Play’s the Thing

  • Garry Sherbert (Editor) and Troni Y. Grande (Editor)
    Northrop Frye’s Writings on Shakespeare and the Renaissance. Vol. 28. University of Toronto Press
Reviewed by Graham Nicol Forst

Northrop Frye was not primarily known as a Renaissance scholar but he wrote voluminously on Shakespeare, whose plays proved a successful testing ground for the literary theories he developed in Anatomy of Criticism. The appeal is natural: Frye, the “invisible critic,” meets the paradigmatic “invisible author,” both moving in T. S. Eliot’s “air of Cimmerian darkness,” achieving in their different ways an almost complete “wiping out” of personality in their labours. Shakespeare is “nothing but mask,” says Frye, and the description could equally apply to him.

Frye always accepted the fiction of the ahistorical universality of taste. Thus, there is no mention here of the materiality of theatre nor of identity politics (“homosexuality” and “feminism” are not listed in the enormous index, nor are “Jew,” nor “Black,” nor “ethnicity,” etc.); nor colonialism (even in his discussion of The Tempest); nor does Frye ever seriously consider history as a contributing critical criterion. Textual issues, that fixation of late-twentieth-century criticism, are also muted in Frye; he’s content to cite his Riverside edition, leaving matters of “foul papers and drunken compositors” to “scholars.”

Frye’s interests in Shakespeare are, as throughout his work, focused on “structure,” to the point that the plays can almost appear as empty signifiers. One sometimes wonders if he knew or cared what the plays were about; he reads like an art critic who feels that a commentary on Guernica could consist solely of a discussion of its Cubist techniques.

This obsession with structure led Frye to a close reading of the “crafted” plays of Shakespeare, especially the Romances. Similarly, the very structured Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well are referred to here more than A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, and As You Like It taken together. It’s easy to see why: the passage in these plays from crime to forgiveness and from condemnation to redemption is very “exposed”—the bony skeleton of form poking up out of the thematic body, easing the anatomical task, but at the expense of muting the immorality and misogyny of the plots. Thus, the licentious satisfaction of the male libido in Measure for Measure becomes in Frye detumesced into “a myth of deliverance, in the form of redemption” and the morally noisome “bed-trick” into “an image of a passage through earth to new life.”

Future historians of literary criticism will, on reading this volume, certainly credit Frye with demarginalizing the genre of comedy. Frye attributed this preference for comedy to his being “temperamentally an Odyssean critic” rather than “an Iliad critic” (an oddly uncritical acceptance of Coleridge’s distinction, which certainly hasn’t limited Harold Bloom, for one). This predilection, however subjective, inspired the brilliant and influential 1948 essay, “The Argument for Comedy,” which still rewards re-reading, as do the two monographs on comedy it inspired: The Myth of Deliverance and A Natural Perspective, both included here.

Also included here is Frye’s so-called “Shakespeare teaching book”: Northrop Frye on Shakespeare. This book, as Frye admitted on accepting the Governor General’s award, “will not tell a Shakespearean scholar anything he does not know” (it was cobbled together from his undergraduate course lecture notes), but re-reading it reinforces how closely Frye read Shakespeare—has anyone ever read him more closely?—and how successfully he could make Shakespeare “accessible” to a young audience.

One notes a sadness in Frye’s later writings on Shakespeare—in fact he almost sounds like Jaques himself at times—sensing for example, at the end of his life, that Antony and Cleopatra would be to the twenty-first century as Hamlet was to the nineteenth and Lear to the twentieth—representing as it does a world fixated less on the “universal peace” promised by Caesar than on “the separations and reunions of a pair of horny lovers.”

Frye’s gloom notwithstanding, signs are emerging in the early twenty-first century of Shakespeare developing into a kind of secular scripture. If this proves to be so, Frye’s criticism may well return to vogue, especially given his conviction that the humanist vision of forgiveness and reconciliation of the late Romances “lies at the bedrock of drama.”

In this, the last (except the index) of the volumes of Frye’s Collected Works to be published, editors Troni Grande and Garry Sherbert have done a magnificent job in supplying the footnotes so annoyingly missing in Frye’s monographs (their footnotes run over one hundred pages), and their scholarship and research are generally meticulous, although they cite abbreviations that are annoyingly missing from the introductory legend, misspell the name of one of Frye’s favourite authors (Johan Huizinga), and allow some of Frye’s own small errors to remain.

This review “Play’s the Thing” originally appeared in Indigenous Focus. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 215 (Winter 2012): 167-68.

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