Shakespeare, The Castle of Otranto, and the Problem of the Corpse on the Eighteenth-Century Stage
Abstract

This essay considers the limited presence of the dead body in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. The near absence of gory death from the novella is striking, given both its intensive borrowing from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and its status as the founding work of the Gothic tradition. The essay argues that Walpole’s selective use of Shakespearean materials is symptomatic of an eighteenth-century ambivalence towards the use of death as spectacle, an ambivalence that manifests itself in the critical dispute over the stage corpse. The analysis of this dispute reveals two contradictory impulses at work: on the one hand, there is a desire to push such images out of sight in hopes of advancing a more refined sensibility; on the other hand, especially in the latter half of the century, there is a gradual emergence of a patriotic wish to embrace the spectacle of death as part of a native literary tradition, with which Shakespeare’s name is rapidly becoming synonymous. The final section of the essay considers The Castle of Otranto’s reworking of Shakespeare’s macabre materials as a complex and ambiguous reflection of these contradictory urges.