The Castle of Otranto

The Castle of Otranto

Title page from the third edition
Author Horace Walpole
Country England
Language English
Genre Gothic, Horror novel
Publication date

The Castle of Otranto is a 1764 novel by Horace Walpole. It is generally regarded as the first gothic novel, initiating a literary genre which would become extremely popular in the later 18th and early 19th century, with authors such as Charles Maturin, Ann Radcliffe, Bram Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe and Daphne du Maurier.


The Castle of Otranto was written in 1764 during Horace Walpole's tenure as MP for King's Lynn. Walpole was fascinated with medieval history, building in 1749 a fake gothic castle, Strawberry Hill House.[1]

The initial edition was titled in full The Castle of Otranto, A Story. Translated by William Marshal, Gent. From the Original Italian of Onuphrio Muralto, Canon of the Church of St. Nicholas at Otranto. This first edition purported to be a translation based on a manuscript printed at Naples in 1529[1] and recently rediscovered in the library of "an ancient Catholic family in the north of England". This "ancient Catholic family" is possibly the Percy family, as Walpole would have known the Duke of Northumberland and his wife Elizabeth Percy, though this is not proven. He employed an archaic style of writing to further reinforce this.

The Italian manuscript's story, it was claimed, derived from a story still older, dating back perhaps as far as the Crusades. This Italian manuscript, along with alleged author "Onuphrio Muralto", were Walpole's fictional creations, and "William Marshal" his pseudonym.

In the second and subsequent editions, Walpole acknowledges authorship of his work, writing: "The favourable manner in which this little piece has been received by the public, calls upon the author to explain the grounds on which he composed it" as "an attempt to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern. In the former all was imagination and improbability: in the latter, nature is always intended to be, and sometimes has been, copied with success...". There was some debate at the time about the function of literature, that is, whether or not works of fiction should be representative of life, or more purely imaginative (i.e. natural vs. romantic). The first edition was well received by some reviewers who understood the novel as belonging to medieval fiction, "between 1095, the era of the First Crusade, and 1243, the date of the last", as the first preface states; and some referred to Walpole as an "ingenious translator". Following Walpole's admission of authorship, however, many critics were loath to lavish much praise on the work and dismissed it as absurd, fluffy, romantic fiction.

In his 1924 edition of The Castle of Otranto, Montague Summers showed that the life story of Manfred of Sicily inspired some details of the plot. The real medieval castle of Otranto was among Manfred's possessions.


The Castle of Otranto tells the story of Manfred, lord of the castle, and his family. The book begins on the wedding-day of his sickly son Conrad and princess Isabella. Shortly before the wedding, however, Conrad is crushed to death by a gigantic helmet that falls on him from above. This inexplicable event is particularly ominous in light of an ancient prophecy, "that the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it". Manfred, terrified that Conrad's death signals the beginning of the end for his line, resolves to avert destruction by marrying Isabella himself while divorcing his current wife Hippolita, who he feels has failed to bear him a proper heir.

However, as Manfred attempts to marry Isabella, she escapes to a church with the aid of a peasant named Theodore. Manfred orders Theodore's death while talking to the friar Jerome, who ensured Isabella's safety in the church. When Theodore removes his shirt to be killed, Jerome recognizes a marking below his shoulder and identifies Theodore as his own son. Jerome begs for his son's life, but Manfred says Jerome must either give up the princess or his son's life. They are interrupted by a trumpet and the entrance of knights from another kingdom who want to deliver Isabella. This leads the knights and Manfred to race to find Isabella.

Theodore, having been locked in a tower by Manfred, is freed by Manfred's daughter Matilda. He races to the underground church and finds Isabella. He hides her in a cave and blocks it to protect her from Manfred and ends up fighting one of the mysterious knights. Theodore badly wounds the knight, who turns out to be Isabella's father, Frederic. With that, they all go up to the castle to work things out. Frederic falls in love with Matilda and he and Manfred begin to make a deal about marrying each others' daughters. Manfred, suspecting that Isabella is meeting Theodore in a tryst in the church, takes a knife into the church, where Matilda is meeting Theodore. Thinking his own daughter is Isabella, he stabs her. Theodore is then revealed to be the true prince of Otranto and Matilda dies, leaving Manfred to repent. Theodore becomes king and eventually marries Isabella because she is the only one who can understand his true sorrow.


Illustration from a 1794 German edition

Literary elements

In the preface of the second edition, Walpole creates a heuristic for reading Castle which irrevocably changes the way readers are to view the novel until its end. He claims to blend the new and old styles of romance. The "old" romance is what we would consider pre-novel prose – a main tenet of such writings is their fantastic nature. There is magic, the supernatural abounds and they are wholly unbelievable. The style of the "new" romance is what the novels of the 18th century, when Walpole was writing, would generally have looked like. These novels were realistic: they purported to depict events and people as they truly were.

Walpole then, by attempting to blend these two genres, creates something new – something truly "novel". He creates fantastic situations (helmets falling from the sky, walking portraits, etc.) and places supposedly real people into these situations and allows them to act in a "real" manner. In doing so, he effectively allows fiction to evolve in ways that it would otherwise have not been able to. However, readers then may question to what extent did Walpole succeed in his attempt. Do readers view these characters' reactions as truly realistic, or do they merely seem so because of the heuristic that we are given at the outset of the novel?

An additional note: Walpole, in Castle, introduces many set-pieces that the Gothic novel will become famous for. These include mysterious sounds, doors opening independently of a person, and the fleeing of a beautiful heroine from a licentious male figure.

Gothic elements

The Castle of Otranto is the first supernatural English novel and one of the most influential works of Gothic fiction. It blends elements of realist fiction with the supernatural and fantastical, establishing many of the plot devices and character-types that would become typical of the Gothic: secret passages, clanging trapdoors, pictures begin to move, and doors close by themselves.[1] The poet Thomas Gray told Walpole that the novel made "some of us cry a little, and all in general afraid to go to bed o’nights."[4]

The Castle of Otranto and Shakespeare

The first and most obvious connection to William Shakespeare is presented by Horace Walpole himself, in the preface to the second edition of Otranto, in which he "praises Shakespeare as a truly original genius and the exemplar of imaginative liberty, as a part of a defense of Otranto's design".[5] Outside of the preface, Walpole uses several allusions to works by Shakespeare as further emphasis of the connection he wishes to be found between his own work and that of Shakespeare. For example, in Hamlet, "Hamlet's encounter with the Ghost becomes for Walpole a template for terror".[6]

Walpole presents a "more fragmented recasting" of the Ghost in Hamlet, which had served as a representation of the "now unsanctioned, but still popular Catholic view of ghosts as speakers of truth" for Shakespeare.[7] The Catholic elements at play within both Hamlet and Otranto are both invoked to represent a further sense of wonder and mystery to the Protestant audience of both works. The Catholic element was a necessary facet of the "template of terror" that Walpole meant to invoke.

The allusion to Hamlet's experience with the Ghost is meant not only as a "template of terror", but also serves to make the reader invoke the feeling of watching the play itself and he does so on three separate occasions. First, Walpole poses Manfred's encounter with the animated portrait of Ricardo as a connection to the Ghost's initial appearance to Hamlet. Second, when Friar Jerome informs Theodore of the dangers to be found in Otranto and he calls for him to take out his revenge correspond to the Ghost's demand to Hamlet to "remember [him]". Third, Frederic's encounter with the skeletal apparition parallels the final appearance of the Ghost in Hamlet.[8]

The violent question of bloodlines and succession is one that serves as a key element in many of Shakespeare's plays, spanning from Hamlet to Richard II and Macbeth, and it is one that is clearly one of the major concerns of Otranto. The link to Hamlet is strengthened even more because of the matter of incest that is also at play in Otranto. "In Otranto, the castle and its labyrinths become grounds for incest that signal the dissolution of familial bonds",[9] which is also a major point of issue in Hamlet since Hamlet's mother (Gertrude) and his uncle (Claudius) were, in a way, related before their marriage. Both Hamlet and Otranto are literary springboards for discussion on the questions of marriage, as the question of Henry VIII's annulment of his marriage and later marriage to Anne Boleyn were still heated topics of controversy. Henry VIII had both married his brother's wife Catherine of Aragon and later dissolved that marriage due to Catherine's inability to produce a male heir that lived to adulthood. Similarly, Otranto revolves around "a larger sexual contest to secure lineage".[10] Henry VIII dissolved the marriage on grounds that the marriage between Catherine and his older brother, Arthur, had not been consummated. Both Hamlet and Otranto show echoes of this story as major elements within the framework of each literary structure.

The final connection from Otranto to Shakespeare lies in the role that the servants play. Like Shakespeare, Walpole aims to create a "mixture of comedy and tragedy"[11] and one of the ways he does so is by using the minor, servant characters (such as Bianca) as comic relief. This is a trope that Walpole takes from Shakespeare. For example, Shakespeare's mechanicals from A Midsummer Night's Dream also serve as the key comic element.

Film adaptations

Jan Švankmajer directed the surrealist short film Castle of Otranto (1979) based on the novel. It took the form of a pseudo-documentary frame story in live action with an abridged adaptation of the story itself presented in cut-out animation in the style of Gothic art.


  1. 1 2 3 Allison, Peter Ray. "The Castle of Otranto: The creepy tale that launched gothic fiction", BBC Magazine, 13 December 2014
  3. Mellor, Anne K.
  4. "Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole", the British Library
  5. Hamlet and Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto
  6. Hamlet and Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto
  7. Gothic Shakespeares
  8. Hamlet and Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto
  9. A Man's Home is His castle
  10. Eighteenth-Century Gothic Novels
  11. Gothic Shakespeares


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