In the second preface to The Castle of Otranto, Walpole acknowledges his authorship of the work and defends his use of both comedy and tragedy, elements that are tied to the story’s two classes of people. Modeling his mixture of comedy and tragedy on that of Shakespeare’s plays, the lower class characters are associated with comedy and the upper class characters with tragedy.
The peasants, such as Bianca and Diego, are often portrayed as naïve, inarticulate, morally inferior, and prone to superstition, while the nobles, such as Hippolita and Frederic, are portrayed as dignified, articulate, intelligent, moral, and level-headed. One example of this behavioral distinction occurs when Manfred charges Theodore with treason and accuses him of witchcraft, after Theodore notices a similarity between the giant helmet that kills Conrad and the helmet formerly on Alfonso’s statue. While Manfred’s friends (i.e. the nobles) urge him against such an unfounded punishment, the peasants form a mob and wholeheartedly cheer his accusations, believing that Manfred’s decision is just.
The roles and behaviors of Theodore and Manfred suggest a blood distinction between the nobility and the peasantry. Though Theodore is originally presented as a peasant, his remarkable bravery, articulation, and conviction to do good distinguish him as a noble, a fact that is later confirmed when Jerome reveals his true parentage. Similarly, though Manfred is originally presented as a noble, his rage, evil machinations, and frequently inarticulate speech betray his claim to nobility, in particular his claim that he is the rightful ruler of Otranto (and in fact, of course, Manfred is the grandson of a non-noble man who rose to the throne only through murder and treachery).
Ironically, the peasants often stumble upon truths often dismissed by the novel’s noblemen and noblewomen. For example, when Bianca gossips to Matilda about the young peasant Theodore, she guesses (correctly) that he is a prince in disguise, while Matilda scorns the silliness of Bianca’s imagination. Similarly, all the servants believe (correctly) that Manfred’s desire to see Conrad married is motivated by his fear of a prophecy, while the nobles believe he is anxious for his son’s health. However, it is worth remembering Walpole’s, or rather “William Marshal’s” sly suggestion that the story was written by an “artful” priest looking to “confirm the populace in their ancient errors and superstitions.” Though the fictional translator’s commentary on the ideological-motivation of the fictional author Muralto might undermine a worldview of class distinctions, Walpole’s second preface also reinforces this class distinction, as he perhaps exploits the peasants’ comic quality to make the nobles’ storylines and characters all the more attractive and engaging.
Class, Comedy, and Tragedy ThemeTracker
Class, Comedy, and Tragedy Quotes in The Castle of Otranto
The simplicity of their behaviour, almost tending to excite smiles, which, at first, seems not consonant to the serious cast of the work, appeared to me not only not improper, but was marked designedly in that manner. My rule was nature. However grave, important, or even melancholy, the sensations of princes and heroes may be, they do not stamp the same affections on their domestics: at least the latter do not, or should not be made to, express their passions in the same dignified tone. In my humble opinion, the contrast between the sublime of the one and the naïveté of the other, sets the pathetic of the former in a stronger light.
In vain did Manfred’s friends endeavour to divert him from this savage and ill-grounded resolution. The generality were charmed with their lord’s decision, which, to their apprehensions, carried great appearance of justice; as the magician was to be punished by the very instrument with which he had offended: nor were they struck with the least compunction at the probability of the youth being starved; for they firmly believed, that, by his diabolical skill, he could easily supply himself with nutriment.
Know then, that I have long been troubled in mind on my union with the princess Hippolita…for we are related within the forbidden degrees. My only difficulty was to fix on a successor, who would be tender of my people, and to dispose of the Lady Isabella, who is dear to me as my own blood. I was willing to restore the line of Alfonso, even in his most distant kindred…. I would submit to anything for the good of my people—were it not the best, the only way to extinguish the feuds between our families, if I was to take the Lady Isabella to wife—you start—but, though Hippolita’s virtues will ever be dear to me, a prince must not consider himself; he is born for his people.
Arriving there, he sought the gloomiest shades, as best suited to the pleasing melancholy that reigned in his mind. In this mood he roved insensibly to the caves which had formerly served as a retreat to hermits, and were now reported round the country to be haunted by evil spirits. He recollected to have heard this tradition; and being of a brave and adventurous disposition, he willingly indulged his curiosity in exploring the secret recesses of this labyrinth…He thought the place more likely to be infested by robbers than by those infernal agents who are reported to molest and bewilder travelers.