Plot summary - Chapter 1
Manfred, prince of Otranto, is impatient about marrying his son Conrad, a “homely youth, sickly, and of no promising disposition” (17) to the marquis of Vicenza’s daughter Isabella. Hippolita, Manfred’s wife, is worried about marrying the young prince off so early (he is only 15), but her husband ignores her concern, merely pointing to “her own sterility, who had given him but one heir” (17). Manfred seems quite hasty about the wedding, probably – as his tenants and subjects assume – because of his “dread of seeing accomplished an ancient prophecy” (17): That the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it. (17)
The wedding ceremony is fixed for Conrad’s birthday. However, when everything is ready for the “divine office”, Conrad is missing. Manfred sends a servant to look for his son, but the servant returns “breathless, in a frantic manner, his eyes staring, and foaming at the mouth” (18), telling him about a giant helmet in the court.
When Manfred reaches the helmet, which his servants are trying to raise, he finds Conrad “dashed to pieces” (18), buried under the helmet, “an hundred times more large than any casque ever made for human being, and shaded with a proportionable quantity of black feathers” (18). However, Manfred seems more concerned about the helmet than about his son’s death. While Hippolita and Conrad’s 18-year old sister Matilda mourn the death of their son/brother, and Isabella – although not sad about the loss of her future husband, for whom she had had little affection – joins in their grief, Manfred’s only concern is the casque in the court.
A young peasant appears, who realizes a strong resemblance between the casque and that of the black marble figure of Alfonso the Good, one of the former princes, in the church of St. Nicholas. Manfred is furious about this statement. But before he can punish the young peasant, some spectators come back from the church to which they had run and inform Manfred that the statue’s helmet is missing. Manfred accuses the peasant of being a necromancer and gives orders to imprison him without food underneath the casque in the court. He then locks the gates of the castle and retires to his chamber.
Meanwhile, Hippolita is worried about Manfred and sends Matilda to see to him. But Manfred, telling Matilda that he does not want a daughter, sends her away. The girl, deeply hurt, returns to her mother and tells her that her husband is well to calm her down. A servant appears, informing Isabella that Manfred wants to see her.
Obeying, Isabella goes to see Manfred. It is now evening, and the servant accompanying her is carrying a torch. However, when they reach Manfred’s chamber, he orders the servant to take away the light and sends him off. He then tells Isabella about the importance of keeping up his line, cursing Hippolita for her “unfruitfulness” (24) and thus having decided to divorce her, and offers himself as Isabella’s new husband now that his son has died. Isabella is terrified and starts from him. Manfred rises to pursue her, but suddenly sees “the plumes of the fatal helmet” at the window. Shortly after, the portrait of his grandfather utters a deep sigh, which distracts Manfred for a moment. Isabella sees her chance and escapes, while the portrait quits its panel. Manfred is asked to follow the painting to a chamber into which it enters, but before Manfred can enter, the door closes.
He thus decides to pursue Isabella, who has meanwhile escaped into a subterranean vault that leads to the church and convent of St. Nicholas. In the labyrinth, she encounters the young peasant, who helps her escape through a secret trap door before Manfred, whom they can already hear, reaches them. When he does, the peasant has to explain how he could escape from the helmet-prison and Manfred also questions the youth about Isabella. The peasant pretends to not know anything about her, trying to win time for Isabella’s flight. While the two are discussing, two servants come and tell Manfred that while they were trying to find Isabella in the great gallery, they saw the limbs of a giant in armor in a chamber close by. Manfred is determined to find out more about these strange events, and the peasant offers his help. Suspecting that Isabella might be hiding in his wife’s chamber, Manfred goes there first and then tells Hippolita to call the chaplain. He then continues his search.
When he returns from the vault, he finds Hippolita
and the chaplain, who tell him that they have
examined the chamber and found nothing. Manfred once
again decides that he must marry Isabella and,
having given orders to guard the castle and having
locked the peasant in a room, he retires to his