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


Medieval Cats – Did She Call Macbeth a Pussy?

For International Cat Day, I thought I would dredge up a 2013 (where does the time go?) post on cats. Yes, there will be a new post soon, but for now let’s celebrate medieval cats!

I have a love/hate relationship with cats. When I was in my twenties I adored cats and often would own one or two. As a matter of personal trivia, one of the ways my then boyfriend (now ex-husband) got me to move in with him was a promise of letting me own a cat. I adopted a stray who wandered into work one day. CJ was a sleek black and white cat with whom I quickly bonded. Sadly, a car hit CJ about 6 months after I rescued him.

Next came Max. Max was a smart gray cat who loved to cuddle as well as wander the neighborhood. My boyfriend and I lived off a busy street in a converted barn that backed up against a large field. Max should have been content with the field but sadly he too met his demise on the busy street near hours. He lasted four months.

The next one, whose name escapes me, convinced me that I must be a terrible cat owner. It quickly became apparent my cats would rather commit suicide than live with me. The third cat only lasted a few weeks. My boyfriend and I got married and I decided to have a child, rather than pet; that is, only after we fenced in the yard!

Jump to 2009. I had to put my beloved dog down due to cancer and decided I’d had enough of pets. My son felt othe wise and begged for a cat. I told him about my experience as a cat owner or cat killer as it was, but he continued to beg and plead. I relented, secretly sure we would not have a cat around for long and by the time he went off to college, I would be child and pet free. It’s now 2013, and Cookie the tabby cat and I share this house. I am quite sure she is still here because of her neurotic nature. She is too damn scared to venture far from home. Sigh, just my luck I am stuck with a freaky cat. She is the type of cat who will come mew and rub against you, only to rush off, tail held high, at the slightest stroke to her fur. I honestly don’t know if she wants attention or suffers from a bi-polar mental disorder.


Medieval Cats by Kathleen Walker Meikle is one of the newer books in my collection. It had been on my Amazon wish list for a couple of years before my son bought it for me as a Christmas present this last year. It is a collection of pictures of cats found in medieval manuscripts with a little medieval cat trivia thrown in. The pictures alone are worth picking up the book; it would make a nice small coffee table book. The trivia may not win a round on Jeopardy, but it’s still worth reading.

Medieval cats were used as mousers, pets and fur. According to the sumptuary law of 1363, cat, lamb, rabbit and fox were the only type of fur allowed for gentlemen under the rank of knight. It seems abandoned cats were the primary source of fur.


The most common English name for all tomcats was Gyb, but some unimaginative people named individual cats Gyp. I know people like this, they name their cat “cat”.

Meikle tells us “Cats were often associated with the monastic order, perhaps due to their contemplative and quiet nature”(31). This could be why we see them in so many manuscripts.

We know that the reputation of Medieval cats were not always kind. They were sometimes seen as the devil’s aid. Witches were believed to commune with the dark lord through cats. Knowing this, it was surprising to learn that many high born ladies had a fondness for pet cats.

My favorite part of the book was the connection between cats and literature.


Cats appear in proverbs, as the one attributed to John Grower. He writes in his Confesio Amantis “As a cat would eat fishes, without wetting his paw. This is what Lady Macbeth is referring to when she says; “like the poor cat i’ the adage”, meaning wanting something but not willing to do what is necessary to get it. She is calling out Macbeth as a pussy.


We even find myths about cats in The Canterbury Tales. The Wife of Bath says that one of her former husbands described her thusly”

You said also I was like a cat; for a cat, if someone were to singe the cat’s skin, will always dwell at home; but if she were sleek and elegant in her fur, she will not remain in the house an hour, but before any day would dawn, will go forth to show her skin and go a-caterwauling. This is to say, sir rogue, if I am finely dressed, I will run out to show my clothes.

Come to think of it, I have friends like this too!

After reading this book, I am eager to find other books that Meikle has written. But I have promised myself they will stay on my wish list until I am done with the books I have.

Next up: Witches Werewolves and Fairies; Shapeshifters and astral doubles in the Middle Ages by Claude Lexouteux

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