Mythmanship

Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology

by Northrop Frye
Harcourt, 264 pp., $4.95

The myth of Oedipus is about a man foredoomed by the fates to kill his father and marry his mother; his very efforts to escape from his destiny (though he does not take what seem to the modern mind obvious rational precautions, like avoiding, on the whole, killing elderly men and marrying middleaged women) hurry him on towards achieving it. The plot of Sophocles’ play about Oedipus is something quite different. It is about a King of Thebes, a just and conscientious man, who has the duty of tracking down some breaker of taboo whose presence in Thebes is causing a plague. In spite of a number of strong hints that he had better let sleeping dogs lie, King Oedipus proceeds ruthlessly with his investigations; and at length discovers that the criminal is himself. The appeal of the Oedipus myth, if we take the Freudian view of it, is to certain primal desires and horrors; if we take a Gravesian view of it, it is a muddled recollection of the matriarchal society in which the king regularly had to die. But in neither the Freudian nor the Gravesian interpretation has Oedipus any choice about what he does. He is the victim either of blind impulses or of rigid social traditions. He is forced to stand out from the chorus and thus to become sacred in both senses, both a god-like figure and a sacrificial victim. In the Sophoclean interpretation, Oedipus does choose, he chooses to find out at the risk of bringing disaster on himself and in order to avert disaster from Thebes. The Oedipus of Sophocles is thus a fully human person, illustrating the splendor and desolation of human responsibility. We identify with him; we identify with the Oedipus of the artwork, of the tragic plot, as we do not identify with the Oedipus of the primitive myth.

Professor Northrop Frye would not, of course, deny this obvious distinction, but since Aristotle uses the word mythos to mean both the unified plot of the literary art-work and the often inchoate primitive raw material out of which that plot is hacked, and since Professor Frye has the taste of many extreme modernists for the primitive, he uses the pun which was forced on Aristotle by a lack of distinctions in the Greek language to suggest that it is the presence, under the surface, of simple fate-stories that makes modern complex choice-stories reverberate with permanent interest. For him, as for Mr. Harold Rosenberg in his brilliant essay, “Character Change and the Drama,” the great moment in Hamlet is the moment when Hamlet, leaping into the grave of Ophelia, is transformed into that fierce, primitive, revengeful identity—“This is I, Hamlet the Dane!”—which he ought to have been all along. It can be allowed to both critics that, for the first time, they give sense to a moment which is nearly always marvelously effective on the stage, but which old-fashioned psychological critics have always had to apologize for and explain away …

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Letters

Idiom in Shakespeare March 5, 1964