If there is one thing that Matthew Lewis’ novel The Monk: A Romance teaches us about writing, it is that William Shakespeare was an amazing creative author. Just about every facet of Lewis story is, at least in some part, borrowed from Shakespeare’s work. The most obvious allusion to Shakespeare in The Monk: A Romance, is the plot line of Lewis’ novel and Shakespeare’s work Measure for Measure. The story of Measure for Measure centers on Lord Angelo, who is given control of Vienna. Angelo is strict, moralistic, and unwavering in his decision-making. One can easily see the parallels between Angelo and the main Character of The Monk, Ambrosio.
Just like Lord Angelo, Ambrosio is a powerful man who is both didactic and steadfast when it comes to upholding the laws of the Church. In Measure by Measure Angelo takes it upon himself to rid the city of unlawful sexual activity. He arrests a man named Claudio for impregnating a woman named Juliet before they were married. Although Claudio and Juliet were engaged and their sexual intercourse was consensual, Angelo sentences Claudio to death in order to serve as an example to the other Viennese citizens. Again, this seems somewhat familiar… perhaps because I practically just read it in The Monk.
Much like in Measure by Measure people who conceive a child out of wedlock are not only ostracized by the public, but are put in mortal peril for their misdeeds. Though the ill-fated characters in the stories switch gender roles, the story of Agnes and Raymond and the story of Juliet and Claudio are strikingly similar. Isabella, Claudio’s sister, is about to enter a nunnery when her brother is arrested. She is unfailingly virtuous, religious, and chaste. When she hears of her brother’s arrest, she goes to Angelo to beg him for mercy. He refuses, but suggests that there might be some way to change his mind.
When he propositions her, saying that he will let Claudio live if she agrees to have sexual intercourse with him, she is shocked and immediately refuses. Hmmm… my senses are tingling with deja vu. A supposedly ridged upright public figurehead bent on complete piety and propriety will throw away all of his “values” for sex. I know I’ve heard this story somewhere else, but I just can’t seem to pin-point where. I really believe it’s no coincidence that the opening epigraph of Lewis’ one and only novel is from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Or perhaps I am reading too much into the stories.
After all, the ends of the two stories couldn’t contrast more. At the end of Measure for Measure, Angelo confesses to his misdeeds, Claudio is pardoned, and the Duke asks Isabella to marry him. (Hurray for rainbows and unicorns! ) However, Ambrosio fairs much worse at the end of The Monk: A Romance. He must fervently believe in the old idiom “In for a penny, in for a pound” because even though he starts with sex he continues his slippery slop to murder, to incest, to despair, and eventually damnation. The second bit of William Shakespeare’s work that Matthew Lewis managed to incorporate in his novel, The Monk is the play Macbeth.
And although the parallels of the two stories aren’t as strikingly similar as that between The Monk and Measure for Measure, I assure you, they are there. In this instance, Lewis draws on Shakespeare for character development more than anything. The similarities between Ambrosio and Macbeth, and Matilda and Lady Macbeth are pretty apparent. Ambrosio, much like Macbeth is startlingly easy to manipulate. Though he has seemingly limitless power, it takes only but the word of Matilda to convince him to do something that he knows in his heart to be wrong.
And even though at first he tries to resist Matilda, it isn’t long before she has Ambrosio butchering those who would appose him. At the conclusion of the play, Macbeth, the Macbeth is called a “butcher”. This is because, much like Ambrosio, for Lady Macbeth, Macbeth would do anything, even if it means murdering not only his King, and his enemies but innocent women and children. Although, Ambrosio and Macbeth share a lot of the same gruesome qualities, I strongly believe that the women of the stories are the main attraction. It seems that Lewis would go to any length to get every piece of Lady Macbeth’s character into his novel.
True, Matilda is the embodiment the evil, manipulative, demon conjuring bitch that is Lady Macbeth, but he even transcends singular characters in order to make everything comes together in his novel. You’d have to be utterly blind not to see the resemblance of the bloodied Lady Macbeth (after Duncan is Murdered) and the Bleeding Nun from Lewis’ The Monk. (“Out damn spot! ”) Lewis was obviously a very big fan of Shakespeare’s work. He was sort of the rap music producer of his time. He sampled works of (better) artist that had come before him and laid his own lyrics over a preexisting beat.
And much like a modern-day producer, Lewis didn’t limit himself to sampling just one artist. You can see traces very obvious of Marlow’s Faust and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex in his work. Drama. I don’t mean to knock on Matthew Lewis. Obviously he did something right with this novel. For God’s sake, I’ve been forced to read The Monk twice in my short life, and I live 220 year after it was first published! (Plus I happen to like to listen a little hip hop now and then. ) But I will say this, Lewis owes a lot to William Shakespeare for his success, however well deserved it may be.