Shakespeare and the first Gothic novel


I’m a big fan of Gothic novels, much to the amusement of my friend Michelle who patiently waits as I scour bookstore shelves in search of a good Gothic read. It does not say much about our American bookstore literary acumen that I have to do this but I have yet to ask for recommendations from an employee without getting that deer- in- the- headlights look. Though a special nod must be given to the employees of Reno’s Grassroots Books for looking the term up and suggesting titles based on their new gained knowledge. Two of the ladies gave me several suggestions, but alas, I’ve read them all.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with this genre, let me give a brief description:

A novel that (usually) uses medieval buildings and ruins, castles or monasteries equipped with subterranean passages, dark battlements, hidden panels, and trapdoors. There must be a ghostly or paranormal element to the story, otherwise what’s the point of using castles and ruins? The original Gothic novels offered some mystery or twist but the modern Gothic almost always offers a twist.

Some of the best-known Gothic novels:

The Monk
The Turn of the Screw
Jane Eyre
The Thirteenth Tale

There is even an American sub-genre, Southern Gothic that includes two of my all time favorite novels: Robert McCammon’s A Boy’s Life, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Gothic novels begin appearing in the late 17th century. It has been widely assumed the genre started with Matthew Gregory Lewis’ 1796 The Monk and was quickly adopted by other writers because of the success of The Monk. Lewis’ novel touched on varying taboo subjects such as rape, blasphemy, incest, and devil worship. It was sharply criticized by the elites and the Church.

Can you imagine the outcry over this? Modern church members wanted the Harry Potter books banned; I can’t begin to imagine what they would have wanted to do with the book or even Lewis himself. But even with the outcry  it was a hit with the general public and remains on the list as the best Gothic novel of all times.

Though The Monk is accepted as the greatest Gothic novels ever written, and mentioned as the first, it is in fact not the first Gothic novel. This honor goes to Horace Walpole and his short novel, The Castle of Otranto, published in 1765, first anonymously, as a “found” Italian manuscript and then after becoming a best-seller, as a novel by Walpole (to the disappointment of the general reading audience who thought they had been reading a semi-true account of some long ago Italian horror).

Horace Walpole, 4th earl of Oxford was born in London on September 24th, 1717 and died on March 2, 1797. Walpole was a celebrated writer and collector, though his passion for collecting became an obsession. Walpole bought a small villa in Twickenham in 1747, where he spent years adding turrets, battlements and cloisters. The estate became known as Strawberry Hill. It was here that Walpole housed his collection of curios (more on that in a minute), pictures, and a large library. He opened it up to the public and it is thought that Hill was the stimulus for the Gothic resurgence in English architecture.

Straweberry Hill The villa that became a castle
Straweberry Hill
The villa that became a castle

Today, Walpole is remembered for two things: his prolific letter writing (over 3,000 and counting have been collected) and his supposed offer of payment to anyone who would bring him Shakespeare’s skull. You may remember I wrote about the story of Shakespeare’s missing skull and how an 18th century story, A Warwickshire Gentleman is the only “proof” that Shakespeare’s grave was robbed. It said that Walpole was the one who put the idea out there, yet the folklore says that when presented with the skull, he drew back in horror and declined to purchase it. Given that Walpole as we know from his letters, venerated Shakespeare and had a taste for the macabre, it is strange that he would recoil in horror. On the other hand, actual grave robbing may have been the line even he refused to cross. But then again, it is so far as we can tell, just a story, so I shouldn’t speculate on his motives for declining such an offer.

Yale University houses a digital version of a 48-volume collection of Walpole’s letters. Thankfully they allow users to search through them by category, date, and subject matter. I spent most of the morning reading letters that mention Shakespeare. After just a few minutes it became clear this man idolized the Bard. One of most humors letters I read concerned the Shakespearean actor, David Garrick, one of Walpoles’ contemporaries. In the letter, Walpole is exchanging ideas about the famous actor. He argues that while Garrick is a “great” actor, he is terrible writer. “His prologues and epilogues and forty such pieces of trash are below Mediocrity.” He then goes on about Shakespeare: It is said Shakespeare was a bad actor; why do not his divine plays make our wise judges conclude that he was a good one?

I am not sure I follow his argument but I did notice his use of the word ‘divine”. This type of description can be found throughout Walpole’s letters. So, given that Walpole worshiped Shakespeare, would it surprise you to learn his idolatry bled into his work of fiction? Of course not.

I don’t want to give too much away in a review of The Castle of Otranto. I read it last night not know much about it myself, other than Walpole borrows from Hamlet. I don’t want to spoil the unease you may feel when first reading about the sinister plot that begins to unravel early in the novel. The basic plot centers on the castle of the Prince of Otranto. His son is killed on the way to his wedding and very quickly paranormal events shape the next few days. Something is haunting the castle, but what and why are only reveled at the end.

To say this play is based only on Hamlet is wrong. Whoever wrote the foreword for the Di Lernia edition must have never read beyond Hamlet. Walpole calls upon many of Shakespeare’s plays in this short novel. The Prince of Otranto’s wife is named Hippolita, an obvious take on Hippolyta from A Midsummer’s Night Dream. The friar who runs the church next to the Castle is a mirror image of the friar of Romeo and Juliet. One of the guards who is tasked with the unfortunate job of explaining a haunting to the unbelieving Prince has a touch of Dogberry in him. There is even a take on Robert Greene’s charge of Shakespeare as an “up-start crow”. Whoever weds Isabella, it shall not be Father Falconara’s started-up son”.

The only Hamlet like elements of the play are the many deaths either shown or recounted. Death by poison, drowning, and mistaken murder by blade are found in this novel. And like Hamlet, all these deaths seem to stem from a prince who cannot keep his emotions in check.

The Castle of Otranto is an entertaining read, though at times it is unintentionally funny. I don’t know if its because as a modern reader I found the “horror” element lacking or because it is truly absurd. Walpole wrote that the idea for the book came to him in a dream. Perhaps like most dreams, what scares us in our sleep sounds silly when we recount the tale. And speaking of dreams, Mary Shelly also claims it was a dream that prompted her to write her own Gothic novel. The Castle and Frankenstein have another common thread. Both are about “monsters” but the real monsters in both come in human form.

I recommend reading the novel for its Gothic historical value and for the pleasure of seeing how many Shakespeare references you can spot. But if you really like reading history from the perspective of the time, I suggest finding some time to read The Yale collection of Walpole’s letters. In them, there is much ado about everything.

Works cited

Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto Di Lernia Publishers, e-book edition
Horace Walpole, The Correspondence with Cole, Yale University online edition

Works Referenced

Rev Charles Langston Vicar of Beoley A Warwickshire Gentleman The Argosy, online thanks to Google Books.
Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Oxford, Encyclopædia Britannica online edition


Author: sarij

I'm a writer, lifelong bibliophile ,and researcher. I hold a Bachelors in Humanities & History and a Master's in Humanities. When I'm not reading or talking about Shakespeare or history, you can usually find me in the garden discussing science or politics with my cat.

8 thoughts on “Shakespeare and the first Gothic novel”

  1. I’ve got a copy of “Castle” on my shelves, but I can’t say I’ve read it in years. The unintended humor . . . well, you know what I mean.
    My copy is bound together with “Frankenstein” and William Beckford’s “Vathek” (1786) If you’ve not read the latter, it’s worth a gander, but it’s an outlier as a gothic novel, being based on Arabian mythology.
    Other possibilities: Wilhelm Meinhold, “The Amber Witch” (1839, trans. 1844), quite good;
    George Lippard, “Quaker City, or The Monks of Monk Hall” (1845), lengthy and of variable quality, but the tip of the hat to Monk Lewis couldn’t be more obvious;
    Vernon Lee, “A Phantom Lover,” aka “Oke of Okehurst” (1886), quite good;
    and Mary Wilkins-Freeman, “The Wind in the Rose-Bush, and Other Stories of the Supernatural” (collected 1903), what you might call New England gothic, which I reviewed here:
    (Alas, the link to the “Night Gallery” episode now only works if you have a Hulu membership, not true when I posted it.)
    Hope that includes one or two things you’ve not read!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Wow, Brian! Thanks! I read The Amber Witch years ago but most of the ones you mention are new to me. I don’t even think I’ve seen them on any list but they are going on mine. Thank you too for the link to your blog. It’s my next stop.
      I highly encourage my other friends to check it out if you’ve never seen Brian’s blog.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I think I’ve the same edition as you, Brian, but though I read the Walpole some time ago I haven’t yet got round to the others — must remedy that soon as well as re-reading ‘Otranto’ with a bit more insight!

      I did like Austen’s referencing of the Gothick genre in Northanger Abbey but I do think it’s a bit simplistic to say, as some do, that it’s merely a pastiche or parody of the genre; it’s a bit more wide-ranging and knowing than that.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I got the impression that Austen was not so much sending up Gothick as commenting on impressionable and relatively unsophisticated young women — impressionable in that reading such novels made them imagine they were the demoiselles of medieval plotlines (much like Twilight fans, say, are with vampires) and unsophisticated in that the Georgian Bath in-crowd might try to manipulate an ingenue up from the depths of the countryside.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. And then there’s Don Augustin Calmet – 18th century erudite theologian with a prolific output who produced a seminal work on east european folklore, vampires, revenants and the macabre just before his death – the genre is full of surprises and surprising individuals, I think partly because “gothic” speaks to or from some dark place in our psyche ^^

    Liked by 1 person

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