The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd. Woodcut dating from 1615
One of the delights of the English theatre has always been its morbid sensationalism, not unconnected with a fascination for the “Gothic” and the grotesque. It has a long history. We may recall Grendel’s indiscriminate slaughter in Beowulf where the scop did not spare the bloody detail, and the episode of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in which Sir Gawain slices off the head of the knight; the head, in characteristic fashion, then speaks. In both cases the emphasis is upon the physical detail of the butchery, which in the narrative of Gawain is treated with a vigour that marries comedy and grotesquerie. To laugh in the midst of horrors—it is another example of that heterogeneity, that medley of moods, which makes up the English imagination. There are moments of sensational horror in the mystery plays, and Malory never refrains from narratives of carnage.
There are on-stage hangings in Horestes and Sir Thomas More, decapitations in Apius and Virginia and The Atheist’s Tragedy, scenes of terrible torture in Cambyses and Bussy D’Ambois. The Spanish Tragedy of Thomas Kyd has been considered by some to be the first modern English tragedy, and it is entirely appropriate that it should open with the entrance of a ghost seeking bloody revenge; in the penultimate scene Hieronimo bites out his tongue, which in a twentieth-century production was accompanied by “trickles, spurts, and finally showers of stage blood . . . in which black comedy and horror were inextricable.” 1 The predilections of actors and audiences have not changed through a period of four hundred years, particularly in that area of sensationalism where “black comedy” and “horror” meet. Is it not the first principle of English philosophy, at least according to Locke, that all knowledge derives from sensation?
Of early English tragedy and tragi-comedy, then, the secret lies in a combined “taste for horror, a taste for rhetoric, a taste for ethical commonplace”;2 they have in turn been related to the appetite for public executions, and even to the bloody detail of the suffering Christ in the medieval mysteries. Shakespeare was not immune to the attraction of melodramatic death and violence, using various sanguinary effects in Titus Andronicus, Macbeth and King Lear. The authors of the revenge tragedies were inclined to murder and torture on a large scale, until in the end the English stage was filled with examples of gratuitous sensationalism.
Rupert Brooke once described a play by John Webster as “full of the feverish and ghastly turmoil of a nest of maggots.” In Webster there is the striking concordance of wonderfully heightened speech and grandiloquent or melodramatic action; ghosts consort with metaphors, and there are such stage directions as “They shoot and run to him and tread upon him.” Most famously, in The Duchess of Malfi, the imprisoned duchess is surrounded by a “wild consort /Of madmen” who plague her out of her wits. In this scene she asks “Who am I?,” to be granted the reply which seems to epitomise the English tendency towards sensational disquiet. “Thou art a box of worm seed, at best, but a salvatory of green mummy: what’s this flesh? a little crudded milk, fantastical puff-paste: our bodies are weaker than those paper prisons boys use to keep flies in: more contemptible; since ours is to preserve earth-worms . . .” She is then strangled. Her twin brother suffers from lycanthropy and imagines himself a wolf in duke’s clothing. It is a very English production. It is curious to note, however, that many such revenge tragedies are set in Italy, which is also the land of the Gothic novel; it is as if the conflation of papistry and Catholic superstition preyed upon the Protestant conscience. It returns like a guilty thing to its mother, who has grown monstrous out of her abandonment. We will also find that English ghost stories bear traces of a buried but unquiet Catholic past.
That sensational violence was a native taste is illustrated by the delight of audiences in the crudities of English pantomime, when babies were regularly boiled in kettles or fried in pots. In a more serene context we might observe in English prose an equivalent fascination for death and decay. In John Donne the macabre and the rhetorical join together in a manner which is heavily reminiscent of Webster’s dramatic rhetoric. One of Donne’s editors remarks that his fondness for metaphor can become “grotesque,” and that he reserved “his more macabre performances for weddings.” 3 It suggests a curious aspect of the English grotesque, as if it were related to sexuality; the appetite for morbid description is related to the physicality of the body, and may be connected to sexual embarrassment or repression. It brings to mind Sir Thomas Browne’s divagations on eating, since “all this masse of fleshe that wee behold, came in at our mouths.”
The connection of the “Gothic” with thwarted or perverse sexuality is well attested, and that is perhaps the reason why the “Gothic novel” of terror and of the supernatural became an English speciality if not exactly an English possession. Smollett’s The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom (1753) and Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) were two of the earliest examples of that national “craze” which was eventually satirised in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. We may include in this list Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, M. G. Lewis’s The Monk and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,or The Modern Prometheus, which in turn prepared the way for the peculiarly English institution of the “horror” film or “Hammer horror.” An authority upon the subject has concluded that, in distinction to the English version, German Gothic was “politically committed” and “critical social comment . . . was implicit and explicit in the stories.”4 German Gothic had a higher purpose, therefore, whereas the English revelled in the macabre or sensational for its own sake. The effect is similar to that of English translations of French romances; the “romance” is trimmed, and only the story or adventure remains.
Aspects of the Gothic are to be found in all areas of the English imagination. Leigh Hunt remarked that “a man who does not contribute his quota of grim stories nowadays, seems hardly to be free of the republic of letters. He is bound to wear a death’s head as part of his insignia. If he does not frighten everybody, he is nobody.” Hunt’s contemporary Charles Lamb remarked of English pantomime that it resembled “the grotesque Gothic heads that gape, and grin, in stone around the inside of the Round Church of the Templars.”
Gothic effects lie somewhat uneasily on the border between comedy and tragedy. This heterogeneity of effect is entirely congenial to the English imagination, which does not care to dwell upon a single emotion for very long. Gothic drama itself was advertised as “a drama of mingled nature, operatic, comical and tragical.” Havergal Brian named his masterwork The Gothic Symphony precisely because of its mixed musical nature.
There are other suggestive associations. The Gothic fiction of the eighteenth century was largely set in an imaginary medieval civilisation, or at least one overtly Catholic in its paraphernalia. It represents once more the fear of an ancient but not forgotten past. It has a flavour of antiquarianism, therefore, in particular of the English reverence for “the imagined vitality of past ages”;5 but it also represents “a fear of historical reversion . . . of the nagging possibility that the despotisms buried by the modern age may prove to be yet undead.”6 This may account for the popularity of Gothic fiction “within the British and Anglo-Irish middle class.”7 It is curious, too, that Anglo-Irish writers were responsible for the development of the ghost story; Sheridan Le Fanu was an Irish Protestant.
The Gothic story is characteristically set within an ancient dwelling—a castle, a monastery, a ruinated house. The English family house itself embodies the desire for privacy and individuality, for protection and defence, but it can grow sour and induce claustrophobia or fear. It can become a labyrinth, or a wilderness of corridors. Its very Englishness decides its fate, and the Gothic novel is concerned with ancient foundations and decaying structures. A leprous or clammy moisture infects its walls, manifesting a native fear or dislike of the physical body. The physiological or psychological dwelling is invaded by strange and perverse desires. Many of the greatest writers of Gothic fiction were women—among them Ann Radcliffe and the Brontë sisters—so the old house can exemplify the horrors of the patriarchal condition. In Gothic fiction, too, there are references to parchments and manuscripts which often unravel the mysteries of torture and pursuit; these fragments resemble the incomplete “Rowley” poems of Thomas Chatterton.
Gothic literature itself is a rancid form of English antiquarianism. The picturesque ruins assembled by eighteenth-century dilettanti might be said to mimic the haunted residences of the Gothic imagination; in their proliferation across the countryside, England spawned a living or tangible Gothic. It has been noted of the Gothic melodrama upon the nineteenth-century stage that it was “deliberately archaic.”8 The resonances may go far back, indeed, in the sense that Gothic fiction also “appropriates the marvellous and supernatural from folk tales.”9 It is a constant feature of the English imagination, caught in some helpless reversion to the past.