Compare & Contrast the Theme of Horror in Frankenstein and Macbeth

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Michelle Cardwell

English Literature – Understanding Literature

Compare & Contrast the use of ‘horror’ in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

The gothic horror genre is a favourite for many readers. We love the suspense and mystery, the desperation, the doom and gloom, the claustrophobia, even the blood. But most of all we love the fear - the feeling we get that gives us pathos with the protagonist that keeps us on the edge of our seats and propels us to turn the page. How do Shelley and Shakespeare provoke our reactions when reading Macbeth (Shakepeare,1606) and Frankenstein (Shelley, 1818)? When comparing and contrasting the two texts an awareness of the different formats is necessary: Macbeth is a play and Frankenstein a novel written in the epistolary format. In a novel the use of descriptive language, often including metaphor “her hair was the brightest living gold” (Ch I, pg 35) or simile “one vast hand was extended , in colour and apparent texture like that of a mummy” (Ch 24, pg 204) enables the reader to visualise the scene. When Victor Frankenstein is describing the monsters ‘birth’ he tells us:

“it was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out” (Chapter V, pg 59)

In a play, the scene will be set by a director. We take clues from the dialect regarding environment, “so foul and fair a day I have not seen” (I, 3, 36), we know the battle is won so foul must refer to the weather. Thoughts are conveyed through asides “Glamis, and Thane of Cawdor: The greatest is behind” (I, 3,115-116), Macbeth has thoughts which he cannot share with Banquo, but Shakespeare needs to make the point that the seed is planted. Another contrast between the two works is the date; In Elizabethan times the genre of horror was not referred to. The works of authors such as Shakespeare, Sackville, and Webster were referred to as ‘Tragedies’ although they had many gothic elements. They were based on history, mainly Greek mythology - interesting to note as Shelley’s novel is based on the tale of Prometheus, the titan who was challenged by Zeus to form a man from clay, (Theoi Greek Mythology, 2010).

The main ingredient of the gothic novel is the atmosphere of mystery and suspense. Shelley and Shakespeare use similar techniques to create this atmosphere. Shelley, writing in an age of discovery, uses the fear of the unknown; whereas Shakespeare bases Macbeth on the fear of the supernatural. Frankenstein was written in a time when scientists were going crazy in the quest to find answers to everything - the concept of a mad scientist would not be so unbelievable. In the mid 1700’s Franklin discovered that lightening was electrical, Volta invented the battery in 1800 and in 1818 Blundell performed the first human blood transfusion (Bone, 2007) – three relevant discoveries that demonstrate the novels appeal. When Shakespeare wrote Macbeth human thinking was very different to today; every misfortune was blamed on supernatural forces, hence the popularity of superstition. There are many elements of superstition in Macbeth, including the owl, the raven and of course numerous references to the power of three - three witches, three prophecies and the use of “thrice” in the witches incantations:

“ thrice to thine, and thrice to mine, and thrice again, to make up nine” (I, 3, 33-34).

Shelley builds a fear of the unknown through vagueness in several parts of the story. When Walton describes his first encounter with the monster,

“We perceived a low carriage, fixed on a sledge and drawn by dogs, pass on towards the North, but at the distance of half a mile: a being which had the shape of a man, but apparently of gigantic stature, sat in the sledge, and guided the dogs. We watched the rapid progress of the traveller with our telescopes, until he was lost among the distant inequalities of the ice” (Letter IV, pg 26)

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