Northrop Frye on Shakespeare

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...

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