Notes on Northrop Frye's A Natural Perspective—The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance. New York: Columbia University Press, 1965.
“Mouldy Tales” pp. 1-33
Two types of critics: Iliad critics or Odyssey critics—centering either on the area of tragedy, realism and irony, or else in the area of comedy and romance. P1
Traditionally function of literature has been seen as twofold: delight and instruct.
For those who tend to see literature’s focus to be primarily that of instruction, literature is an allegory of real life. Rooted in reality principle. Value realism. Represented by Matthew Arnold.
For the “Odyssean critic” more difficult. He/she does not demand verisimilitude. Conventionalized fictions are the rule. Focus is on the work itself rather than in a reality which it is supposed to mirror. Focus on technical achievement. How well does an author work within the conventions? Sense of play is very strong.
Shakespeare, in contrast to Ben Jonson, is not concerned with maintaining an illusion of reality. Strong folklore element.
Frye sees the final plays, the Romances, as the culmination of S. work. They recapitulate techniques and devises used in his previous works, even the tragedies.
In the comedies and romances, the stories seek their own end instead of holding the mirror up to nature.
Interest then focuses on the conventions that S. uses in his comedies—this leads to then an interest in the genres of comedy and romance themselves beyond the individual plays. The question comes: How are comedies constructed? What is their structure?
Frye compares the Romances to Bach’s “Art of the Fugue” and “Musical Offering” as the apex of craftsmanship. The key concept for considering the Romances is structure.
Two perspectives: while one is watching or reading a play, our attitude is participative, precritical. We must suspend our critical faculties and enter into the experience. After it is over, we see the whole and can make a critical judgment. There are moments in the play that open our minds to the whole shape by offering us recognition or discovery of the theme. However, the critical faculty enters earlier into our experience of some works—tragedy and realism invite a critical perspective—we test plausibility early on. In comedy we suspend our judgment—we become as uncritical as possible.
In realism, we are dramatically satisfied when the play coincides with our views of ordinary life.
In Shakespeare, the critical faculty is at a minimum during the direct experience of the play. Shakespeare asks us to listen to a story.
Shakespeare’s characters are stylized. Do unreasonable things.
Plays need rhythm and pacing, wit, drive, energy to succeed—not logic.
The real art of theater is to subordinate technical skill to movement.
Realism, as in the pictoral arts, has an external reference to the outer world. But there are also modern paintings without any reference at all but is purely self-contained.
Shakespeare persuades us to believe in the validity of his stories, not by their logical development but rather through rhetoric. There are also dramatic conventions to fall back on. “Shakespeare’s answer, apparently, would be for drama what Sir Thomas Browne’s is for religion: ‘Methinks there be not impossibiliies enough for an active faith.’”
“It is required you do awake your faith.” Paulina in The Winter’s Tale. “Of course the faith spoken of is what we should call imaginative faith, but this imaginative faith is something much more positive than any mere suspension of disbelief, however willing.”
The conventions and difficulties we meet in reconciling a comedy with the real world, seem to have “the specific function of drawing us away from the analogy to familiar experience into a strange and consistent and self-contained dramatic world.”
Anachronism—can be said to have a positive and functional role—universalizes an historical period. “The past is blended with the present and event and audience are linked in the same community.” Similar to modern-day gimmicks of contemporizing Shakespeare’s plays.
Shakespeare is meant to be seen on stage, not read (as Jonson wanted to be). Much more interested in the theater than in printing his works. Part of oral tradition and following its rules.
“Shakespeare, like Bach, was a scholar of the ear.”
Interesting to compare comedy in drama and comedy in opera where the complications are incidental to the music which carries the drama along.
Jonson, not Shakespeare, is the founder of the English tradition of comedy followed by most comic writers in English—comedy of manners with a realistic illusion. Shakespeare’s romantic and stylized kind of comedy seems to have drifted from stage to lyric poetry.
The place where Shakespeare’s style of Romantic comedy survived was in operas like Figaro or The Magic Flute. Many operatic features can be found in Shakespearean comedy. Use of repetitions, repeated patterns. Sudden beginning of a new action or mood.
26. “In reading a book we are inclined to stop and look back for the motivation, or, at least, some logical connection with what has gone before. In drama we realize that the connection is there, but it is presented musically, as a new theme or second subject which our ear accepts without explanation.”
Use of dance is functional in the romances. “…it merely extends the operatic affinities of the romances to the ballet.”
“In Shakespeare complexity is contrapuntal, with several plots going on at once and preserving their individual integrity to the end, and with an intricate texture of repeating and modulating images.”
We sometimes forget how operatic Elizabethan theater was. The use of music is significant. The structure of Pericles anticipates opera. Only the essential scenes are presented.
Parallels between The Waste Land and Pericles in its fragmentation and references to similar themes. Dislocation of narrative structure are an organizing feature of Pericles. What we expect to see is absent—instead we get dramatic experience with provides emotional resonance.
“The late romances, Pericles in particular, are plays in which a union of the three major arts, melos, lexis, and opsis, to use the Aristotelian terms, give us a drama beyond drama, a kind of ultimate confrontation of a human community with an artistic realization of itself.”
Jonson eventually moved more and more in the direction of abstraction. The masque—a symbol of the dramatic experience. Moves in the direction of Beckett.
The figure of Gower in Pericles serves to remind us that this is a play, and “the effect of the reminder shatters the framework of the play and leads us inside it.”
Pericles is quite primitive—one can say archetypal. The dramatic construct, for all its symmetry, has been reduced to great simplicity and directness in order to put the strongest possible emphasis on the immediate dramatic experience itself.
“The kernel of the Jonsonian tradition is something abstract and sophisticated; the kernel of the Shakespearean tradition is something childlike and concrete.”
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