Matthew Gregory Lewis Critical Essays


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Despite considerable diversity in style and content. Matthew Gregory Lewis’s plays are generally characterized by a melodramatic intensity that is often reinforced by visual spectacle. Dramatic subtlety was difficult to achieve in the huge theaters for which Lewis wrote, and Lewis’s unsubtle ways were peculiarly suited to the physical environment in which his plays were performed. This is not to say, however, that Lewis presents no unified dramatic vision, that he has nothing to say about the state of human beings. On the contrary, his plays are surprisingly consistent in their expression of one particular theme—that the sanctity of human relationships should not and must not be violated.

Although the artistic merit of Lewis’s plays is minimal, his contemporaries enjoyed them. The sensationalism and the melodramatic moralizing of his dramatic works are symptomatic of the bad taste that produced one of the most sterile periods in British theatrical history, and if Lewis cannot be accused of creating this bad taste, he can justly be said to have been the most adept playwright of his age at exploiting it.

The Castle Spectre

The Castle Spectre, for example, relates the tale of the villainous Earl Osmond, who has sinned against the bonds of love at every opportunity and who pays the ultimate price for his crimes. Long before the action of the play begins, Osmond has already launched his egocentric career by overthrowing his own brother, the benevolent Earl Reginald, and inadvertently killing Lady Evelina, the woman whom he had hoped to marry but who had married his brother instead. Evelina has martyred herself to love by throwing her body in the path of a dagger-thrust that Osmond intended for Reginald. Her sacrifice has not prevented the usurpation of her husband’s power, but it has, as the audience is eventually informed, preserved her husband’s life.

As one might expect of such a man, Osmond has shown no more respect for the relationship between a ruler and his subjects than he has for the ties of blood, and though he conceals the guilty secret of his rise to power, Osmond is universally hated as a tyrant. He surrounds himself with brutal henchmen who deal efficiently and savagely with any who would oppose their master. At the beginning of the play, there are no obvious threats to Osmond’s continued dominion, but the isolation and loneliness that his actions have brought on him are soon to lead to his downfall.

Appropriately enough, the undoing of this sinner against the bonds of affection is the direct result of his falling in love. The unwilling object of his amorous attentions is his niece, the beautiful and virtuous Angela, daughter of Reginald and Evelina. To minimize Angela’s threat to his power (as heir to the rightful lord), Osmond has placed her with a peasant couple who have reared her as their own child. He makes the fateful decision to call her back to the court, however, when her resemblance to Evelina inspires his passion. To legitimize Angela’s sudden change in status, Osmond invents a story affirming her noble birth while concealing her actual parentage.

Like his obsession with Evelina, though, his interest in Angela is doomed to failure—again because the woman he has chosen has already selected a worthier man. During the last weeks of her peasant existence, she has fallen in love with the lowly Edric, whom she had met while she was living as a peasant, and even the opportunity to marry an earl is not temptation enough to shake her fidelity to this humble swain. Neither sweet words nor threats of imprisonment are sufficient to win her consent to become Osmond’s wife.

As the audience soon discovers, Angela has chosen more wisely than she knows, because Edric is actually Percy, Earl of Northumberland, whose benevolent rule has earned for him the respect and affection of his people and whose purity of heart is suggested by the circumstances of his falling in love. Neither Percy nor Angela had been aware of the other’s noble birth, but each has recognized the other’s nobility of character. Percy and Osmond are spiritual opposites, and their rivalry for Angela is a clash between codes of behavior, between the ways of sentiment and the ways of selfishness.

One manifestation of this opposition is the method each uses to form alliances. Osmond surrounds himself with men who are motivated by fear and hatred or by self-interest. He enslaves his henchmen and awes them with his power, or he entices them with the hope of illusory rewards. His black slaves, like Hassan, have been stolen from their homelands and welcome every opportunity to wreak vengeance on the race that separated them from their loved ones. Others, like Kenric, have been promised worldly wealth and release from service in exchange for their fidelity, only to discover Osmond’s intention to betray them. Percy’s followers, on the other hand, eagerly join his effort to rescue Angela; they are motivated by love and remain faithful to their master at moments when Osmond’s followers are most likely to become undependable. One in particular, Gilbert the Knave, has been the object of Percy’s generosity during a period of personal crisis and shows his gratitude through his courageous support of his master at several key points in the play. As Percy himself says, Instead of looking with scorn on those whom a smile would attract, and a favor bind forever, how many firm friends might our nobles gain, if they would but reflect that their vassals are men as they are, and have hearts whose feelings can be grateful as their own.

Osmond refuses to recognize this sentimental truth, and as a result, he loses the loyalty of a man who is in a position to reveal more about Osmond’s perfidious nature than that noble cares for the world to know. When Kenric discovers that his master is plotting to kill him, he tells Angela the secret of her birth and that her father Reginald is alive, hidden away in a dungeon by Kenric himself so that he might blackmail Osmond if the need should ever arise. Unfortunately, Osmond overhears this conversation and goes in search of his hated brother, intending to carry to completion the fratricide that he had thought he had already committed.

Before the climactic arrival of the principal characters at Reginald’s dungeon, the sympathy of the supernatural with the defenders of sentiment has been implied by the spectacular appearance to Angela of her mother’s ghost. The specter of Evelina blesses Angela and directs her to rescue her father. Elements in this scene suggest the triumph of love over hatred, a triumph that occurs in the play’s busy final moments. Osmond and Angela come on her father’s darkened cell at almost the same time, and Osmond uses the occasion to threaten her with Reginald’s death unless she acquiesces to their immediate marriage. This she is about to do when Reginald stops her by saying that he will take his own life rather than see his daughter dishonored. Enraged by this declaration and by news that Percy’s forces have taken the castle, Osmond prepares to kill his brother but falls back in horror when Evelina’s ghost repeats the self-sacrificing gesture of the living Evelina. Angela then strikes Osmond with the same dagger with which her mother had been stabbed, and the sinner against sentiment is carried away to die.

As one might imagine, despite the extraordinary commercial success of The Castle Spectre, it was not a universal favorite of the critics. This fact seems not to have concerned Lewis, however, who was especially cavalier in his response to one very particular objection to his play. When the critics pointed out that his inclusion of black slaves in the cast of characters of a gothic story was a patent absurdity, he defended himself by saying that he had done it to “give a pleasing variety to the characters and dresses” and that if he could “have produced the same effect by making my heroine blue, blue I should have made her.”

Alfonso, King of Castile

Obviously, Lewis did not take The Castle Spectre seriously as a work of art, but he did feel considerable artistic pride in Alfonso, King of Castile. Nevertheless, the two plays have essentially the same theme: The forces of sentiment are pitted against the forces of selfish ambition, and after the moral superiority of sentiment has been clearly displayed, ambition is defeated. In Alfonso, King of Castile, however, there are surprising twists of plot and...

(The entire section is 3499 words.)