Updated: Aug 14, 2022
In honor of National Frankenstein Friday, we’re examining Mary Shelley’s connection with Shakespeare and how their work was informed by their interest in the slave trade.
Young Mary Shelley Meets Shakespeare
During her childhood, various factors contributed to her interest in Shakespeare's works.
Godwin, who published Charles and Mary Lamb's children’s book Tales from Shakespeare, was both Mary’s personal teacher and father. He incorporated much of Shakespeare’s canon into the curriculum, as well as Milton and Greek and Roman classics!
Several prominent Shakespearean critics of the time visited her home. These included Charles Lamb, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich von Schiller. (Do you recognize any of them??)
Theatre & Presentations
Aside from heavy theatre attendance, young Mary & her father attended Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s presentations on Shakespeare and Milton at the Royal Institute. How nerdy :)
Wollstonecraft was Mary Shelley’s mother & William Godwin’s wife. As a writer, Wollstonecraft often alluded to Shakespeare’s works. For instance, in A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), Wollstonecraft references Lady Macbeth & echoes Prospero’s speech from The Tempest. Sadly, Wollstonecraft died ten days after Mary Shelley’s birth. Still, it can be argued that her mother’s legacy and passion for literature impacted Mary.
Mary Elopes With Shelley So That They Can Read Shakespeare Together in Peace
In 1814, 16-year-old Mary eloped with Percy Shelley. According to Mary’s journals, she & Percypoo read a TON. In fact, one literary scholar describes the reading as "a central axis of Mary's relationship with her partner.”
FUN FACT: Mary read 74 books the year she wrote Frankenstein. These included Paradise Lost, the Canterbury Tales, and The Iliad! So we’re not talking short stories here... I really don’t know where she found the time to read all of those.
According to Mary’s accounts, she and Shelley regularly read and attended Shakespearean performances. The year she wrote Frankenstein, the couple had covered over ten of the Bard’s major plays - including, yes, The Tempest.
In conclusion, Mary was very familiar with Shakespeare, so the thought of The Tempest having influenced her Frankenstein is a fine educational guess. Also she must have been a very quick reader or had absolutely nothing else to do. If she were still alive, she and Percy would be featured in the Guinness World Records for the most lengthy books read in a week. Simply put.
Critics Suspect a Connection to The Tempest
Before we get too far into the logistics of Frankenstein’s monster & Caliban, we want to let you know that we’re not making this out of thin air. Critics suspected the relationship early on.
Interestingly, in light of Shakespeare’s Caliban, reviewers often criticized Mary’s Frankenstein. For example, “the Edinburgh [Scots] Magazine chastises the author for having a man create the creature: ‘We are accustomed, happily, to look upon the creation of a living and intelligent being as a work that is fitted only to inspire a religious emotion, and there is an impropriety [. . .] in placing it in any other light.' Admitting Shakespeare's monster ‘is, perhaps, a more hateful being,’ the reviewer proceeds to defend Caliban's character because at least he ‘comes into existence in the received way.’ The piece ends with the writer suggesting that the author of Frankenstein should "study the established order of nature [. . .] both in the world of matter and of mind, [rather] than continue to revolt our feelings by hazardous innovations in either of these departments.’"
Frankenstein’s Monster: Just Like Caliban
Major similarities exist between the 2 creatures, such as possessing conventionally racist traits which were specifically applied to black slaves, being racialized outsiders, fearing isolation, and yearning for a mate.
Let’s explore a few!
Conventionally Racist Traits
Growing up, Mary’s father - despite some reservations - spoke against the slave trade at Parliamentary debates, through his published children’s story, and by other means. Her father’s participation in such efforts ensured Mary was aware of England’s debate over slavery.
Perhaps this fascination with the situation was what led her and Percy to review accounts of Caribbean slave trade before she wrote Frankenstein. These reports were authored by those in favor of slavery and contained racial stereotypes seen in Dr. Frankenstein’s monster. Below are some of the stereotypes attributed at the time to the slaves that Mary incorporates:
Stereotype 1: The Slaves Were Physically Bigger & Stronger Than White People
Dr. Frankensein attempts to create a "being of a gigantic stature...eight feet in height, and proportionately large.” Moreover, his ability to leap out of windows and scamper suggest an ape like quality, another racial stereotype.
Stereotype 2: Physical Characteristics: White People Opposed Interracial Marriages
“When the creature comes to life, the Doctor is shocked by the monster's 'hair of lustrous black' and his 'teeth of a pearly whiteness,' but only because they 'formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes' [quote from Frankenstein] and his 'straight black lips.' The descriptions of him as 'uncouth and distorted in [his] proportions' [quote from Frankenstein] with 'long locks of ragged hair' reflect the contemporary accounts of the so-called 'deformities' of some natives, accounts that also produced a fear of mongrelization of whites due to interracial marriages. Indeed, often these marriages were denounced for producing 'monstrously' mixed-race children.”
Both Caliban and Frankenstein’s creature “lack language” at first. Prospero and Miranda teach Caliban, while observation of the cottagers educates the creature.
Prospero claims he had "lodged" Caliban in his "own cell" until the monster "did seek to violate the honor of" his child (1.2.349-351). Caliban figures that if he had not been imprisoned, he would have "peopled" the "isle with Calibans" (353-54).
Shelley's monster commands Dr. Frankenstein to construct him a bride: "You must create a female for me with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being."
What other similarities do you see between Caliban and Frankenstein’s monster?
A handful of post-colonial critics view both Dr. Frankenstein and Prospero as colonizers. Do you agree? Why?
What other characters - from Shakespeare’s works and beyond - do you think resemble Frankenstein’s creature? Explain.
Was The Tempest discussed while you were in school? Was Mary Shelley’s incorporation of racial stereotypes included in the discussion?
If you’ve previously read Frankenstein, does reading this article change your view on/sympathy for the “monster”?
Written by Mariela Rivero
Edited by Laura Yumi Snell
Sawyer, Robert. “Mary Shelley and Shakespeare: Monstrous Creations.” South Atlantic Review, vol. 72, no. 2, South Atlantic Modern Language Association, 2007, pp. 15–31.
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein.