In life, Jacob Marley was the business partner of Ebeneezer Scrooge. As teenagers, both men had been apprenticed in business and met as clerks in another business. The firm of Scrooge and Marley was a nineteenth-century financial institution, probably a counting house, as Marley refers to their offices as 'our money-changing hole'. They became successful bankers, with seats on the London Stock Exchange. He was named after Marley Tunnel in Devon, just outside Totnes because of Dickens' fond holiday memories of the town.
In A Christmas Carol, Jacob Marley is said to have died seven years earlier on Christmas Eve (as the setting is Christmas Eve 1843, this would have made the date of his passing December 24, 1836). It would be his ghost who would be Scrooge's first visitor (before the three other spirits to come).
Jacob Marley preys upon Scrooge's mind in many different ways, notably his face manifesting on the knocker on Ebenezer Scrooge's front door and causing the bells in his house to ring. The ghost maintains the same voice, hairstyle and sense of dress that he had in life, but is translucent. He wears a handkerchief tied about his jaws, and "captive, bound and double-ironed" with chains which are described as "long, and wound about him like a tail; it was made... of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel." He often, in moments of great despair or impatience at Scrooge's scepticism, flings these upon the ground before him and almost induces his former partner "into a swoon". He explains that it is the chain he unknowingly forged himself in life, as a result of his greed and selfishness. As he spent his life on this earth obsessing over money and mistreating the poor and wretched to fill his pocket, Marley is condemned as part of his "penance" to walk the earth for eternity never to find rest or peace, experiencing an "incessant torture of remorse."
When the specter asks, "Why do you doubt your senses?" Scrooge scoffs that "...a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheat. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!" Marley's only reply is a spine-chilling howl that brings Scrooge to his knees, begging for mercy.
Marley tells Scrooge that he will be visited by three spirits, and admonishes his former partner to listen to what they have to say, or Scrooge will suffer Marley's fate; he says that Scrooge's chain was as heavy as his seven years earlier, and remarks that "you have laboured on it since — it is a ponderous chain!"
Marley then departs into the night sky, surrounded by a countless horde of other spirits, some of whom were known to Scrooge when they were alive, all of them chained in a similar manner to Marley. Like Marley, they suffer endlessly as they struggle in vain to make up for their wasted lives by attempting to help a homeless mother and child.
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Michael Hordern played the role of Marley twice, once in the 1951 film Scrooge and then as the voice of Marley in Richard Williams' 1971 animated film. In one of the most chilling scenes from the 1971 adaptation, the animation enables the depiction of Dickens' original idea that Marley removes the handkerchief from his head, causing his to jaw gape inhumanly wide. Hordern also played the role of Scrooge in a 1977 television adaptation for the BBC, with the role of Marley played by John Le Mesurier.
In the 1970 film Scrooge, Marley (Alec Guinness) is given an extra scene where he escorts Scrooge to hell, where their counting house is also present and where Scrooge shall spend eternity working as a "bureaucrat for Lucifer". This shock then awakens Scrooge back to reality.
In the 1983 special Mickey's Christmas Carol, the character is played by Goofy (Hal Smith). This version of Marley was mentioned to have left little in the way of a fortune, bequeathing Scrooge only enough to buy his tombstone, so Scrooge had him buried at sea. He laments that he is "forced to carry these heavy chains for eternity... maybe even longer". He ends his time with Scrooge by falling down the stairs and letting out his famous holler as Scrooge warns him to watch out for the first step.
In the 1984 made-for-television film of A Christmas Carol, Marley's voice calls Scrooge from an apparitional hearse, and then again before Scrooge sees Marley's face on the door knocker. Frank Finlay's performance as Marley is considered one of the best portrayals of the character.
In the Jetsons 1985 episode, "A Jetsons Christmas Carol" he is referred to as "Jacob Marsley" and is seen covered in what looks like white tape, making him resemble a mummy. He tells Mr. Spacely to change his ways "or there will be a price to pay!"
In the film Scrooged (1988), a modern interpretation of Dickens' novella, Jacob Marley is portrayed by John Forsythe.
In the 1992 movie The Muppet Christmas Carol, the character is bifurcated into two brothers named Jacob and Robert so that they can be played by Statler and Waldorf (Jerry Nelson and Dave Goelz). The joke is that Jacob Marley has a brother named Bob - as in reggae singer Bob Marley. They sing the number "Marley and Marley" where they lament their suffering and warn Scrooge of what he will face. Scrooge (Michael Caine) says that they "always criticized" and heckled him in life; during the Fezziwig (Fozziwig, played by Fozzie Bear) Christmas party scene, they are showed as younger men who heckle Fozziwig from an upper level.
In the 2010 film Christmas Cupid, Marley was combined with Clarence the Angel from It's a Wonderful Life in the recently dead actress Caitlin Quinn. Here she must help her PR Agent Sloane Spencer in order to gain her wings.
In November 2011, the Marlowe Society produced Scrooge & Marley at the ADC Theatre. In this two-man production, Jacob Marley (James Swanton) was present throughout to tell the story and secure his own redemption.