Frye and G. Wilson Knight

g wilson knight



G. Wilson Knight (1897-1985) was professor of English at Trinity College, University of Toronto, in the 1930s; he returned to Britain in 1941, where he taught at the University of Leeds until 1962; his main interest was Shakespeare, many of whose plays he produced and acted in; his best‑known book, Wheel of Fire, was published in 1930.  What follows are the references to Knight in Frye’s writing:


1. There’s a series of New Directions studies on “Makers of Modern Literature,” by Harry Levin on Joyce, very well reviewed, & now one by David Daiches on Woolf, said to be not so good.  Wilson Knight is producing another book, this time on Milton.[1] A new Simenon translated, two stories again.  He’s so good that his stories don’t even depend for their interest on the puzzle. [Diaries]

2. Well, Crane’s third lecture was a little easier to follow: more names and historical connections.  But his relativism and pluralism are breaking down into an Aristotle (and Crane) contra mundum attitude.  Everybody’s in the other camp—the camp where poetry is treated as a form of discourse.  Now I’ve lost Aristotle: I don’t understand how he’s distinguishable from this.  Anyway, the discourse people include the Latin rhetoricians, the medieval people, the critics of the Renaissance who thought they were Aristotelians but weren’t, the romantics, and the romantic tradition extending to the new critics & the myth critics.  The last group includes Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Francis Ferguson, Wilson Knight, and me.  [Diaries]

3. King Lear attempts to achieve heroic dignity through his position as a king and father, and finds it instead in his suffering humanity: hence it is in King Lear that we find what has been called the “comedy of the grotesque,”[2] the ironic parody of the tragic situation, most elaborately developed.  [Anatomy of Criticism, 237]

4. But he was quickly bored if the conversation ran down in gossip or trivialities. The personnel at his parties naturally changed over the course of years, but from Bertram Brooker and Wilson Knight in the 1930s to Marshall McLuhan and Douglas Grant in the 1960s, he never wavered in his affection for friends who could talk, and talk with spirit, content, and something to say. [“Ned Pratt: The Personal Legend”]

5. There were many little magazines and attempts at experimental theatre (I can’t answer for the dance groups, of which as I remember there were several), but they fought hard and died quickly—all but the unique and miraculous Canadian Forum, which a dozen university staff members, then as now, worked hard to keep going and up to standard. A few rumours also seeped through from other colleges, of how Wilson Knight at Trinity had revolutionized the study of Shakespeare, of how Gilbert Norwood had written of Classical drama with a sophisticated knowledge of the modern stage, of Charles Cochrane’s mighty struggle with Christianity and Classical Culture. [“Autopsy of a Old Grad’s Grievance,” in Northrop Frye on Education]

6. Surrey, however, established a new pentameter line for his century. Its prestige captured Spenser, who had begun with accentual experiments and contrapuntal singing-matches, but for his epic moved away from musical rhythms, as Milton moved toward them. Shakespeare, however, and most Elizabethan drama with him, grew steadily swifter in movement, breaking out of the line into galloping recitativos, with the diction becoming sharper and more dissonant, the imagery grimmer and more sombre, the thought more tangled and obscure—in short, more musical in every way. The use of music by Shakespeare, however, is outside our scope: his musical accompaniments and imagery have been dealt with, notably by Granville Barker and Wilson Knight, but such features as the contrapuntal construction of King Lear have yet to be analysed.  [“Music in Poetry”]

7. This inductive movement towards the archetype is a process of backing up, as it were, from structural analysis, as we back up from a painting if we want to see composition instead of brushwork. In the foreground of the grave-digger scene in Hamlet, for instance, is an intricate verbal texture, ranging from the puns of the first clown to the danse macabre of the Yorick soliloquy, which we study in the printed text. One step back, and we are in the Wilson Knight and Spurgeon group of critics, listening to the steady rain of images of corruption and decay. [“Archetypes of Literature”]

8. The inductive studies of the recurring imagery of King Lear by Wilson Knight and Caroline Spurgeon have, for me at least, gone a long way to illuminate this meaning, and I think a careful comparison of the different contexts in which such words as “nature” and “nothing” appear would do a good deal more. [Review of Critics and Criticism]

9. Fortunately, one of my colleagues when I began teaching was Professor Wilson Knight, later of Leeds. I think Wilson Knight influenced me more than I realized at the time. At that time he was completely possessed by Shakespeare, and gave the impression of not knowing a Quarto from a Folio text, certainly of caring even less. He showed me once his main instrument of scholarship—a Globe Shakespeare with a mass of pencilled annotations. Like most students of my generation, Knight’s books had much the effect on me that Chapman’s Homer had on Keats, and the method indicated, of concentrating on the author’s text but recreating it by studying the structure of imagery and metaphor, seemed to me then, and seems to me still, the sort of thing that criticism is centrally about. [“The Search for Acceptable Words”]

10. I spoke of Troilus and Cressida as Shakespeare’s closest approach to the dialectical and processional structure of Old Comedy.  This again shows us the Trojans as victims of the heroic ritual code to which they have bound themselves.  In such a situation someone more “realistic,” like the ruthless Achilles or the wily Ulysses, comes out on top.  In The Two Noble Kinsmen there is nothing corresponding to the Greeks of the earlier play, and in Henry VIII nothing corresponding to the Trojans, but the two plays taken together illustrate different aspects of the self-imprisoning human will to live in a world of illusion and call it reality.  In the four better‑known romances the movement of the action is more conventionally comic, but it is a movement towards a separating of the two orders of reality and illusion, the orders which for Wilson Knight are symbolized by music and the tempest.23 [“Romance as Masque”]

11. [24]  Some of the best people I know have intuitions of great ideas, and have spent the rest of their lives confusing the understanding of the ideas with their own emotional pleasure at having felt the intuition of them.  Lismer, and Wilson Knight after The Wheel of Fire.  The fact that they don’t really understand the ideas is marked by their incoherence in explaining them.  The alternative explanation that the intuition is too deep for full communication I reject as a romantic fallacy.  I suspect that half of the mystical and practically all occult thinking remains in the same pleasantly confused state.  It’s analogous to that feeling of the portentous significance in dreams of things which on waking prove trivial.  Could be a point about Kennedy. [Autobiographical Notes I: Notebook 42b; rpt. in Northrop Frye’s Fiction and Miscellaneous Writings]

12. 7.  I suppose the terrific teaching load I assumed at the beginning predisposed me to look for structural similarities in primary sources.  In any case I put all my time on primary sources: there was no time to read secondary ones.  Here a major influence, I think, was Wilson Knight, then at Trinity.  There were times when I suspected that Knight didn’t know a Folio from a Quarto text—certainly he didn’t care; he worked entirely with a Globe Shakespeare and a mass of pencilled annotations.  Still, when I compare what I got out of The Wheel of Fire compared with what I got out of other Shakespeare scholars, I felt there was something to be said for primary sources.  I found much of what then passed for “historical” criticism phony, because so many of these historical critics didn’t know anything about the actual history of literature—what they knew, at best, was history outside literature. [Autobiographical Notes IV:  The Critic and the Writer, forthcoming in Miscellany]

13. The book would not have been, for me, even remotely possible without the help of my colleague Professor Jay Macpherson.  It was she who provided summaries of the longer texts on the basis of which it is possible to give some idea of the connecting arguments of Raleigh, I. Newton, Warburton, Weston, Bryant, Payn, Knight, J.F. Newton, Davies, and several others.  [“Preface” to Essays on Myth, a book that never materialized; rpt. in Northrop Frye’s Fiction and Miscellaneous Writings]

14. I think it was the critic Wilson Knight, at one time a colleague of mine here in Toronto, who first pointed out how healthy a man Claudius was, except for his crime, and how sick a man Hamlet was, even with his cause. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, for example, are old friends whom Hamlet is at first delighted to see: he soon realizes that they have been “sent for,” which they immediately admit, and the discovery doesn’t bother him too much. They are serving the king, whom they assume is the rightful king—Hamlet hasn’t taken them into his confidence to that extent—and it never occurs to them that they are not acting in Hamlet’s own best interests. “My lord, you once did love me,” Guildenstern says with simple dignity. For Hamlet to describe them so contemptuously to Horatio as the shabbiest kind of spies, whose death is simply a good riddance, is one of those bewildering shifts of perspective that make what broadcasters call “easy listening” impossible.  [“Hamlet,” Northrop Frye on Shakespeare]

15. Most Shakespearean comedy is organized within this framework, and when it is, its imagery takes on the form outlined by G. Wilson Knight in The Shakespearean Tempest (1932). The tempest symbolizes the destructive elements in the order of nature, and music the permanently constructive elements in it. [“Recognition in The Winter’s Tale”]

16. In the four romances with which Shakespeare’s work concludes, the separation of higher nature from nothing is at its clearest. In Pericles the two worlds, as noted by Wilson Knight, are symbolized by music and tempest. [“Nature and Nothing”]

17. I suspect that Colin Still’s book was an influence on T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land, published the next year, though Eliot does not mention Still before his preface to Wilson Knight’s Wheel of Fire in 1930. [“Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in The Eternal Act of Creation]

18. [1] I still don’t know what the significance of the game of chess is in The Tempest, and I find Eliot’s Waste Land notes and his references to Middleton somewhat less than helpful. But I wonder if it has anything to do with a possible symbolism connected with shah mat: “the king is dead.” Cards no doubt have similar affinities: Lewis Carroll deals with both in parallel terms, & the card game in The Rape of the Lock comes I think from a Latin Ludus Scacchia (by Vida?). Wilson Knight notes the black and white character of the dramatis personae in Lear. Cf. The dice-playing in mumming. [Renaissance Notebooks, Notebook 8]

19. [95] . . . This Satan figure is sometimes a projection of the author as (Wyndham Lewis) butcher of the tragic hero: cf. Ludovico in Webster, WD [The White Devil]: “I limn’d this night-piece.” Such identification is much clearer in Byronic-diabolic-romantic closet drama of the kind Webster approaches (Heavysege’s Malzah, etc.) than in Shakespeare, where the author is executioner only as the result of being accuser & judge, i.e., incorporating himself into the tragic revenge analogy pattern. Subtler vice patterns are the ghost (who in Hamlet not only may be the devil but, as Wilson Knight says, damn well is) . . . [ibid.]


20. [294] . . . JC [Julius Caesar] shows the progression most clearly in Caesar, Brutus & Antony.  In Hamlet the moral progression is ghost of Hamlet’s father, Claudius & Hamlet, but there’s a subsidiary one in which Claudius, because king, is the Apollo figure, Hamlet the tragic [actor?], & Hamlet’s nemesis Laertes: this is the Wilson Knight view of the play.  [ibid, Notebook 9]


21. There is a thin purgatorial line in Lear, even though the frantic efforts of Wilson Knight and Middleton Murry and all the others pretending that we still have Nahum Tate’s play in front of us are blah.  [typescript notes 91B366]

22. Thus the underworld journey seems to be an initiation, a learning of mysteries. It is an old theory that the sixth book of the Aeneid is an allegory of initiation into Eleusinian mysteries, and a similar theory was applied to Shakespeare’s Tempest by Colin Still in Shakespeare’s Mystery Play, a book mentioned in Eliot’s preface to Wilson Knight’s Wheel of Fire and published the year before The Waste Land. [T.S. Eliot]

[1] G. Wilson Knight, Chariot of Wrath: The Message of John Milton to Democracy at War(London: Faber and Faber, 1942).

[2] G. Wilson Knight, “King Lear and the Comedy of the Grotesque, in The Wheel of Fire: Interpretations of Shakespearean Tragedy (London: Metheun, 1930).

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