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‘Supp’d full with horrors’: 400 years of Shakespearean supernaturalism

From Horace Walpole to Steven King, Shakespeare has inspired centuries of supernatural Gothic terror. Macbeth And Banquo, Théodore Chassériau, 1855. Via Wikimedia Commons

‘Supp’d full with horrors’: 400 years of Shakespearean supernaturalism

The expression “star-crossed lovers,” one of the earliest recorded “knock, knock” jokes and many other one-liners, metaphors and entirely new words, are some of the gems we associate with Shakespeare.

What is seldom acknowledged, out of Shakespeare’s abundant contributions to our culture, is his influence on the genre of supernatural fear.

Nearly four centuries after his death, the Bard’s impact on supernaturalism and the Gothic genre is equally as significant as his other writings on power, English history, death and love.

Shakespearean ghosts and witches have found a compelling afterlife in a post-Gothic world of film. Macbeth’s weird sisters have been depicted as schoolgirls, nuns, and garbage men. Sometimes the ghost of Hamlet Senior is downright terrifying. Sometimes Hamlet hugs his father’s ghost. Even in Disney’s G-rated Hamlet, elements of the supernatural – in the form of Mufasa’s ghost – are still retained.

When we measure the Bard’s contribution to literary culture, it’s arguably most pronounced in his depictions of the nightmarish and the otherworldly which have inspired so many over the years.

Night of the living dead

Macbeth, a play shrouded in superstition, is one of the few Shakespearean plays that earned the moniker “The Scottish Play” to avoid having to use its supposedly-jinxed title. Given the newly-crowned King James’s interest in witchcraft in the early 1600s, (James authored the treatise Daemonologie in 1597), Macbeth echoes a cultural fascination with superstition and the occult.

Hamlet begins with a “night of the living dead”: the nocturnal visit of Hamlet Senior provides the narrative thrust which leads Hamlet on to both his tragic death and one of the most overwrought soliloquies in literary history.

Schwarzenegger’s Hamlet Parody in ‘Last Action Hero’ (1993).

In 1764, at the height of the Enlightenment, Shakespeare’s ghosts and witches were crucial in the genesis of the first English Gothic novel: Horace Walpole’s, The Castle of Otranto (1764).

Like Shakespeare’s haunted Danish castle in Hamlet, a ghostly giant and a skeletal apparition populate Walpole’s Otranto. Eschewing the values of reason extolled by the Enlightenment, Walpole’s text challenged the vogue of the eighteenth century realist novel by deploying the machinations of supernatural fear. Notably, Walpole acknowledged the influence of Shakespearean supernaturalism, citing terror as the “principle engine” of his narrative.

Terror vs horror

At the turn of the eighteenth century, the efforts of Gothic authors Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis would follow in Walpole’s footsteps. Radcliffe and Lewis drew on Shakespeare in different ways, but both cited quotes from Macbeth as epigraphs to chapters in their novels.

It’s arguably at this juncture in literary history that the differences between supernatural “terror” and “horror” become more clearly defined. Placing an emphasis on terror, Ann Radcliffe pioneered the genre of “explained supernatural”, where terrifying, seemingly supernatural events in her novels were given a realistic, rational explanation. Radcliffe mirrored the suspense and fear of modern thriller films.

On the other side of the coin, Matthew Lewis’s scandalous novel The Monk (1796) eschewed realism, infusing the genre with unrestrained, and horrific, descriptions of the supernatural. Lewis presented readers with nightmarish visions of the Devil, a succubus and individuals haunted by ghosts. The Monk’s explicitness both shocked readers and found praise with critics. Lewis was subsequently forced to censor parts of his novel, including a particularly violent closing scene that shows the antagonist’s brutal death at the hands of the Devil himself.

Lewis’s novel was recently adapted into a film starring Vincent Cassel.

Lewis is also connected to the other great supernatural books of the era: he knew Lord Byron, John Polidori and the Shelleys. In August 1816, Lewis visited Lord Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley in Geneva – had he arrived several months earlier, he would have been privy to the period of inspiration responsible for the creation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819).

From supernatural to sci-fi

The Victorians expanded the Gothic genre beyond supernaturalism: Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde (1886) and the novels of H.G Wells showed a shift towards science fiction.

This period also gave us Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Stoker wove elements of Hamlet and Macbeth into one of the most well known and influential Gothic texts of all time.

Moving from the Victorian fin-de siècle to the 20th century, Gothic novelists have paid a consistent intellectual debt to Shakespeare in the genres of terror and horror.

‘Theatre of Blood’ (1973) stars Vincent Price as a Shakespearean actor.

Pioneer of “cosmic horror”, and the creator of the monstrous Cthulhu, H.P. Lovecraft, cited Shakespeare in his exposition on supernatural horror in literature. Lovecraft’s own ideas on unimaginable horror echoe Shakespeare’s Macduff’s comment on horrors that “neither tongue nor heart can convieve”.

Stephen King’s Jack Torrance from The Shining (1977) is a rampaging Macbeth reincarnated. Even Stephanie Meyer’s star-crossed lovers in Twilight (2005) have shades of Shakespeare’s doomed Romeo and Juliet.

In 2016, we celebrate 400 years of the Bard’s impact on our cultural consciousness. While Shakespeare is most often associated with “high culture” and an English literary canon, one tends to forget that he was very much an entertainer. Shakespeare’s knack for tapping into what makes people afraid is arguably one of his greatest achievements.