Daily Archives: May 22, 2010

Laurence Olivier

The “To be or not to be” soliloquy from Olivier’s Hamlet

Today is Laurence Olivier‘s birthday (1907 – 1989).

Frye on New Year’s Eve 1948 records in his diary his impressions of Olivier’s film version of Hamlet:

Went to see the Laurence Olivier Hamlet this afternoon — its eleventh filming, according to the program.  As Olivier directed the film & played Hamlet too, it was still the subjective fallacy, the conception of the play which derives from the accident that Hamlet is a fat actor’s role, not in the least scant of breath.  In any production the actor who takes Hamlet’s part has a lot to say about the production, & his first care is usually to ensure that if any part is cut it won’t be his.  Olivier wasn’t crude about it: he slashed the soliloquies to ribbons & turned it into a play of action.  The subjective fallacy showed up chiefly in his treatment of Ophelia–he manipulated her part to make her just the “anima” of Hamlet, & deliberately cut out her mature intensity of feeling & her sharp sly humor.  Consistently with this he made her death pure accident, thus making all the references to her “doubtful” death in the fifth act entirely pointless.  The foils to Hamlet were also weakened — Laertes of course has a very badly written part, but the stability of Horatio was hardly in evidence & Fortinbras was abolished altogether, along with those dismal robot clowns Rosencrantz & Guildenstern.  On the other hand, the king & queen were fully & excellently treated.

Hamlet is not about Hamlet at all, but about a situation into which Hamlet fits, and all attempts to treat the play as though it were primarily a character study of Hamlet destroy the symmetry of the play.  For one thing, one needs all the rich counterpoint of the Polonius family, which plays the same role in Hamlet that the Gloucester family does in Lear.  We have to see this subplot from its own perspective as well as from Hamlet’s.  Ophelia corresponds to Gertrude, & her attraction toward Hamlet is, from Polonius’ point of view, a desertion to vice, just as Gertrude’s attraction toward Claudius is from Hamlet’s.  The father-daughter hold here is as palpable as the bigger mother-son one.  But more important, Hamlet is not a play about Hamlet’s indecision, but about the ritual element in revenge.  In Hamlet the stimulus to revenge takes the creative form of the play: in Claudius it takes the form of a ritual sword-dance, a Druidical drama punctuated with choruses of toasts & cannon shots.  But the question “why did Hamlet delay?” is no more important to the play than the question “why did Claudius delay?” for Claudius also has shallow excuses and self-analyzing soliloquies.  There is something comic in the elephantine fumbling on both sides, especially in the fourth act.

There were excellent things in Olivier’s version, though: the winding stair & the general Piranesi setting, Hamlet as the Orc-hero brandishing the torch in Claudius’ face, a grotesque little wooden statue of Christ to which Claudius prays, the use of the cross on the sword-hilt in the Hamlet-Ghost scene, the whole Saturnalia or Balshazzar’s feast aspect of Claudius’ revels.  The camera, by pushing closer to the characters, brings out the horror of tragedy the stage plays often gloss over, & reminds us that tragedy is after all about people getting hurt.  (CW 8, 42-3)

Frye’s 100 Chapter Book


Several weeks back Michael Happy asked me if it would be possible to reconstruct a three‑dimensional diagram of Frye’s Great Doodle, the intricate and grand schematic of the alphabet of forms that figured so importantly in his design for his aborted “third book.”  I replied that I didn’t think so because it would be too complex.  What is the Great Doodle?

Frye writes at one point that he’s not revealing what the Great Doodle is because he does not really know (CW 23, 76–77), but his frequent references to it reveal that it is primarily his symbolic shorthand for the monomyth.  Originally he conceived of the Great Doodle as “the cyclical quest of the hero” (CW 9, 214) or “the underlying form of all epics” (CW 9, 241).  But as he began to move away from strictly literary terms toward both religious language and the language of Greek myth and philosophy, another pattern developed, one with an east-west axis of Nous-Nomos and a north-south axis of Logos-Thanatos.  At this point the Great Doodle took on an added significance, becoming a symbolic shorthand for what he called the narrative form of the Logos vision: “the circular journey of the Logos from Father to Spirit” (CW 9, 260) or “the total cyclical journey of the incarnate Logos” (CW 9, 201).  But the Great Doodle is never merely a cycle.  Its shape requires also the vertical axis mundi and the horizontal axis separating the world of innocence and experience.  These axes, with their numerous variations, produce the four quadrants that are omnipresent in Frye’s diagrammatic way of thinking.  In Notebook 7 he refers to the quadrants as part of the Lesser Doodle (CW 23, 76), meaning only that the quadrants themselves are insufficient to establish the larger geometric design of the Great Doodle.

But the Great Doodle has still further elaborations.  In the extensive notes he made for his Norton Lectures at Harvard (The Secular Scripture) Frye remarks self-referentially that in book 14 of Longfellow’s Hiawatha the heroine “invents picture-writing, including the Great Doodle of Frye’s celebrated masterpieces.”  The reference is to Hiawatha’s painting on birch bark a series of symbolic and mystic images: the egg of the Great Spirit, the serpent of the Spirit of Evil, the circle of life and death, the straight line of the earth, and other ancestral totems in the great chain of being. Frye elaborates his Great Doodle in a similar way, the Hiawathan “shapes and figures” becoming for him points of epiphany at the circumference of the circle––what he twice refers to as beads on a string (CW 9, 241, 245).  The beads are various topoi and loci along the circumferential string. They can be seen as stations where the questing hero stops in his journey or as the cardinal points of a circle.  Frye even overlays one form of the Logos diagram with the eight trigrams of the I Ching, saying that they “can be connected with my Great Doodle” (CW 9, 209), and one version of the Great Doodle recapitulates what he refers to throughout his notebooks as “the Revelation diagram,” the intricately designed chart that he passed out in his course “Symbolism in the Bible.”

The Great Doodle, then, is a representation, though a hypothetical one, that contains the large schematic patterns in Frye’s memory theater: the cyclical quest with its quadrants, cardinal points, and epiphanic sites; and the vertical ascent and descent movements along the chain of being or the axis mundi.  It contains as well all the lesser doodles that Frye creates to represent the diagrammatic structure of myth and metaphor and that he frames in the geometric language of gyre and vortex, center and circumference.  (See Michael Dolzani’s exposition of the Great Doodle in his introduction to The “Third Book” Notebooks.)

Frye drew scores of diagrams in his notebooks but never one for the Great Doodle.  And, as I say, it seems practically impossible to in include all the features of Great Doodle in a single diagram, even a two‑dimensional one.  But Michael Happy’s question got me to thinking about Notebook 11f, which dates from 1969–70, where Frye toys with the idea of constructing a book of one hundred sections, which are clearly a part of the Great Doodle.  Here are his initial musings about this scheme:

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Frye Alert


Scott Maclemee in The National, an English-language newspaper published in Abu Dhabi, reviews Peter Sloterdijk’s Rage and Time: A Psychopolitical Investigation, and cites Frye to make sense of the unusual genre that Sloterdijk writes in.

That genre is the anatomy, a rambling prose form that now seems old-fashioned. The locus classicus is Richard Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, but the label also covers works of fiction such as Jonathan Swift’s satires and Aldous Huxley’s novels. “At its most concentrated,” writes Northrop Frye, the form “presents us with a vision of the world in terms of a single intellectual pattern” that is the product of a particular temperament or psychic state. There is always something wild and excessive about how ideas are developed in an anatomy; it’s as if an encyclopaedia were having a nervous breakdown. The anatomist – to continue quoting from Frye’s own Anatomy of Criticism – “shows his exuberance in intellectual ways, by piling up an enormous mass of erudition about his theme or in overwhelming his pedantic targets with an avalanche of his own jargon.”

The entire review can be read here.