Northrop Frye on Shakespeare

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2058

In a book based upon lectures delivered in a Shakespeare course at the University of Toronto, Northrop Frye offers critical introductions to selected Shakespearean dramas. The lectures were tape-recorded, transcribed, revised, reorganized, and edited for publication. The book surveys eleven major plays, chosen from William Shakespeare’s total of thirty-seven, representing...

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In a book based upon lectures delivered in a Shakespeare course at the University of Toronto, Northrop Frye offers critical introductions to selected Shakespearean dramas. The lectures were tape-recorded, transcribed, revised, reorganized, and edited for publication. The book surveys eleven major plays, chosen from William Shakespeare’s total of thirty-seven, representing the full range of types within the canon—comedy, tragedy, history, and romance. Arranged in essentially chronological order, Frye’s lectures concern the following dramas: Romeo and Juliet (1595-1596), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595-1596), Richard II (1595-1596), Henry IV, Part I (1597-1598), Henry IV, Part II (1598), Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (1600-1601), King Lear (1605-1606), Antony and Cleopatra (1606-1607), Measure for Measure (1604), The Winter’s Tale (1610-1611), and The Tempest (1611). The placement of Measure for Measure following Antony and Cleopatra represents an exception to the chronological arrangement, attributable to Frye’s view that the play effects a transition between the tragedies and the later romances. Following the introductory lecture, each play receives one chapter, except for the group entitled “The Bolingbroke Plays,” three history or chronicle plays treated as a single unit.

Even after editing, the book retains traces of the lecture format. Through the liberal use of contractions, fragments, and the personal pronouns “I,” “we,” and “you,” Frye reduces the distance between himself and his audience. The lecturer’s frequent use of “we see that” and “we find” contributes to an illusion that the speaker and the audience (now the reader) are making discoveries simultaneously. In addition to occasional striking colloquialisms, one encounters survivals of the lecture format in advice to students or wry asides. Writing about Shakespeare’s productive period, for example, Frye counsels, “Resist the temptation to talk in your essays about the eager hopefulness of youth in The Comedy of Errors or the mellowed wisdom of old age in The Tempest.” Discussing the quarto editions of Romeo and Juliet, he injects parenthetically, “I expect you to be following this with bated breath,” and in the chapter on Antony and Cleopatra he refers to “all the rest of the plays in this course.” At worst, these elements from the lectures create only brief and mild distractions. On balance, the lecture origin contributes to readability, making the book more fluent and understandable than it might otherwise have been.

The value of Frye’s work lies not so much in its style but in its revealing analysis and penetrating thoughts. In a brief introductory chapter covering the usual topics related to Shakespeare and his age, Frye clarifies the thrust of his criticism by pointing out that Shakespeare placed drama and the theater over character and poetry. In the lecture on Measure for Measure, he expresses the view that in Shakespeare myth (originally meaning plot) is paramount to ideology. By urging the primacy of drama and myth over character and poetry, Frye responds to earlier critics such as A. C. Bradley, who found Shakespeare’s greatest achievements in his creation of character and use of language. Nor does Frye seem particularly interested in conventions associated with the types of plays, except for the romance, whose characteristics he details.

In Frye’s criticism one comes to expect a largely mythical approach emphasizing patterns in plots and themes, with special attention to recurrent motifs, character types, symbols, and key terms. He delights in discovering plot structures similar to those of such early forms as the folktale, the fairy tale, and the fable. From the structure of early mythical plots, Frye identifies basic elements and relates them to later literature. At least to some extent, these elements shape the intellectual configuration of his own analysis. In mythic stories one normally finds hierarchical structures (social and ethical), one or more basic conflicts or tests, and a linear plot development embodying recurrent motifs and themes. Similarly, Frye’s analytic structures or frameworks are hierarchic, bipolar, and linear, each mode yielding important insights, but taken collectively they afford the sense of startling mental agility, intellectual acumen, and critical sensitivity.

Typically, Frye’s analytic cast emerges through his lists and informal tables, giving elements of plot, character, and theme in abbreviated form. In his lecture on Antony and Cleopatra, he provides a list of five character types, hierarchically arranged, beginning with the godlike, divine hero and concluding with foolish or silly characters. The arrangement effectively demonstrates that Mark Antony is a higher hero, a romantic leader who appeals to the imagination, than Caesar, who represents the pragmatic order figure of the third level. In the discussion of King Lear, he arranges lists depicting four levels of nature, beginning with Heaven and ending with Hell. When he adapts his model to the tragedy, with its pre-Christian setting, the top level becomes a world of impotent gods, and the bottom, a hell-like existence of madness and horror. In between, one finds the social order and the order of nature—the natural world. Such hierarchical distinctions provide a frame of reference to clarify the elevation and descent of personae in the tragedy, tracing both their changes of fortune and their moral improvement or decay.

As one might expect, the use of bipolar or dichotomous thought occurs early in the book when Frye examines the Bolingbroke plays and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The stark character contrasts that develop in these plays—Theseus-Oberon, Richard-Bolingbroke, King Henry IV-Falstaff—invite analysis through contrast and comparison. Yet Frye extends character polarities further by employing the distinctions provided by E. H. Kantorowicz. Distinguishing between de jure and de facto monarchs, Kantorowicz postulated King A and King B, with A representing the king’s person and B the king as an embodiment of the nation’s spirit and values. The closer the actual king is to B, the stronger the monarchy and the greater the king’s security on the throne. When the king allows his personal being to assume primacy, as Richard II does, he risks challenge from a de facto type such as Bolingbroke, who better represents the national will and who can remove his opponent from the throne at the slightest opportunity. As Richard retreats increasingly into his own theatrical personality, Bolingbroke, the pragmatic leader, consolidates his own power.

As for tables and lists showing linear movement, the most elaborate occurs in the chapter on The Tempest. In a Shakespearean comedy, it is often easy to keep things straight if one remembers the characters in groups and traces the groups through the play, for Shakespeare often keeps several strands of action going simultaneously through his character groupings, only to bring all of them together in the final act, where an authority figure resolves the problems and reconciles the conflicts. Frye places the characters in The Tempest into four categories but goes beyond this to identify each group with a mythic quest. Each has its own object, test to survive, and obstacle. Frye’s table places the action in the context of quest motifs found in mythic literature, such as the Arthurian accounts of the quest for the Holy Grail. Admittedly, quests in The Tempest are minor by comparison, being concluded in the course of a day’s time, yet resemblance to earlier plots is undeniable.

At times Frye attempts to see in his linear tables or lists a cyclic pattern, as he does with the action of Paradise Lost (1667, 1674) in his book on John Milton, The Return of Eden (1965), where the plot begins and ends with God. In dealing with Shakespeare’s plays, he comes closest to discovering a cyclic pattern when he suggests that Richard II begins and ends with the Cain-Abel story, with the garden scene, symbolically associated with Eden, set in the play’s center. In Hamlet, the theme of revenge or redress for the loss of a father works its way through the drama, first with Hamlet, then Laertes, then Fortinbras. Through emphasis upon recurring motifs, Frye affords an improved understanding of Shakespeare’s plot lines and thematic nuances.

Steeped in the Shakespeare canon and in Shakespearean criticism, Frye can allude to critics and call up their ideas seemingly at will, citing, among others, Bradley, G. Wilson Knight, and L. C. Knight. Yet he carries his critical debts lightly, and the major emphases of the book are his own. Almost everywhere, one encounters a new and fresh approach, insight, or idea. At first it seems odd that in a discussion of Richard II, the analysis should center on Bolingbroke instead of the much more complex and poetic Richard. In Henry IV, Part I most critics would give greatest attention to Prince Hal; in Henry IV, Part II, Falstaff steals the attention for himself, as he almost succeeds in doing in the first part. Yet if one takes the three plays as a unit, Bolingbroke does become the dominant figure throughout; indeed two of the plays are named for him.

When applied to theme and character, Frye’s approaches frequently yield fresh interpretations. The haunting motif of time that reverberates through the Sonnets (1609) becomes equally significant and complex in the dramas. Surely Frye is correct in pointing out that a major difference between Richard and Bolingbroke arises from their sense of time. Richard ignores the present for some distant end, thus appearing whimsical and erratic, whereas Bolingbroke takes things a step at a time, in logical order, weighing the consequences of each action. Frye advances another original insight in his discussion of the final act of Antony and Cleopatra, when Cleopatra lashes out at her treasurer Seleucus because he has informed Caesar that she has not properly reported her possessions. Having secreted a large portion of her property from Caesar, she is angry that her treasurer has betrayed her. As Frye interprets her anger, it is an effort to convince Caesar that she will not commit suicide; thus he leaves her lightly guarded, and she succeeds in avoiding a humiliating captivity.

Beyond insights into character and plot, Frye offers important ideas and interpretations, generalizations that stimulate thought and place an episode in the drama into a larger perspective. Commenting on the disposition of Richard II, he calls attention to the appropriate myth: “Every fall of every consecrated ruler repeats the original fall of man.” In discussing the final scene of Measure for Measure, Frye examines Isabella’s response to an ethical test. Mariana, newly married to Angelo, involves Isabella in a quandary by asking her to plead for his life. Although she believes that Angelo has treacherously murdered her brother and agrees with the Duke that he deserves death, Isabella accedes to the request, making impressive rational and emotional arguments in Angelo’s defense. The reader grasps that she is thus passing a kind of test of her ethical fitness, a test craftily arranged by the Duke. Frye points out, however, a further psychological and ethical significance: “People can’t live continuously on that sort of level, but if one’s essential humanity can be made to speak, even once in one’s life, one has a centre to revolve around ever after.” Despite his earlier admonition that the characters are only creations of the poet’s imagination, not real persons, Frye freely draws analogies from their situations in the plays to real-life situations, thus adding breadth to his critical approach.

Somewhat in the manner of a latter-day prophet, Frye occasionally reminds his audience of man’s inhumanity and humanity. Sprinkled throughout the book are allusions to the excesses and horrors of the twentieth century. As a prophet, he is inclined to cite the less appealing aspects of the present, yet he does not offer readers a jeremiad—only a reminder of the fragility of civilization and civility. To be human is to long for the impossible, the ideal, that which lies beyond experience—hence the need for myths to solace mankind and to extend the hope of another less violent, threatening, and troubled existence. In The Return of Eden, Frye concludes with an allusion to humanity’s innate longing to return to Paradise, without the need to wander or stray. In the present work, he sees the island in Shakespeare’s The Tempest as an imaginary mythical kingdom, where all are kings. It is perhaps the conviction that human beings achieve their highest ethical as well as creative potential within a mythic framework that causes Frye to retain myth as a central focus of his criticism.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 41

Booklist. LXXXIII, October 1, 1986, p. 182.

Library Journal. CXI, October 1, 1986, p. 97.

Macleans. XCIX, October 6, 1986, p. 86.

The New Republic. CXCV, November 10, 1986, p. 97.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, November 30, 1986, p. 15.

Quill and Quire. LII, July, 1986, p. 10.

The Wall Street Journal. CVIII, November 4, 1986, p. 32.

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