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Deep Frye

A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance

by Northrop Frye
Columbia, 159 pp., $3.75

The one thing certain about modern criticism is that there is too much of it, and it is only rarely that one can say of a practitioner that he cannot safely be left unread. But one has to say it of Frye; ever since the publication, in 1957, of An Anatomy of Criticism, we have been trying to come to terms with him, and he has been writing a succession of shorter books to help us do so. Shakespeare’s final plays have always been important to his theory, and he has now devoted to them a series of lectures which should enable us to make up our minds.

One striking aspect of Frye’s system is its theological rigor. He insists that his theory, however primitive in its present form, is the only true one; you must, according to him, accept or reject it in toto. This new book is lucid and self-explanatory (Frye writes excellent prose); but it implies the dogmatics of the Anatomy, and readers who cannot find the time to absorb that vast and surprising book should at least read two of the essays reprinted in the collection of 1963 entitled Fables of Identity; these give the gist of the doctrine under the rubrics “The Archetypes of Literature” and “Myth, Fiction and Displacement.” They will then notice that this new book, freshly thought out as it undoubtedly is, is an application, to works Frye regards as crucial, of the general theory. I may as well say right off that I look for a way of saving some of the special insights without accepting the doctrine; exactly what Frye regards as an impossible compromise.

According to Frye, we must not confuse the experience of literature with criticism. In this book he “retreats from individual plays into a middle distance, considering the comedies as a single group unified by recurring images and structural devices.” The reader “is led from the characteristics of the individual play…to consider what kind of a form comedy is, and what is its place in literature.” This is what he calls “standing back,” the way you stand back to look at a painting. One step back gives you the view of Wilson Knight or Bradley—occult thematic or psychological patterns—and the second enables you to see the object in its genre: Hamlet as a Revenge Play, for example. One more step and you have Frye’s view: Hamlet as myth, probably multiple: the Liebestod and the leap into and out of Ophelia’s grave. From this distance you see a work of literature as frozen in space, devoid, like myth, of temporality, and fit for inclusion in an all-embracing mythical system. “It is part of the critic’s business to show how all literary genres are derived from the quest-myth…the quest-myth will constitute the first chapter of whatever future handbooks of criticism may be written that will be based on enough organized critical knowledge to…live up to their titles.” Criticism is a progressive system of description. It cannot value literature, but by describing its mythic fundamentals it can enable us to deduce its political role, which is identical with that of myth: “the central myth of art must be the vision of an end of social effort, the innocent world of fulfilled desires, the free human society.”

This is not the whole of Frye, but it is, I think, the essence. And before disputing it one must insist that the mind which gives it embodiment, whether in the glittering structures of the Anatomy or the various and resourceful inventions of the present book, is well-stocked, cogent, and sane. Some of its principles deserve to be regarded as laws: “there is no passage in Shakespeare’s plays…which cannot be explained entirely in terms of its dramatic function and context…nothing which owes its existence to Shakespeare’s desire to ‘say’ something.” Or, to take another instance, Frye’s denial of allegorical readings applied to such works as The Winter’s Tale. The argument is dubious (there is no room for allegory because the drama does by “the identity of myth and metaphor” what ritual did by “the identity of sympathetic magic”) but the conclusion is right: “the meaning of the play is the play,” and abstractions from it are all false.

Nevertheless, all critics proceed by abstractions from that meaning. Some of them, however, seek to stay as close as may be to the “total experience of the play”—as W. K. Wimsatt once put it, they work out pi to as many decimal places as possible. Frye abstracts by standing back, and finds strength in his analogy with looking at a painting; but, as Philip Hallie has pointed out, the analogy is useless, merely a way of dignifying Frye’s generalities. What could be more abstract than the observation that the heroines of the romances are Andromeda-types; unless it is the observation that the hero of them all is Orpheus? The method can produce insights, as it does when Frye discusses the wedding “masque” in The Tempest—a passage that has always seemed to fit rather loosely into an otherwise tight play. The accumulation of such insights is in fact an important part of the true history of criticism, though Frye does not think so; for him, of course, their value is determined solely by their adaptability to his total system. He is the polar opposite of Blackmur, who was essentially a very unsystematic critic and believed, dangerously but correctly, that criticism is mostly anarchic, though dependent on a difficult act of submission and then on the critic’s having a mind with useful and interesting contents. The insights are quite unsystematic; their history is certainly not that of a “progressive” system. And of course the general history of criticism very powerfully suggests that it isn’t progressive; which is why Frye has had to strike such a revolutionary pose, representing himself as being to Aristotle the critic what Linnaeus was to Aristotle the biologist. The cost of the system is fairly faced in the opening pages of the Anatomy, which deny the critic the right to make judgments of value. What is more serious is the assumption that the farther he gets from the work the more accurate his descriptions will be.

These are the issues that arise once more in A Natural Perspective. Characteristically, they have to do with Frye’s system rather than with Shakespeare’s plays. How, to borrow Frye’s neat quote from The Comedy of Errors, should we “entertain the offered fallacy?” Frye is saying that the romances, rather than the tragedies, are the culmination of the “logical evolution” of Shakespeare (one of those disguised value-judgments one often finds in his work) because tragedy pays more respect to the reality principle, whereas romance deliberately moves back toward myth: “the story seeks its own end instead of holding up the mirror to nature.” In other words, the more a work deviates from the reality principle the better he likes it, just as he believes only in criticism which has backed so far away from literature that all the little things that make one work different from another drop out of view. The closer it gets to myth, the more completely the story identifies itself with ritual magic, as Shakespeare must have known when he regressed at the end to the “childlike and concrete” romance conventions, and so lent himself more easily to a criticism which “deals entirely with literature in this frozen or spatial way.” At the stage in his evolution marked by Pericles Shakespeare is ready for the full Frye treatment.

Drama,” says Frye, “is born in the renunciation of magic”; but instead of drawing the more obvious conclusions from this sound observation, he goes on to show not only that magic was never totally renounced, but that the best drama is always trying to get it back. When Shakespeare isn’t returning directly to ritual origins he is at least getting back as far as the New Comedy, stock characters of which recur in the Romances under very ingenious disguises: Leontes, for instance, is the jealous senex. It is true enough, though probably too general to be very useful, that Shakespeare’s comedies are like the Latin ones in that they show the reformation of an anticomic society and the festal inauguration of a comic one. But Frye’s real purpose in so arguing is simply that a general resemblance between Shakespeare’s plays and the Roman comedies is a large step back towards myth and ritual. In taking the step Frye argues well and makes many interesting points; but the essence of the situation is precisely that he is the critic of regress, writing regressive criticism about plays he finds to be regressive.

There is nothing new, of course, about treating the romances as a group; and to do so is at once to begin the regression, to lose sight of the differentiae. If one holds one’s ground for a moment it will be clear that few plays could be different from one another in more obvious ways than Pericles and Cymbeline, the first and second of the series. To forget that the mythic patterns of The Winter’s Tale are qualified by the actuality of Leontes’ putrid talk and the sexual realism of Perdita; or that the play of multiple recognitions, Cymbeline, is also one in which the talk of the characters achieves a new level of ratiocinative complexity; or that Prospero’s insistence on the need for magical chastity and the total obedience of his inferiors color his language with prurience and fuss—to forget such obvious facts is to sacrifice the plays to a satisfying generalization, and this seems no more acceptable in Frye than in Dowden or Strachey. And to prefer the romances to the tragedies, at any rate on these grounds, is to dismiss as irrelevant everything that constitutes the personal presence of a work of art, its existential complexities, all that makes it mean something now to a waking audience.

And here, I think, is the clue to what finally invalidates Frye. If literature does the work that ritual and myth once did, the arrangement is providential, for myth and ritual can obviously no longer do it. What makes literature different is, roughly, a different reality principle, appropriate, in an expression of Eliade’s which Frye himself quotes, to this time as myth was appropriate to that time. The difference between illud tempus and hoc tempus is simply willed away in Frye’s critical system, but it is essential to the very forms of modern literature, and to our experience of it. I do not mean simply that in the literature of our own time, which is itself considerably complicated by the prestige of myth, we are made aware of the conflicting claims of rigorous fact and comforting fiction; in my generalization I include Shakespeare, and especially the Shakespeare of the tragedies. King Lear dies on a heap of disconfirmed myths, and modern literature follows Shakespeare into a world where the ritual paradigms will not serve, and magic does not work; where our imaginative satisfactions depend on a decent respect for the reality principle and our great novels are, in the words of Lukacs, “epics without god.”

And even Shakespeare’s romances belong in hoc tempore. We do not accept their conventions as we accept those of popular tales, simply as given for our ease and comfort. The tough verse forbids that, and so does the particularity of what happens on the stage. The statue that moves might enact the Pygmalion myth, were it not that Perdita in all her vitality stands motionless beside it; and that it is shown how no chisel could ever yet cut breath. It is the breath of Hermione, the presence of Perdita, that are lost to view as you stand back; you sacrifice them to a system and a myth. The conclusion seems obvious: when you hear talk of archetypes, reach for your reality principle.

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