WALPOLE’S HAMLET

11 Jun

             

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GOOD WRITERS STEAL… THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO

 

  Although renowned as the first Gothic novel “The castle of Otranto” may also account for the first situational comedy or perhaps even soap drama.  Concussed with a myriad of extreme scenarios, absent family members, long lost fathers, would be rapists, giants, ghosts and counts masquerading as priests the reader is led on a rolling coaster of ups and downs. A Gothic family feud that blends horror with inadvertent humor, in a home the Adam’s Family would be proud to own. To call Walpole’s work naïve would be unfair, as it’s only from the promontory of experience that one can espouse to review his work as such. Having no contemporary comparison in this particular genre, we have to review the novel as an original work and Walpole himself as the God Father of Goth. That being said the spirit that haunts this particular feast is that of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

               Walpole without doubt has taken Shakespeare’s work and adapted it to his own use. In the classic sense of good writers steal and poor writers borrow – not unlike the playwright himself – he molds what is ostensibly a play into the modern medium of the novel. The author overwrites the play with his own ideas and succeeds in creating an original work based on a more familiar foundation. Through closer examination of Walpole’s novel one can draw direct relationships between his story structure and that of “Hamlet,” and see that rather than plagiarize, Walpole has cleverly adapted. Given the popularity of his novel and the reviews it received at its publishing it’s unlikely that his audience saw fault in what he did. In the traditions of both Chaucer and Shakespeare, Walpole draws from established pedigree, and through the use of allusion and trope, embellishes accordingly to create a successful story.

               The most obvious “Hamlet” allusion is the visitation of the spirit. Manfred, whilst berating Isabella and trying to convince her to marry him after his son’s death – to guarantee lineage – a ghost suddenly appears. A specter mysteriously drops down from a painting, “quit its panel, and descend[ed] on the floor with a grave and melancholy air,” (p.24) walks across the floor, turns and then beckons for Manfred to follow him. Manfred does so saying, “Lead on I will follow thee to the gulf of perdition,” (p.25) only for the ghost to disappear into a locked room. The scene is without doubt taken from the battlements of Elsinore where Hamletmeets his dead father. After being warned of the ghost’s presence Hamletdecides to hold the watch and see for himself that which his guards have experienced. The ghost of his father is a mighty, forbidding figure, dressed in armor – allusions perhaps to the massive helmet in the courtyard and the Giant seen by the servants within the house. Walpole’s ghost clumsily initiates foreshadowing for his own novel, just as the watchmen on Elsinore’s battlements regard the specter as a warning of impending doom for Denmark.

               The confused, comic scene in the crypt when Manfred confronts his servants who’ve seen something, “a site, your highness would not believe your eyes,” (p.31) but can’t bring themselves to talk of it, are direct allusions to Shakespeare’s watchman. Having witnessed what they believe to be Hamlet’s father resurrected they remain unsure of what to do, and so invite Horatio to the battlements to attest to their sighting. This is an enduring and almost nonsensical episode in Walpole’s novel when, after trying to recapture uncooperative Isabella, the footsteps of his servants are heard running down the hall way with an urgent message. They’ve seen something terrible, “A giant…clad in armor [and]… his foot [and] leg… are as large as the helmet in the courtyard,” (p.33) in the great hall and can hardly bring themselves to speak of it. Again, one is reminded of Hamlet’s ghost supposed appearance, and the need to verify. Manfred isn’t convinced, thinks his servants fools, and decides to check for himself. In what is almost comic relief we are led to an empty hall where there’s no sign – even after checking behind the paintings – of the giant: the only marks of his passing are the unreliable witness statements and of course the unforgettable, gigantic helmet in the courtyard.

               The Incest question is also reminiscent of “Hamlet”. His father having been murdered, his mother quickly remarries his brother. Hamlet sees this as an incestuous relationship, an allusion that Shakespeare himself probably took this from the dramatic divorce of Henry VIII from his dead brother’s wife, Catherine of Aragon. Manfred uses the fact that Hippolita is a distant cousin to try to persuade the Father/Count that he is incestuously married and therefore the legitimacy of his divorce is righteous.

               The list goes on and on, and Walpole’s novel is a compendium of Hamlet’s own action packed adventures that include sword fights, death of Ophelia/ Matilda, reappearance of the ghost to Frederic/ Hamlet, poison, bumbling servants, questions of legitimacy, ownership, lineage, family feud, death and even Fortinbras’s arrival at the castle gates in the shape of Frederic, Isabella’s father. Despite that Walpole has taken so much from Shakespeare it doesn’t alter the fact that the novel reads well, is entertaining, and if nothing else memorable, and so one can almost forgive him for wholesale theft. His descriptive quality and ability to create imagery is outstanding, and the tale of Hamlet, a familiarity that simply adds a recognition factor. As the reader is led into the unfamiliar there is a sense of having heard the story somewhere before, a vague memory of having visited Otranto in the distant past. There’s no doubt that Walpole although the initiate of the Gothic genre – just as we all do – needed a little help from his friends. There is however, a lingering taint and one could almost suggest that something is rotten in “The Castle of Otranto.”

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