Henry V


The hanging of Bardolph in Shakespeare’s Henry V

Yes, there has been a recent post about Henry V, but today is his birthday (1387-1422).

Frye in “A Conspectus of Dramatic Genres” on Shakespeare’s Henry V and the distinction between comedy and tragedy via irony:

There seems to be a far less direct connection between history and comedy: the comic scenes in the histories are, so to speak, subversive.  Henry V ends in triumph and marriage, but an action that kills Falstaff, hangs Bardolph, and debases Pistol is not related to comedy in the way that Richard II is related to tragedy.

But tragic myths are significant in shape as well as social function, as tragedy selects only myths that end in catastrophe, or near it.  Tragedy derives from the auto [mythical Eucharist] of its central heroic figure, but the association of heroism with downfall is due to the presence of another element, an element which, when we isolate it, we call irony.  The nearer tragedy is to the heroic play, the more we feel the incongruous wrongness of it.  These two attitudes are complacency: the feeling of rightness produces terror and the feeling or wrongness pity. The nearer the tragedy is to auto, the closer associated the hero is with divinity; the nearer to irony, the more human the hero is, and the more the catastrophe appears to be a social rather than a cosmological event. Elizabethan tragedy shows a historical development from Marlowe’s demigods in a social ether to Webster’s analysis of a sick society; but Greek tragedy, which never broke completely from the auto, never developed a social form, though there are tendencies to it in Euripides. (CW 21, 108)

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8 thoughts on “Henry V

  1. Nicholas William Graham

    “Tragedy derives from the auto [mythical Eucharist] of its central heroic figure, but the association of heroism with downfall is due to the presence of another element, an element which, when we isolate it, we call irony.”

    Would somebody like to tell us what this means? I would greatly appreciate it. Thanks.


    1. Michael Happy Post author

      Hi, Nick, I am not quite sure what about the quote is eluding you. If I’m understanding it correctly, this passage is Frygian boilerplate: the closer the hero is to the divine, the more his existence approximates the divine tragedy of sacrifice. But the downfall of the more displaced human hero is due to irony — that is, the more remote his relation to the divine, the more hybristic his tragic existence becomes.

  2. Nicholas William Graham

    Excuse me Michael, but what is “Frygian boilerplate?”. Is it “Frye speak”?
    Displacement I think I understand but what’s troubling me is: “the auto [Mythical Eucharist] ” is this the Crucifiction or can it be a god of any religion or mythology? Does it mean the level from which displacement starts?

    Thanks for you time.

  3. Michael Happy Post author

    Hi Nick. Yes, by Frygian boilerplate I mean that it is one of those repeatable formulae you see recurring in different places. And, yes, I do believe that this is where displacement begins — the undisplaced god of myth who dies represents divine tragedy. The displaced human hero, however, because he is not divine, experiences tragedy with an element of irony (that which he does not know or cannot see) and which Frye generically refers to as “hybris” — that is, being exposed or vulnerable, which non-divine beings must always be.

  4. Nicholas William Graham

    Hi Mike. I guess what’s confusing me is that at first glance a “divine tragedy” seems an oxymoron; also my initial difficulty in recalling
    Osiris, Isis, Horus Egyptian resurrectional trinity and the Sumerian/Babylonian Tammuz; plus Frye’s remarks on God:
    “A prehuman God is the most meaningless idol ever worshipped.” [CW 14, p.254; 1947, p.256] And again, “The worst thing we can say of God is that he knows all. The best thing we can say of him is that, on the whole, he tends to keep his knowledge to himself.” [CW 6, p.568]

    Joyce in the PORTRAIT remarks something to the effect that “Aristotle has not defined tragedy but I have.” Joseph Campbell deals with this in Joyce focusing on “pity” and “fear”, one attached to the person and the other to the object. So, I’m still wondering how Frye defines tragedy?

    Thank you very, very much for your help.


    1. Michael Happy Post author

      You’re quite right, Nick — that quote from Frye is hauntingly evocative, and it does raise the question: When does a god become non-pre-human? It’s clear enough that Frye thinks of the Judeo-Christian God as a humanized god, but what about the pagan gods? Then again, it’s clear from Anatomy that the pagan gods comprehensible by way of the principle of displacement.

      As for Frye’s definition of tragedy, my take away has always been that he thought of it as primarily the loss of identity, and — because we are mortal beings — there also appears to be an element of “inevitiblity” to it (in the way, for example, that comedy in not inevitable). It’s been awhile since I’ve read Anatomy, but that’s the place to go for sure — “The Mythos of Autumn” (CW 22, 192ff).

  5. Nicholas William Graham

    I’d forgotten the very helpful glossary in ANATOMY
    [CW 22, 331-334; 1957,365-367] which lists:

    AUTO: A form of drama in which the main subject is sacred or sacrosanct legend, such as miracle plays, solemn and processional in form but not strictly tragic. Name taken from Calderon’s AUTO SACRAMENTALES.

    I better knuckle down and read Calderon!!


  6. Nicholas William Graham

    What a delight for me to find Bob Denham’s contribution to this blog of recovered notes for NORTHROP FRYE’S NOTEBOOKS ON RENAISSANCE LITERATURE [CW, vol. 20] edited by Michael Dolzani.

    Here’s just a sample:

    1. TRAGEDY: West on my circle; the sacramental analogy; the separation of divine & human: the primary contract of man, gods & nature; causality and hierarchy (time & the chain of being); commandment to action (“this do”); death as birth into contract (Generation or Canaan); epiphany of law; fall of hero; nemesis of rebellion; NW–W, indigo & violet. SACRAMENT.

    2. IRONY: South; the demonic epiphany; the secondary contract of society (the social contract proper); proverbs of customary wis­dom & counsels of prudence (making oneself small); sparagmos of relative ideas & the paradox of moral dilemma (e.g. the Euthyphro); cyclical rhythm of humanity enclosed within nature; choice of pharmakos; the human encyclopedia or anatomy; Ulro & Egypt (bondage of froda vs. forza); SW–S, red & orange. CYCLE.

    3. COMEDY: East; redemption from the social contract; the [?city]‑bride; vision of the absurd law outwitted or transcended; riddle, parable, symposium & other forms of imprisoned but emerging dialectic; unifying identity of man & society; comic emergence of eiron‑hero; Jerusalem, Utopia or Cleopolis; SE–E, yellow & yellow green; escape & renewal. DIALECTIC.

    4. ROMANCE: North; redemption from the primary or natural con­tract; the removed garden or promised land; oracle or cor­respondence form of emerging revelation; unifying identity of man, nature & gods; Arcadia, Eden, Atlantis emerging from the sea; the pastoral & sexual protest of fulfilment; emergence of natural man. NE–N, blue‑green & blue. INTERPENETRATION.


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