from Harvard University, specializing in Shakespeare and Renaissance Drama. She is the creator of “Shakepseare for All” a podcast series designed to introduce first-time readers and viewers to the life and work of William Shakespeare. She is a writer and Managing Producer for the Harvard Divinity School podcast “Ministry of Ideas”. She is currently developing a book project on ethics and Renaissance comedy.

Cited: Peter McCullough, “Christmas at Elsinore” Joseph Pearce, “Holy Ghosts & the Spirit of Christmas: “A Christmas Carol”. Photos by Joe Mazza / Brave Lux Chicago.