Is this a scarf I see before me? Macbeth and Drood

By the pricking of my thumbs,

Something wicked this way comes






There have been various inspirations suggested for Drood over the years, from The Moonstone to Adam Bede; Dickens frequently peppered his writing with allusions to other works so it is unsurprising that so many have been seen in parallel to his last book. However of all the authors who Dickens referred to in his life, Shakespeare surely takes first place for the number and frequency of appearances. Dickens was a huge Shakespeare fan, playing a part in preserving his birthplace and celebrating the bard’s birthday with Forster each year, as well as acting in a play or two himself. In Drood the play that particularly takes centre stage is Macbeth. Charles E Carr wrote in his unpublished manuscript Droodists (circa 1935) that ‘One of my strongest convictions is that Macbeth profoundly influenced Edwin Drood‘, for which point he draws attention to three specific references in the text. First, and most easy to spot, is the title of Chapter 14 ‘When Shall These Three Meet Again?’, paraphrasing the wyrd sisters. Second, in Chapter 11 ‘A Picture and a Ring’, describes the actions of the flying waiter thus:

here let it be noticed, parenthetically, that the leg of this young man, in its application to the door, evinced the finest sense of touch: always preceding himself and tray (with something of an angling air about it), by some seconds: and always lingering after he and the tray had disappeared, like Macbeth’s leg when accompanying him off the stage with reluctance to the assassination of Duncan.

In this instance the reference is specifically to the actions of Dickens’s friend and renowned Shakespearean actor William Charles Macready when playing the role of Macbeth. The third explicit reference is in chapter 10 ‘Smoothing the Way’ when Crisparkle is said to be ‘as confident in the sweetening powers of Cloisterham Weir and a wholesome mind, as Lady Macbeth was hopeless of those of all the seas that roll’, drawing upon her fear that not all the seas can wash her hands of blood.

The three references individually merit little comment; the second two in particular are not intended to reflect upon the character or situation other than as a deliberately juxtaposed image for comedy’s sake. But collectively they do support the idea that Macbeth was on Dickens’s mind when he was writing Drood. Note, mind, that the references are clumped together, with two appearing in instalment three and the chapter title appearing in instalment four, but nonetheless Macbeth is clearly there in the author’s subconscious. Carr complained in his manuscript that no solution to date had incorporated the Macbeth links and therefore, to his mind, had not been a satisfactory solution – he would have loved Leon Garfield’s 1980 continuation which hammers the Macbeth connection home, with his new chapter titles including ‘In Thunder, Lightning and in Rain’, ‘When the Hurlyburly’s done’, ‘When the Battle’s Lost and Won’ and, my personal favourite, ‘Enter a Porter’. Subtle it ain’t, and is symptomatic of Garfield’s attempts to capitalise on Dickens’s allusions in Drood and repeat them ad infinitum to create the illusion of continuity; a sort of skewed attempt at authority by mimicking Dickens sources in order to mimic Dickens himself.

But back to Macbeth. As Carr rightly notes, the connections go deeper than the specific references made in the text by Dickens, and stretches across the central themes of the play. Jasper is guilty of coveting his nephew’s fiancé, which most of you believe prompts him to murder Edwin (at least according to the latest results on the Drood Inquiry), just as  Macbeth’s coveting of the king’s crown leads to murder. Both crimes are domestic in setting, a betrayal of host to guest. Both villains become jealous of another who might take the prize for which they committed murder, and therefore seek to rid themselves of Banquo/Neville. Both are plagued by guilt and potential madness. Both have their eerie encounters with hags, with the witches’ heath replaced by the Princess Puffer’s den. Both have visions of the future, and indeed the past, though I leave it to your own interpretation whether Jasper’s visions are restricted to his drug-induced dreams, or whether they extend, as many argue Collins’ cover picture suggests, to the discovery of Edwin’s ghost in the tomb, a 19th century Banquo plaguing the guilty mind. And don’t get me started on storms.

Why Macbeth?Well perhaps we should be going back to the question of the Gothic influence on Drood. Macbeth is, after all, in many respects a Gothic tale, certainly so in the hands of illustrator Henry Fuseli:

Henry Fuseli, Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers

If Dickens had set himself the task of writing something new, if he intended to try his hand at the sensation genre and draw upon that Gothic heritage, it would make sense that he would turn to a familiar and trusted source. That’s a lot of ifs. Put simply, if Dickens is trying to write a mysterious and morbid tale then of course he will be influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by a work already familiar to him. The question, as always, is whether we choose to take that influence as a binding and rigid forecast for the remainder of the plot. Will Jasper stand atop Cloisterham Cathedral and see Dunsinane Forest on the move? I sincerely hope not. But would the finished tale have contained masterfully written descriptions of the wicked man’s internal struggle as he faces the consequences of his actions? Well that, I hope, is a little more likely. But then if Macbeth and Drood have taught me anything, it is to be wary of visions of the future.

Published by Pete Orford

I'm course director of the MA in Charles Dickens Studies at the University of Buckingham in conjunction with the Dickens Museum in London. I am currently editing Pictures from Italy for the Oxford Dickens collection, and I'm Chief Investigator for The Drood Inquiry ( My book "The Mystery of Edwin Drood: Charles Dickens’s unfinished novel and our endless attempts to end it" was published by Pen and Sword Books in 2018.

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