Having lived in Britain my whole life, born and bred, it goes without saying that I have been subjected to reading both Shakespeare and Dickens, especially in my teenage years. Now, this side of the argument is not supposed to bash Dickens, as he was an incredible author with talent that had few bounds….but he was no Shakespeare. Now that I have that disclaimer out of the way, I shall begin in a similar manner to my comrade, who sits on the other side of the fence, by first looking at the adversary to our chosen Bard.
Dickens lived through the beginning, to almost the end, of the 19th Century, and became known as the greatest Victorian novelist. He was heavily influenced by men such as Victor Hugo, Wordsworth, Walter Scott, and you guessed it…Shakespeare. However, this doesn’t really tell us that much, as T. S. Eliot in his essay; Tradition and the Individual Talent, discusses that all of culture, and more specifically literature, is simply built on the grounds of those who came before us, and in this instance on the ideas of ‘dead poets’. Although you may not believe Eliot’s ideas, it is not hard to believe that the majority of writers are, in some small way, influenced by one of the most influential writers ever. I, similarly to Tim with Shakespeare, haven’t read a lot of Dickens works, however there is a lot of them, so you will have to forgive me on this point. Probably the most famous ones that I have read cover to cover are; Bleak House, Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations, and so my judgement is primarily centred on these novels.
I have never been a big fan of Dickens if I am honest, and it feels like I will be immediately shunned from my Victorian literature module for saying this, but it’s true. I have always chewed his novels, hence why I specifically mentioned that the above works are the ones I have ‘read cover to cover’, and I have never enjoyed the brute force aspect of his writing. Now, I have read a lot of dense novels in my life, I have studied James Joyce’s Ulysses, so you may find it surprising that I can read something like that (although I won’t lie and say that spending 3 months tearing apart that novel was enjoyable throughout), and yet struggle with Oliver Twist. Coming back to my statement about the ‘brute force’ nature of his writing style, I say this because he smacks you around the face with his opinions and meanings, throughout his work. For example, in the novel Hard Times (as well as in other novels), the character’s surnames reflect their personality, fates, and Dickens’ opinions surrounding their social roles. This can be seen with Stephen Blackpool, who is a raging alcoholic, a power loom operator in a factory…he also dies by falling into a giant hole (or deep, dark, pool). He is also an author who is obsessed with detail, leaving very little to the reader’s imagination, as an avid poetry fan I find it tedious, however, I do love his metaphors, and as a literary student this all makes my life extremely easy.
Now for Shakespeare, the master of verse, prose, poetry and almost anything literary. My first ever seminar at university was all about what should, and should not be, on the Western canon. For those of you who don’t know, the Western canon is a body of art, music and literature (of all sorts) which are considered the most influential pieces, in terms of shaping Western culture. We came up with the answer, after much debate, as a resounding ‘yes’. He is one of those writers, though, that causes a lot of controversy in terms of whether his works should still be taught in schools or not. I have taken the liberty of googling various arguments about why he shouldn’t be on curriculums, with the majority of people either arguing ‘it’s boring’, or ‘it no longer has any relevance because it’s old’. However, this is like saying that pascals triangle is irrelevant because you can just do it all on a calculator, it doesn’t mean that it’s not integral to the learning, and understanding, process. Anyway, I digress, Shakespeare offers literature that sometimes requires deep analysis in order to understand the wit behind his words, however, everything you need is in the text, and this analysis is what, for me, makes literature worthwhile. Subtlety is key, and Shakespeare is the king of this, with shifts in rhythm, structure and metaphorical device. A great example of this would be Hamlet, where it is obvious that Shakespeare uses prose for the poorer characters, what he would consider ‘working class’, and verse for those who were ‘upper class’.
This is an example of the verse in Hamlet, these are extremely poetic, and yet are still in prose. It can also symbolise the imbalanced nature of a character’s mind, making a clever (and subtle) device.
How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? (2.2.327-332)
Now this is not to mention the reams of beautiful symbolism, diverse plotlines, all within a specific, and usually strict, structure. My professors have often told me that we naturally talk in pentameter, but I have tried writing in iambic pentameter various times….and it is not natural. This makes Shakespeare a master, as he achieves so much with such finesse, something which I feel that Dickens never lived up to.