The Gothic in Shakespeare

Yesterday, April 23, was Shakespeare’s birthday—and also his death day! In honor of the Bard, I figured I would take this opportunity to discuss his connection with the Gothic tradition. William Shakespeare was writing his plays and poems two centuries before the advent of the Gothic novel. However, his influence on the genre has been much attested, and proto-Gothic elements can be seen in a number of his plays. In this post, I will highlight these aspects in three of his darkest plays:

Goth Shakespeare, courtesy of my excellent Photoshop skills

Hamlet

Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, as well as one of his most gothic. In fact, you can see just how easily it can be adapted into a Gothic novel if you check out Sea of Secrets by Amanda DeWees, which I reviewed last month. The first hint of its gothicness is Hamlet’s medieval setting. Most early Gothic novels were set in the Middle Ages or some ambiguous distant past. Specifically, in a romanticized and sometimes exoticized version of the past with opulent castles, sinister magic, and dangerous strangers from foreign parts. The temporal distance from the reader that this setting creates adds plausibility to the supernatural elements and allows the author to exaggerate and embellish. The medieval era was less distant for Shakespeare, who was writing during the Renaissance, than for the Gothic writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Nonetheless, Shakespeare uses medieval settings in his darkest plays to similar effect. Hamlet takes place in the medieval kingdom of Denmark, and most of the action occurs in Elsinore Castle. The gothic action is intimately tied up with the setting, as in the memorable scene when Hamlet first encounters his father’s ghost on the ramparts of the castle. This scene also introduces another gothic element: the theme of revenge. One of the defining characteristics of Gothic stories is the concept of the past haunting the present, often in the form of a past wrong that needs to be revealed, righted, or revenged. In Hamlet, the dead king’s ghost reveals that he was murdered and charges Hamlet with avenging him.

Another theme that pervades Hamlet is the idea of madness, a topic that was explored in classic Gothic novels like Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer and became intimately tied up with our notions of gothic and horror through the works of Edgar Allan Poe. In the play, both Hamlet and Ophelia are depicted as descending into madness. Ophelia in particular is an interesting precursor to both the virginal female victims in Gothic novels and the trope of the madwoman. Her suicide, though it happens off-stage in the play, went on to inspire a painting trend among Victorian artists that fed into the trope of Beautiful Dead/Dying Women, also popular with Poe.

Macbeth

This play has such a dark reputation that many thespians refuse to speak its title within a theater, referring to it instead as “The Scottish Play,” lest they bring on the curse that supposedly attends it. Superstitions abound regarding dangerous accidents, financial disasters, and a couple of deaths that have occurred during productions of Macbeth. Some of the anxiety around Macbeth stems from its inclusion of the characters known as the Weird Sisters, or the three witches. Women of dark and powerful magic, the witches instigate the action of the play with their tempting yet ominous prophecies. And in case you were wondering how much direct influence these witches had on Gothic writers, Horace Walpole—author of the first Gothic novel—also wrote a parody of Macbeth titled The Dear Witches in which he used the three Weird Sisters to comment on the political corruption of his time.

Like Hamlet, Macbeth takes place in a medieval setting and partially takes place inside a castle. Macbeth was an actual king in eleventh-century Scotland and much of the play’s action occurs in his historical castle at Inverness. Another element in common with Hamlet is the inclusion of ghosts in the story. Spurred on by the witches’ prophecy, Macbeth hires men to murder his friend Banquo. Banquo’s ghost then shows up to haunt Macbeth at a banquet and embodies one of the play’s main themes: a guilty conscience. One last similarity to Hamlet is the trope of the mad and suicidal woman, though Ophelia more closely resembles Gothic protagonists and victims while Lady Macbeth prefigures more villainous women.

Richard III

Richard III may not be as familiar to casual readers of Shakespeare as Hamlet or Macbeth, but it has many similarities to the other two. Its setting is also medieval, although right on the cusp of a new era. The play follows the short reign of the historical King Richard III of England whose defeat during the War of the Rose in 1485 is considered by some to be the official end of the Middle Ages. It also features a number of ghosts—in fact, there’s quite a parade of them in Act V, Scene 3 when the spirits of everyone Richard has killed appear to him in his sleep on the eve of the fateful Battle of Bosworth. Each ghost repeats the phrase “Despair and die!” after reminding Richard of his role in their deaths, continuing Macbeth‘s theme of the guilty conscience, as well as of supernatural prophecies.

One last Gothic element that particularly stands out in Richard III is an early example of what would later be called the Byronic anti-hero. This character type is based on the actual persona of Romantic poet Lord Byron, as well as on many of the characters in his writings. It came to be popular in Gothic fiction, beginning with the vampire Lord Ruthven in John Polidori’s “The Vampyre” which was directly based on Byron. The Byronic anti-hero is generally arrogant, anti-social, and morally gray or even outright evil, but his negative traits are balanced out by undeniable charm and charisma which draw sympathy and admirers. Shakespeare’s Richard III states unambiguously in his opening speech that he is “determined to prove a villain” and openly boasts to the audience of his plans for murder and mayhem. Yet his humor and wit not only charm the other characters in the story but also raise feelings of sympathy and admiration in the reader or audience. Though he’s clearly the antagonist of the story, he is also the protagonist, and you can’t help but root for him.

I hope you enjoyed my analysis of the Gothic in Shakespeare. Which other of Shakespeare’s plays do you think exhibit Gothic qualities? Are there any Gothic elements I missed? Let me know in the comments!

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