Christy Desmet and Anne Williams, eds. Shakespearean Gothic

Posted by Dale Townshend on November 30, 2009 in Reviews tagged with , , ,

Christy Desmet & Anne Williams (Eds.) Shakespearean Gothic (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2009.)

Reviewed by Sarah Pike, University of Stirling

From its earliest days, writers of Gothic literature have been appropriating Shakespeare. Viewed as ‘the paradigmatic figure of literary authority’, Gothic writers worked Shakespearean elements into their writing in an attempt to claim literary respectability, and to elevate the status of their work. Given these circumstances, it is strange that the connection between Shakespeare and the Gothic has been so long neglected. This book is the second this year to position itself as a response to this lack, the first being John Drakakis and Dale Townshend’s Gothic Shakespeares. Shakespearean Gothic addresses the seemingly pervasive belief that Shakespeare and the Gothic occupy two extremes of the literary hierarchy, and attempts to answer the self-posed question: ‘what could Shakespeare have to do with the Gothic, that repository of cheap thrills?’ At long last, we shall perhaps find out.

Shakespearean Gothic offers a selection of essays, loosely divided into three sections. The first considers the use of Shakespeare by three Gothic writers; Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, and William Ireland. The second focuses on Gothic “re-writings” of Shakespearean plays in Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey and Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Mary Shelley’s Matilda, Matthew Lewis’ The Monk and Amelia Opie’s Father and Daughter. The third section views Shakespeare as a Gothic author, first examining the “Gothic” elements in Richard III and Hamlet, and then demonstrating how later Gothic authors and screenwriters used these elements in their own Gothic productions.

The most successful of these sections is undoubtedly the second, perhaps because it focuses on interpreting texts with a clear Shakespearean influence, rather than attempting to draw out strained connections. Yael Shapira’s consideration of The Monk as a rewriting of Romeo and Juliet is one of the most interesting. Shapira begins by demonstrating how Lewis’ narrative operates as a ‘perversion’ of Shakespeare’s play, converting the youthful lovers into rapist and victim; Ambrosio and Antonia. The essay also highlights a certain confusion within the text, however, with Matilda also figuring as an initially more obvious Juliet, and Antonia as more easily representative of Rosaline.

The other sections do, of course, have their strengths. Christy Desmet’s analysis of the Shakespearean quotes in Dracula is the outstanding example in part three, beginning with a consideration of the way such quotes ‘haunt’ the text, before progressing to an analysis of the three central texts quoted; Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear, and their relation to the events of the novel. Particularly interesting is her consideration of how the events of King Lear are paralleled in the Renfield/Seward/Dracula subplot, and of the ways in which Lucy successively adopts the roles of Desdemona, Lady Macbeth, and Ophelia. Part one also offers an intriguing Freudian reading of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. Anne Williams suggests that Walpole used Hamlet as a way of addressing his own fears about illegitimacy, the events of which pervade Otranto‘s obsession with good and bad fathers and mothers, and the inability of sons to live up to the demands of their fathers. She also considers how Otranto actualises Freud’s “family romance”, and suggests how Hamlet‘s gravedigger scene may function as Walpole’s literary “primal scene”.

Perhaps inevitably, however, connections in some of the other essays seem rather strained. A case in point is Marjean Purinton and Marliss Desens’ attempt to read Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey as a re-writing of Hamlet. While their earlier consideration of Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey is easier to countenance, the totalising reading of Austen in these terms seems undeniably stretched. The essay does highlight some interesting points of convergence between Austen’s novel and Hamlet, but to read the whole in this way seems particularly tenuous.

Another example is Jessica Walker’s reading of Richard III as a Gothic play, the logic of which seems indisputably backwards. Although the essay points out some fascinating connections between this play and The Castle of Otranto, it occasionally seems to forget that to say there are Gothic elements in Richard III can only be done post-facto — it is more likely that Otranto reminds us of Richard because Walpole appropriated elements of the play for use in his Gothic novel, and not because Shakespeare was a latently Gothic writer; if he is to be read so, it can only be retrospectively.

Ultimately, it is fair to say that these failings are few, and this book offers many fresh ways of reading both Shakespeare’s plays and the more entrenched Gothic novels. There is a particular emphasis on the predominance of Hamlet, which perhaps suggests scope for further investigation, and on the ways in which many Gothic heroines can be strongly linked to various Shakespearean predecessors. In this way, the collection offers some truly insightful perspectives on the connection between Shakespeare and the Gothic, which clearly answer the opening question, and more than make up for its occasional lapses.

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