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The Castle of Otranto | Context


First Gothic Novel

The Castle of Otranto is considered by most scholars to be the first Gothic novel. When the novel was published in 1764, there was a good deal of debate as to what the function of fiction was, or ought to be. Thus, Horace Walpole was well aware that he was creating a new genre and laying down the foundations for it. The prevailing attitude was that fiction should be representative of life and as real as possible. Many of these realistic books went into excruciating detail in order to outline the etiquette and manners of their characters.

This frustrated Walpole, who wanted to write imaginative stories, which he believed were more authentic than realistic works and showed a different or under-analyzed side of humanity. According to Walpole, blending "new" and "old" romance—where the "old" was fantastical and the "new" was grounded in reality—could show why people behaved the way they did, instead of merely reporting on a characters' surface behaviors. The Castle of Otranto places ordinary people in extraordinary situations, which Walpole claimed to have come to him in dreams. He explained, "I have given reins to my imagination till I became on fire with the visions and feelings which it excited. I have composed it in defiance of rules, of critics, and of philosophers; and it seems to me just so much the better for that very reason."

Borrowing from Walpole's imaginative constructs in The Castle of Otranto, subsequent authors of the 18th and 19th centuries wrote innumerable stories with creepy corridors, horrific apparitions, sensational and mysterious settings, and unusual and supernatural circumstances. Authors borrowed and adapted many concepts that came directly from The Castle of Otranto, such as the damsel in distress, the mysterious stranger, and the skeleton in the closet. English novelist Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (1817), written at the beginning of the Romantic movement, is a satire of the hugely popular Gothic novels published during her lifetime.

The literary movement known as Romanticism, a widespread rebellion against formal harmony and straightforward realism, swept through Europe from the late 18th century to the mid-19th century. The development of Gothic conventions eventually inspired Gothic Romanticism. English novelist Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1847) is one example of a Gothic Romance. French novelist Victor Hugo's Notre-Dame de Paris (1831, known in modern times as The Hunchback of Notre Dame) is another well-known example. Like The Castle of Otranto, it is set in the medieval time period.

Walpole and Medieval History

In his introduction to The Castle of Otranto, Scottish poet and historian Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) says Walpole intended to return to the Middle Age's "secret and reserved feeling of love for the marvellous [sic] and supernatural" and "draw such a picture of domestic life and manners, during the feudal times ... chequered [sic] and agitated by the action of supernatural machinery, such as the superstition of the period received as matter of devout credulity." In other words, Walpole wanted to write a story where the characters believed in ghosts and supernatural signs.

In the 1760s, the time period in which Walpole was writing, gothick was a general term for a distasteful and barbarian past called the Middle Ages or medieval time period (c. 500 to 1400–1500 CE). This sentiment stems from when the Goths, a Germanic tribe, invaded the Roman Empire sometime in the 5th century CE and initiated the Empire's downfall. Walpole's readers were in the midst of the Age of Enlightenment, or Age of Reason (1685–1815), which was marked by a devotion to science and rationality. Neoclassical (1660–1798) attitudes (logic, conservatism, restraint, and devotion to the artistic styles of Ancient Rome and Greece) had also pervaded England, and most of society at this time looked down upon the religious superstition (and the religious politics) of distant centuries. But Walpole was attracted to the idea of bringing that past to life in fiction, to shake up the "cold common sense" and "philosophical skepticism" he disliked about the society in which he lived. To better understand the events, allusions, and character motivations in The Castle of Otranto, it is helpful to have some understanding or knowledge of the Middle Ages.

Catholicism in the Middle Ages

Catholicism, which was the only branch of Christianity widely practiced in Europe, functioned much like a government in modern times would. Although many thinkers of the time desired a different relationship between the church and the state, the church and state were not separated. However, within the church, material and social offices were dealt with separately from the spiritual, but, still, these were blurred. The pope and his papacy had ultimate power over much of Europe and all its reigning monarchs from his seat in Rome. (Muslims controlled the Iberian Peninsula near Portugal and Spain, and there were large Jewish populations in many European countries. There was also an entirely separate Orthodox Church centered in Asia.)

The Catholic church canonized saints who performed miracles, and it kept meticulous records of people whose lives suggested exceptional accordance with God. Such people may have exhibited divine powers to heal or practice miracles while alive. They may also have exhibited such divine powers after death, either in spirit form by appearing to those on earth or from power left behind in the saints' relics. Relics are saints' body parts, such as their bones, or objects the saints touched that were left behind. The practice of listing, recording, and venerating the miraculous deeds of the saints is called hagiography.

The belief in miraculous powers was differentiated from practicing magic—to an extreme degree. For example, the Spanish Inquisition (1478–1834) was a brutal and bloody slaughtering of those who were accused of witchcraft and sorcery or those perceived to not believe "correctly"—according to the pope—in the Catholic religion. People were held in prisons, tortured, or burned alive, and they often confessed to religious "crimes" as a means to stop unbearable torture. Further, practicing magic and sorcery was aligned with the devil. In contrast, the power and prophecy of the saints or the spirits of the saints were seen to derive from God. Walpole stays true to this Middle Age distinction between magic and the miraculous supernatural.

St. Nicholas

St. Nicholas, who is the only saint portrayed in The Castle of Otranto, was a popular saint throughout the Middle Ages. St. Nicholas was a legend likely based on the real bishop of Myra, who lived in the 4th century. After his death, the bishop of Myra's relics (bones) were exhumed and moved a few times, each time causing a fresh stirring in his popularity. Nicholas was known for giving gifts to the poor and acts of kindness; because of his reputation, numerous plays, feasts, and paintings were dedicated to him over many centuries. Miraculous water with the power to heal is said to come from the bones of St. Nicholas, going all the way back to 1087. Over the centuries thousands of churches have been built in St. Nicholas's honor. When his popularity died down in other countries in the 18th century, he remained popular in Holland, where he was called by the Dutch designation Sinterklaas. The Dutch, who founded New Amsterdam, now known as New York City, continued to honor St. Nicholas, and he evolved slowly into what became known as Santa Claus in the 19th century in the United States.

St. Nicholas is the name of the church in The Castle of Otranto. St. Nicholas, as a character in the narrative, appears in or is related to all of the prophecies and visions that occur or are discussed in the novel. In The Castle of Otranto, Alfonso the Good's statue bleeds, which is much like St. Nicholas's relics dispensing of water. Also, at the end of the novel Alfonso the Good's ghost appears, and the power of the appearance causes part of the castle to crumble. Alfonso the Good rises to heaven and is greeted by St. Nicholas. Hence, Alfonso the Good, a fictional character Walpole created, is portrayed as a saint from the Middle Ages would be.


The castle of Otranto, the actual structure, is only a part of what Manfred, Prince of Otranto, is lord of. While Walpole does not delve into these particulars, Otranto would be more like a feudal estate of the type that structured medieval European society: a village or small city within the castle walls, surrounded by farmland. Otranto is a community, and Manfred rules his own army; although he would technically be the subject of a king, everyone in Otranto would be considered Manfred's subject.

The Crusades

Two of the novel's characters, Frederic, Marquis of Vicenza, and Alfonso the Good, fought in the Crusades (1095–1291+), a series of religious wars the Catholic Church waged in an attempt to gain control of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, which was under Islamic rule during much of the medieval period. Because of its importance to the three Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—ownership of the Holy Land had been contested for centuries. In particular, members of all three faiths sought control over and access to the sites where historical events had occurred in what is now the Middle East. These places came to be considered sacred sites—many of which overlap—for all three faiths, and access to them is a source of discord and violence even to this day.

The Crusades led to the forming of several military religious orders consisting of knights who appointed themselves protectors of the Holy Land and those traveling there from Europe. Templars or Knights Templars, the Teutonic Knights, and the Hospitallers are among these orders.

Romances, Tales of Chivalry

Walpole, Scott says, wanted to mix current literary trends in fiction of the 1760s with the "ancient romances of chivalry," which had been far out of fashion "so early as the reign of Queen Elizabeth (1533–1603)." These were popular stories beginning in the mid-12th century. Tales of courtly, ideal love with distinct moral conventions and codes of honor (chivalry) include stories such as those about King Arthur and his knights and Camelot, to which French poet Chrétien de Troyes (12th century) added the character Lancelot and the idea of the Holy Grail. In The Castle of Otranto, Frederic and Alfonso the Good, who are knights, adhere to most of these codes of honor, while Manfred breaks them all, particularly in his lustful pursuit of Isabella through the gloomy castle. Courtly, ideal love is chaste, and Frederic, under Walpole's inventiveness, diverges from the medieval trope of knightly honor, as he struggles to make the right moral choice about marrying Matilda and giving his daughter Isabella to Manfred—who is already married—to wed.

The Castle of Otranto and Shakespeare

In the Preface to the First Edition, Walpole pretends he is only the translator of a recovered manuscript and not the writer of The Castle of Otranto, and, in doing so, he adds humor and an additional layer of fiction to his ensuing narrative. "It is a pity," Walpole says, speaking of the supposed "author," "that he did not apply his talents to what they were evidently proper for, the theatre." And then, in the Preface to the Second Edition, when Walpole has been uncovered to be the real writer, he unabashedly takes on French writer Voltaire's and others' criticism of his novel. "The great master of nature, SHAKESPEARE, was the model I copied," Walpole informs his readers. It is difficult to read The Castle of Otranto without envisioning it for the stage or thinking of several of Shakespeare's well-known plays.

With regard to plot, the novel reads like a Shakespearean play told in prose, which Walpole, based on his introductory remarks, may have intended it to be. It is most reminiscent of a contorted version of Romeo and Juliet (1594–96) but with vital twists and differences. Theodore would be equivalent to Romeo and Matilda to Juliet, but instead of two young lovers rebelling against their parents and their parents' conventions and the long enmity between their houses, Montague and Capulet, it is Manfred and Hippolita, Matilda's dysfunctional parents. All of the parents in The Castle of Otranto, Hippolita, Manfred, and Frederic are more like the over-passionate teenagers in Romeo and Juliet, who are willing to do anything (particularly the lust-driven Manfred and Frederic), while the youth, including Isabella, are calm, dutiful, and responsible.

Romeo and Juliet's central dilemma also involves a problem between two houses, but in The Castle of Otranto, two families are fighting over one house. Though the reader does not know it for a long time, Manfred is not the rightful owner of Otranto, and he is chasing down a way—through Isabella—to become the rightful owner and join two lineages. In addition, both the play and novel have as a central character a meddling monk, one friar with secrets to keep (Friar Laurence, Romeo and Juliet) and the other friar with secrets to reveal (Father Jerome, The Castle of Otranto).

Hippolita is a variation of Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595–96). The Castle of Otranto's Hippolita, whose husband wants to divorce her for a younger woman who is like a daughter to them both, is like an unwanted castaway—instead of a queen—caught in a midlife nightmare. The betrothals, misplaced desires, and breaking of betrothals in The Castle of Otranto all bring to mind the fairy hijinks in A Midsummer Night's Dream. For example, Manfred tries to marry Isabella; Matilda and Theodore fall in love but Matilda agrees to marry Frederic; and Isabella and Matilda fight over Theodore. However, while the comedy shimmers in Shakespeare's play, similar circumstances in the novel are gloomy and of serious consequence. A Midsummer Night's Dream ends with a triple marriage. The Castle of Otranto ends with two children slain, a crumbled castle, and a marriage between two grieving characters that takes place long after the ending of the action in the novel, not a wedding.

The violent questions of bloodlines, succession, and insecure lineages serve as key elements in many of Shakespeare's plays, spanning from Hamlet (1599–1601) to Richard II (1595–96) and Macbeth (1606–07), and it is one that is also a major concern in The Castle of Otranto. There is also the matter of incest, which is featured in both Walpole's book and Hamlet.

Both authors often created mixtures of comedy and tragedy, and they did this by using the minor, servant characters as comic relief. This is a nuance Walpole takes directly from Shakespeare.

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