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 …