Italy and the English Gothic romance
In my previous article on Italy in Gothic literature (FN&E, May 2014) I explored a few of the Roman and medieval texts that influenced the English and American tradition of presenting Gothic tales in an Italian setting. Besides the classical association of the volcanoes Vesuvius and Etna with entrances into a sulfuric Hades or medieval Arthurian Valhalla, the first English author to pen a “Gothic Story,” as he himself called it, Horace Walpole—The Castle of Otranto (1764)—does have an avowed model for both the supernatural shenanigans we term “Gothic” and for putting an Italian backdrop behind them: William Shakespeare.
English Gothic poems and romances are a unique blend of geographical associations, symbolic motifs, and cultural anxieties. The narrative tradition equates superstition with the Middle Ages, helplessness with the abuses of a fading nobility (as well as the Catholic hierarchy and its Inquisition), lawlessness with the Italian bandito, and sums up anxieties regarding the heartlessness of the rich, family politics, and the patriarchy in general, in the image of a gloomy castle or a haunted house. Italy’s frighteningly beautiful Apennine Mountains, many surviving medieval castles, Catholic history, and reputation for violence, all act as perfect anti-images for eighteenth-century English parliamentary law, Protestant certainty, the rising of middle class propriety and manners—as well as Britain’s gentle landscape of rolling hills and grassy moors.
As Sigmund Freud described it, Gothic literature generates fear in its audience by presenting an image of Italy that represents everything England sought to repress of its own past—its many bloody wars with France and Spain, its own internecine unrest with the various Celtic races it had dominated, its suppression of Catholicism, and the throwing off of feudalism for the growing momentum of a mercantile capitalist economy. All of England’s past, and Italy’s fearfully imagined history, are also found in some of Shakespeare’s best plays; including the Roman histories, the Bard set 15 of his 37 plays either entirely or partially in Italy—I’m including The Tempest, set on a desert isle but dealing exclusively with Italian characters. Thematically, I can isolate eight major Shakespeare plays that also feature the major themes of Gothic literature: murder, ghosts, prophecy, magic, and evil characters who verge upon monstrosity—five of these plays are set in Italy: Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, Othello, and The Tempest.
Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto is a fun, if somewhat clunky short read. The tale of King Manfred’s search for an heir to his throne and battle with a gigantic ghostly avenger reads more like a play than the early English novel that it is, its five chapters much like a five-act Shakespearian play. More entertaining, more female-friendly, and written in luscious descriptive prose, are the romances of Walpole’s main disciple, Ann Radcliffe. The bestselling and highest-paid novelist of the late eighteenth century, four of Radcliffe’s five Gothic romances are set in Italy, including The Italian—the very name of which is meant to cause a shudder. In Radcliffe’s pages Shakespearian epigraphs commingle with Othello and Macbeth-like deposed Italian noblemen eking out violent livings as master banditi as they chase defenseless French damsels and English roses. Lastly, although it is perhaps the greatest of the eighteenth century’s Gothic revival, I’m sorry to say that Mathew Lewis’ The Monk is ostensibly set in Madrid. Still, whenever these pretend Spaniards curse they exclaim “Diavolo!”—inexplicably, in Italian!