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.