Shakespeare and the Gothic

Dr David McInnis, Gerry Higgins Senior Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies, University of Melbourne.

Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) is widely regarded as the first gothic novel in English. Curiously, as Anne Williams and Christy Desmet have observed, the origins of gothic literature roughly coincided with the elevation of Shakespeare to the status of Britain’s national poet in the late eighteenth century, such that ‘Shakespeare’ and the gothic were ‘born together’.

From a twenty-first-century perspective the gulf between the cultural capital of Shakespearean drama and the ostensibly cheap thrills of the gothic may seem wide. But as an actor and shareholder in his company (as well as its principle dramatist) Shakespeare was primarily a crowd-pleaser in his own day, not an elitist, and he too was fascinated by the potential of accentuating the supernatural in his work.

The theatres of Shakespeare’s London dabbled in the diabolical more frequently than we sometimes think. In John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (c.1613), the eponymous hero’s twin brother Ferdinand descends into a lycanthropic madness and is identified as one of those who ‘imagine / Themselves to be transformed into wolves’,2 digging up dead bodies in churchyards at midnight. He is seen ‘with the leg of a man / Upon his shoulder’ and claims to be a werewolf, except that whereas ‘a wolf’s skin was hairy on the outside’, his was hairy ‘on the inside’.3 ‘Vayvode’, a lost play in the repertory of the Admiral’s men in 1598, apparently took for its subject matter a local ruler or official from south-eastern Europe, possibly Transylvania; it has been suggested that the protagonist might even have been Vlad the Impaler – the historical Dracula.4

Devils and demons titillated early modern audiences and were responsible for some of the more sensational anecdotes of the period, including (most famously) at a 1580s performance of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus – a play in which the protagonist first summons, then makes a pact with the devil – where audiences at the Belsavage Inn (or perhaps in Exeter; the seventeenth-century accounts differ in key details) were alarmed to discover more devils on stage than could be personated by the number of actors in the company. Stage devilry had become a vehicle for social satire by the second decade of the seventeenth century, however, when both Thomas Dekker (in the play with the longest title of the period, If This Be Not A Good Play, The Devil Is In It) and Ben Jonson (in his The Devil Is An Ass) played with the trope of devils disguising themselves as humans to lure Londoners to the underworld, only to find that life in London is more sinful and oppressive than they can bear, forcing an abrupt retreat to hell.

Ghosts, of course, frequently hovered above the boards of early modern theatres. In 1596, the playwright Thomas Lodge made reference to a ‘Ghost who cries so miserably at the theatre, like an oyster wife, Hamlet, revenge!’.5 Lodge was referring to the ‘Ur-Hamlet’,6 a lost precursor to Shakespeare’s more famous tragedy, but a play which nevertheless shared the intriguing feature of a ghost providing the impetus for revenge: ‘Instead of merely a debate upon the ethics of revenge we have something much more exciting. We have revenge commanded by a ghost; and whether the ghost is good or bad is a matter of much concern in the early part of the play’.7 As this wonderful picture, “Hamlet shows his mother the Ghost of his Father”, shows, the ghost provides new cause for delay, Hamlet must check its truthfulness:

Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard, Hamlet Shows His Mother the Ghost of His Father. c. 1778. Statens Museum for Kunst.

Shakespeare experimented again with ghostly apparitions some years later in his Macbeth. An early eyewitness account of the play in performance offers unique insight into the presentation of ghosts on stage. When the quack doctor Simon Forman saw the play at the Globe in April, 1611, he recorded his thoughts in his diary. In particular he noted how Macbeth contrived the murder of his friend Banquo, and that when Macbeth longed for Banquo at the banquet scene,

the ghost of Banquo came and sat down in his chair behind him. And he turning about to sit down again saw the ghost of Banquo, which fronted him so, that he fell into a great passion of fear and fury, uttering many words about his murder, by which, when they heard that Banquo was murdered, they suspected Macbeth.8

The Puritans succeeded in closing the public playhouses in 1642, and when the theatres were reopened in 1660, Shakespeare’s Macbeth was freely adapted by William Davenant, who cut the Porter and the Doctor, but made numerous operatic additions. Davenant’s Restoration rewriting was described by Samuel Pepys in glowing terms for its ‘variety of dancing and music’ (19 April 1667).

Although this musical dimension reigned supreme for a time, the eighteenth-century interest in the gothic proved sympathetic to the supernatural elements of Macbeth. Significantly, and unlike the production that Simon Forman saw in 1611, famed English actor John Philip Kemble did not bring Banquo’s ghost onto the stage, making him a figment of Macbeth’s imagination.

Thomas Beach, "Sarah Siddons and John Phillip Kemble, in Macbeth" (1786)

Kemble, as well as David Garrick, developed the psychological reading of Macbeth throughout the late eighteenth century, in keeping with that period’s investment in terror as productive of the key Romantic aesthetic, the sublime. As Williams and Desmet argue, both ‘nature’ and ‘human nature’ were being redefined as more capacious concepts.9 Shakespeare’s understanding of how the self related to its environment – to the natural and supernatural worlds around it – exerted a profound impact on the literary imagination of authors of gothic fictions in the late eighteenth century. In turn, the intellectual movement in which those writers participated helped bestow a certain singularity on a commercial playwright who began his career two centuries earlier in London.


  1. Anne Williams and Christy Desmet, ‘Introduction’, Shakespearean Gothic (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2009)
  2. John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi. The Revels Plays. ed. John Russell Brown (London: Methuen, 1964), 5.2.9-10.
  3. Webster, Malfi, 5.2.14-18.
  4. Misha Teramura, ‘Vayvode’, Lost Plays Database, ed. Roslyn L. Knutson, David McInnis and Matthew Steggle (Melbourne: University of Melbourne, 2009+),
  5. The Complete Works of Thomas Lodge, 1580-1623, ed. Edmund Gosse (Glasgow: Robert Anderson for the Hunterian Club, 1883), 4.62.
  6. See the Lost Plays Database entry:
  7. Harold Jenkins, ed. Shakespeare, Hamlet: The Arden Shakespeare Second Series (London: Routledge, rpt.1995), 154.
  8. Modernised transcription based on the digitized Bodleian Library manuscript (MS Ashmole 208) included as part of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Shakespeare Documented online exhibition:
  9. Williams and Desmet, Shakespearean Gothic, 3.