In Great Expectations, Charles Dickens' lyrical prose creates a detailed picture of the world in which Pip, the protagonist, operates while also providing indirect commentaries on his development through descriptions of Pip's actions, engagements, and leisure activities. In Pip's attendance at a poor production of Shakespeare's Hamlet, Dickens provides readers with amusing character profiles that refer to both actors and audience:

The Queen of Denmark, a very buxom lady, though no doubt historically brazen, was considered by the public to have too much brass about her, her chin being attached to her diadem by a broad band of that metal (as if she had a gorgeous toothache), her waist being encircled by another, and each of her arms by another, so that she was openly mentioned as the “kettledrum." [268-69]

Here the usually elegantly portrayed queen has more of the dowdiness and extravagance of the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland. The ungainly appearance of this member of the royal family highlights the limits of class (whether it be birth into a higher class or a large amount of money) in glossing over an individual's various personal defects and blemishes. The queen's portrayal emphasizes the silliness of the public who look to class as the sole marker of genteel behavior and appearance, and, more specifically, Pip, who looks to his class elevation as the panacea for all of his personal, social, and educational flaws.

In addition to providing a grotesque caricature of a royal figure, the Shakespeare production betrays the pretensions of over-ambitious youth in the behavior of the over-committed boy in boots:

The noble boy in the ancestral boots was inconsistent, representing himself, as it were in one breath, as an able seaman, a strolling actor, a gravedigger, a clergyman, and a person of the utmost importance at a court fencing-match, on the authority of whose practised eye and nice discrmination the finest strokes were judged. [269]

The boy's frenzied portrayal of far too many roles cheapens the act and confuses the audience. Ultimately, Pip acts as an extended example of the country boy who may have taken on too much too soon. Instead of getting a solid education and preparing himself adequately for the rollercoaster ride of an astronomical rise in socio-economic status, Pip throws himself into the urban kaleidoscope of London. And in his eagerness to enjoy the spoils of his new fortune, Pip surrounds himself with beautiful clothes, expensive food, comfortable lodgings, and well-dressed servants and becomes lost in a pile of material objects and inadequate understanding of his new social position.

Finally, the audience's reaction to Mr. Wopsle, a resident of Pip's former town, places the crowning touch on Pip's tragedy. Pip and his friend Herbert Pocket “had made some pale efforts in the beginning to applaud Mr. Wopsle, but they were too hopeless to be persisted in. Therefore [they] had sat, feeling keenly for him, but laughing, nevertheless from ear to ear" (270). The melodramatic Mr. Wopsle meanwhile, remains convinced of his theatrical abilities, further throwing the audience's response into harsh light. Something darkly humorous and tragic lies at the heart of a scene where a completely oblivious individual stages a ridiculous spectacle and does not hear the laughs enjoyed at his expense. Similarly, Pip's insistence of coming to the social limelight only corroborates his inadequate preparation in keeping his fortune wisely, and once he realizes his mistakes, he only sees an empty theatre in front of him. The audience has long gone.


Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens Great Expectations

Last modified 14 April 2009