I’m so excited to watch Benedick Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in the 2011 recording of Frankenstein at the National Theater. Not only are these actors terrific, but, (as you might expect), I noticed some Shakespearean tropes in Mary Shelly’s novel.
“Graves, at my command, Hath waked their sleepers”
One big trope in Frankenstein is the danger of man crossing over into God’s domain- that from the beginning of time there has been a knowledge that God deliberately kept from humankind. In Frankenstein, this takes the form of scientific knowledge, but in Shakespeare, it is magic. In Macbeth, the title character is tempted by witches to know his destiny and is punished severely for it. Remember that when Shakespeare wrote the play, King James presided over hundreds of witch hunts and wrote a book on how to identify witches.
In The Tempest, Shakespeare gives us a more ambiguous look at magic where the magician Prospero has the power to create storms, conjure up spirits, and like Frankenstein, raise the dead:
I have bedimm'd The noontide sun, call'd forth the mutinous winds, And 'twixt the green sea and the azured vault Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder2065 Have I given fire and rifted Jove's stout oak With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck'd up The pine and cedar: graves at my command Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let 'em forth By my so potent art. The Tempest, Act V, Scene i.
Even though Prospero is the protagonist and he faces no consequences for his magic, for some reason he chooses to abandon it. It’s almost as if Shakespeare was anticipating Frankenstein by having a proto mad scientist character give up his art before it is too late:
But this rough magicProspero, Act V, Scene i.
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I'll break my staff,2075
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I'll drown my book.
“This thing of Darkness”
“You taught me language, and my profit in’t is I know how to curse!”
“Cursed, cursed creator! Why did I live? Why, in that instant, did I not extinguish the spark of existence which you had so wantonly bestowed? I know not; despair had not yet taken possession of me; my feelings were those of rage and revenge. I could with pleasure have destroyed the cottage and its inhabitants and have glutted myself with their shrieks and misery.Shelly, Chapter 16
If you’ve never read the book Frankenstein, you might be surprised to learn that unlike Boris Karloff’s grunting silent monster, in the novel the Monster is actually intelligent and well-spoken. He engages in intellectual debates with his creator and demands to know why Frankenstein chose to abandon him.
My abhorrence of this fiend cannot be conceived. When I thought of him I gnashed my teeth, my eyes became inflamed, and I ardently wished to extinguish that life which I had so thoughtlessly bestowed. When I reflected on his crimes and malice, my hatred and revenge burst all bounds of moderation.Shelly, Chapter 9
So I’m really excited to see this play adaptation of the Shelly novel, and I hope you will check it out and see these Shakespearean tropes for yourself.