Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Secondary Lit Post: Krista DeMeuse

A reader of Horace Walpole’s Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto can clearly observe similarities between the novel and the plays of Shakespeare, specifically Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. In his article “Hamlet and Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto,” Robert B. Hamm Jr. explores the ways in which Walpole’s novel was influenced by and tried to expand upon the embodiment of the emotion of terror that was portrayed by actors in theatrical productions. Hamm Jr. argues that Walpole was successful in his attempt, stating “While it draws heavily on the theater, Otranto concludes, I argue, by privileging the novel’s superior ability to embody emotion persuasively” (669). According to Hamm Jr. Walpole’s inspiration for the terror in his novel was the Ghost’s appearance to Hamlet in the play, which Walpole inserts into the novel three different times—sometimes with verbatim dialogue—in an attempt to translate the terror inspired by the actors into the pages of the novel (674).

In the second half of his article, Hamm Jr. compares the corresponding scenes in the play and in the novel. The first interaction with the supernatural in The Castle of Otranto takes place in the first chapter when the painting of Manfred’s father comes alive and interrupts Manfred’s attempt to ravish Isabella. According to Hamm Jr., Walpole recreates the scene by “casting Prince Manfred in the role of Prince Hamlet” (675). Hamm argues that the fact that Manfred immediately identifies the figure a part of a sinister plot to undermine his authority strikes more terror into the reader, there by surpassing the terror in the play (675-676). The second instance of the appearance of the Ghost to Hamlet is mirrored in the novel when Jerome—who was thought dead by his son for so long that he symbolically represents Hamlet’s dead father—tells his son Theodore about the sufferings faced by their family. While no actual spectral appearances occur in this scene, Hamm Jr. argues, Hippolta’s unexpected entrance into the scene serves as the terror inducing moment (678). Finally, the last instance in which Walpole mirrors Shakespeare is the scene in which a specter visits Fredrick—the father of Isabella—to remind him of an oath that he made, corresponding to when the Ghost reminds Hamlet to remember the promise of revenge that he made (679-680).

Robert B. Hamm Jr. ends his article with an overview of how Horace Walpole is able to expand the terror of the play Hamlet in the novel form with The Castle of Otranto, “Walpole increases the number of characters who stand in for both Hamlet and the Ghost. In essence, he provides three sons and three spectral fathers to explore various depictions and degrees of terror. The multiplication of characters involved in these scenes is indicative of the novel’s broader treatment of the passion” (682). The overall argument of Hamm Jr. seems to be that one of the purpose’s behind Walpole’s creation of The Castle of Otranto was to encourage members of society leave behind the theater and move to novels in order to “find true emotion” depicted (686).

Before I read this article, I had not noticed all of the allusions and similarities to Shakespeare in The Castle of Otranto. While this article was somewhat dense and seemed to lose focus at some points, I did find Robert Hamm Jr.’s argument to be very enlightening. I can see how the scenes from The Castle of Otranto that he describes do mirror those in Hamlet and how readers could possibly find the novel more terrifying because Walpole makes it seem as if the supernatural experiences could happen to anyone, not just a prince. However I am unsure if I fully believe his argument that Walpole was trying to “one up” Shakespeare.

Do you buy Hamm Jr.’s argument that Walpole expands the terror of Hamlet by increasing the number of people to who experience the supernatural and/or visits from a specter? What about the claim that Walpole was consciously encouraging people to read more novels and go to the theater less?

Hamm Jr., Robert B. “Hamlet and Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto.” SEL: Studies in English Literature (John Hopkins) 49.3 (2009): 667-692. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 25 October 2011.


  1. I do see a connection between Hamlet and The Castle of Otranto. The idea of ghosts coming back to haunt people... because of unresolved problems. In turn it gives the protagonists a mission. For Manfred, it was to keep his castle and give it to his heir. And making the novel a lot more gripping could potentially entertain people with more books than theatre. I always thought that reading the book gives a better experience than a watching the movie.

  2. Also, experiencing ghosts or even prophecies makes one go mad. Haha! As we see in Hamlet, he goes crazy or acts crazy in order to pursue his mission in having revenge for his father. For Manfred, he goes mad as well. He makes evil pursuits to marry Isabella and HE KILLS HIS OWN DAUGHTER!

  3. I haven't read Hamlet since High School, so I'm a little hazy on the exact details. However, overall The Castle of Otranto does mirror similar qualities to a Shakespeare play. Like we talked about in class, the names alone are Shakespearean. Also, the dramatic intermingling episodes between the three families is too similar to Shakespeare.

  4. Longish critique, summary in last paragraph.

    Hamm Jr.'s assertions that Walpole was trying to outdo Shakespeare, though plausible, doesn't quite work for me. I think that Walpole was using Shakespearean themes and references for two distinct reasons. He wanted to make an homage to his predecessor's work, and in doing so he wanted to draw in his readers using language, names, and themes which would at that time have been familiar to them from Shakespeare's plays.

    Those Shakespearean elements, compared and contrasted with his vivid descriptions of the helmet itself, the sword, and the final proclamation of the giant spirit of Alfonso, showcase how Walpole was able to give his readers more dramatic and fantastic entertainment than theatrical productions were capable of. Watching a play, the audience experiences only what is shown to them through the interpretations of the director and actors of the playwright's script. The reader of a novel, though, gets to co-create the story by viewing it through the lens of his or her own imagination, which allows for more emotional involvement.

    In brief, I disagree with Hamm Jr.'s assertion that Walpole was trying to outdo Shakespeare in terror, but I agree that in emulating Shakespeare Walpole was trying to credit the novel and discredit the theater as sources of entertainment.

  5. This is an interesting interpretation of these similar supernatural elements. It seems to take the out of the literal sphere into the psychological one. The ghosts are the way of showing the audience how haunted the characters are by their fears--Hamlet's obligations to family and Manfred's guilt over his illegitimate rule. It is making the invisible visible.

    I haven't seen enough to be convinced that Walpole was trying to make the case for the supremecy of his medium over the stage. He discusses theater in his second preface with admiration and even defends Shakespeare against contemporary critics.

  6. I agree with Jesse. I think Walpole did admire the theater for he uses so many theatrical tools within his novel. Since he obviously based this novel off of Shakespeare, I think he clearly had some desire and affection for it. Isn't imitation a form of flattery? I feel that Walpole was merely trying to alter theater into novel form rather than saying that theater was a lesser form of entertainment.

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  8. I do not think that Walpole imitated "Hamlet" with his inclusion of ghosts in "The Castle of Otranto". Although Shakespeare was one of the greatest playwrights of all time, he did not invent the uncanny concept of afterlife, and the visitation of ghosts and hauntings. I think that these are experiences that, for centuries, people have believed they have had, and that ghost stories and the belief in hauntings have been around since even before Shakespeare's time; I think it is unfair that we accuse Walpole of mimicking this idea. I have read "Hamlet" about 5-6 times, and until our class discussion, it really didn't hit me that there were so many similarities between the two. Although people make arguments for the use of similar names, etc., I think that is just the author staying true to the time period. I think with anything, if we want to find similarities, we will, but Walpole's "Castle of Otranto" employs gothic tools much differently than does Shakespeare. I think there is a much more eerie/uncanny feeling in Walpole's work, because I think its elements are much more fitting to the gothic genre than "Hamlet".
    In addition, I do not think that Walpole was discouraging the theatre; I think he employs many theatrical elements in his novel. Through the use of romance, the uncanny, and many other lively aspects, the natural progression of the novel made it an outlet for entertainment, this way people didn't have to go to a theatre to experience the emotion of a play, you could read it in your own private space.
    Thus, I do not think that Walpole was trying to "one up" Shakespeare, I think that the "Castle of Otranto" is truly one of the first pieces of gothic literature. There are many unique aspects to it that Shakespeare does not include in his own plays.