Category Archives: Shakespeare

Crackpots and Undistinguished Flakes

In Anatomy of Criticism Frye notes that critics often break forth into an “oracular harrumph” when they encounter references to alchemy, the Tarot, Rosicrucianism, and the like, and the same attitude persists more than a half‑century later.  One encounters readers here and there, having discovered that Frye thought highly of Colin Still’s book on The Tempest or that he had read some esoteric work, recoiling in amazement, as if it automatically followed that Frye was a card‑carrying member of some mystery cult or was engaging in the ritual practices of Freemasonry.  In the late 1970s I was invited to a party in Toronto by a friend at York University, where the assembled party‑goers turned out to be McLuhanites. When they discovered that I had an interest in Frye, they began to pepper me with questions about Frye’s having been a Mason. I naturally asked what evidence they had for this claim, but none was forthcoming, their assumption being that this was common knowledge. The rumor, apparently, was initiated by Marshall McLuhan, or at any rate perpetuated by him. McLuhan’s biographer Philip Marchand writes that McLuhan “certainly never abandoned his belief that his great rival in the English department of the University of Toronto, Northrop Frye, was a “Mason at heart, if not in fact” (Marshall McLuhan, 105).  In a book review Marchand removes the qualification, saying flatly that “McLuhan thought Frye was a Mason” (Toronto Star, 30 November 2002).  He goes on to say that it’s no wonder that McLuhan suspected that Frye was a Mason because (check out this logic) he was interested in the occult, used diagrams, and, heaven help us, took Colin Still’s Shakespearean criticism seriously.

“Colin Still,” Marchand declares, “was a crackpot,” whose book on The Tempest “[m]ost academics would have been embarrassed to be seen reading.”  Really?  This is an example of a little learning having turned into ignorance.  Marchand has no sense of allegory, and he has no sense of the difference between the reading of a text and the use to which that reading is put. All this gets picked up by Colby Cosh, who does Marchand one better: “The crushingly excellent Philip Marchand has a mesmerizing column about the poisonous rivalry between Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye. . . . McLuhan, a conservative Catholic, despised Frye because he thought he was dabbling in dark occultic forces and perhaps messing about with Freemasonry. . . . Marchand has discovered a new and major source for Frye’s thinking in Colin Still, a hitherto undistinguished flake who believed The Tempest was a disguised representation of some sort of pagan initiation rite” ( 30 November 2002).

Although Frye occasionally comments on Freemasonry (e.g., the Masonic overtones of The Magic Flute, the Masonic links with the trade unions in the nineteenth century, the affinity between the Freemasons and the Royal Society, and the Freemason scapegoat myths), there is not a shred of evidence that Frye was a Mason. As for Still’s being a “crackpot” and an “undistinguished flake,” no less a critical intelligence than R.S. Crane speaks of the “pioneering work” of Still in reading Shakespeare allegorically, discovering in the play “the double theme of purgation from sin and of rebirth and upward spiritual movement after sorrow and death” (The Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry, 132).  Peter Dawkins refers to Still as an “eminent scholar” (The Wisdom of Shakespeare in “The Tempest,” xxv), and Michael Srigley has defended Still’s thesis (Images of Regeneration).  Ronald Tamplin finds in Eliot’s The Waste Land “a pattern corresponding in outline, imagery, and incidental material to Still’s account of initiation into the Greek mystery religions” (American Literature 39 [1967]: 361). In a detailed examination of Still’s argument, Michael Cosser says, “Certainly it is not stretching credulity to see a close parallel between the play and what can be pieced together from classical sources as to the training received in the Mystery-centers of old” (Sunrise 49 (December 1999–January 2000). And in his study of the sacerdotal features of The Tempest my colleague and friend Robert Lanier Reid, though not convinced of the explicitness of Still’s claims, nevertheless takes seriously Still’s view that the play is a “universal purgatorial allegory” (Comparative Drama 41, no. 4 [Winter 2007–8]: 493–513). These critics, like Bishop Warburton before them, are far from being crackpots and flakes. In the eighteenth century Warburton, as both Still and Frye were aware, had proposed the theory that book 6 of the Aeneid––the descent to the underworld––corresponds to the ancient rites of initiation.  In other words, observations about parallels between literary works Greek initiations rites had been around for some time: noting such parallels was a common critical practice.

Still’s books, listed in all the bibliographies, were also celebrated by the distinguished Shakespearean G. Wilson Knight, who calls Shakespeare’s Mystery Play an “important landmark” (Shakespeare and Religion, 201). As an undergraduate at Victoria College, Frye had known Knight, who taught at Trinity College at the University of Toronto in the 1930s.  T.S. Eliot referred to Still in his preface to Knight’s The Wheel of Fire, and it is possible that Frye ran across this reference even before he checked Still’s book out of the Toronto public library during his sophomore year in college––the same year that The Wheel of Fire was published (1930). In The Wheel of Fire Knight writes, “Since the publication of my essay, my attention has been drawn to Mr. Colin Still’s remarkable book Shakespeare’s Mystery Play . . . .  Mr. Still’s interpretation of The Tempest is very similar to mine. His conclusions were reached by a detailed comparison of the play in its totality with other creations of literature, myth, and ritual throughout the ages” (16). Knight regards Still’s book as confirmation (“empirical proof”) of his own view that The Tempest is a mystical work (ibid.). A year later Knight wrote that his view of The Tempest

is most interestingly corroborated by a remarkable and profound book by Mr. Colin Still, Shakespeare’s Mystery Play: A Study of the Tempest (1921). . . . Mr. Still analyses The Tempest as a work of mystic vision, and shows that it abounds in parallels with the ancient mystery cults and works of symbolic religious significance throughout the ages. Especially illuminating are his references to Virgil (Aeneid, VI) and Dante. His reading of The Tempest depends on references outside Shakespeare, whereas my interpretation depends entirely on references to the succession of plays which The Tempest concludes.  We thus reach our results by quite different routes: those results are strangely––and, after all, I believe, not strangely––similar.  To the skeptic this may suggest that mystical interpretation of great poetry may be something other than Horatio’s (Hamlet, I. V. 133) ‘wild and whirling words’. It is not without its dangers, yet it is the only adequate and relevant interpretation of Shakespeare that exists; since, if the vision of the poet and that of the mystic are utterly and finally and in essence incommensurable, where are we to search for unity? And yet if the art of poetry has its share of divine sanction and transcendent truth, what limit can we place to the authentic inspiration of so transcendent and measureless a poet as Shakespeare?” (Shakespeare and Religion, 67–8)

Marchand and friends are of course free to say whatever they wish about the interpretations of Still, Knight, and Frye, though one wishes that their dismissals had not been based on such ill-informed opinions about the parallels between Shakespeare and ancient myth and ritual.

Previous posts on Frye and McLuhan here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. The complete McLuhan thread here.

The Globe Theatre

A panoramic view of the interior of the reconstructed Globe

The Globe Theatre, of which Shakespeare was part owner, burned to the ground on this date in 1613.

Frye in “The Stage is All the World” considers the theatre as an analogy of the cosmos.

The theatre as a metaphor for the universe was extremely common in Shakespeare’s day, and one reason was that the universe was assumed to have been intelligently designed by its Creator, and intelligent meant having some relation to human life. . . Similarly, the stars are not just up there: they have been put there to influence the character of living things. . . In so designed a cosmos all facts and all ideas are linked together, potentially in the human mind, actually in God’s. The image of a totally participating theatre begins to take shape. All facts and principles have their assigned and ticketed places, and step forward on the stage when needed. Courses in the training of memory were taught in which you constructed a theatre-shaped encyclopedia in your mind, and remembered something by pulling it out of its numbered place in your auditorium. The scholar who did most work on these memory theatres, the late Dame Frances Yates, was convinced that the design of the Globe was influenced by them. (CW 28, 448)

Courtly Love


The deaths of Romeo and Juliet in Baz Luhrman’s 1996 film adaptation

Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry II of England on this date in 1152. She was the famed architect of the Court of Love at Poitiers, and the themes and conventions that grew up around it prevailed in love poetry for centuries.

Frye in The Myth of Deliverance on Courtly Love and the Eros cult in Shakespeare:

But while some forms of Courtly Love were highly sublimated, others were not, as we can see if we turn from Dante or Petrarch to The Romaunt of the Rose or the story of Tristan and Iseult. By Shakespeare’s day love is normally, in comedy, a heterosexual attachment leading to marriage. The tragic form of such love is the Liebestod, as we have it in Romeo and Juliet, where the heightened energy of love, which transforms Juliet into the most articulate thirteen-year-old in history, meets with an equally heightened catastrophe. We can see in this play how the medieval Courtly Love conventions are still operating as a parallel to Christian doctrines. Strictly speaking, from a Christian point of view, Romeo’s suicide might involve him in damnation, but not many in his audience would want to speak as strictly as that. The audience would recognize that Romeo has his own religion: it does not conflict with Christianity or prevent him from going to Friar Laurence for confession, but when he says, “My bosom’s lord sits lightly in his throne” [5.1.3], he is speaking of the god to whom he really is committed and who really does run his life, who is Eros. Romeo and Juliet die as saints and martyrs in this god’s calendar, just as the “good women” of Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women include Dido and Cleopatra, who were also erotic saints and martyrs. (CW 28, 389-90)

Frye Shakespeare Anecdote

This absolutely ludicrous cover for the first edition of On Shakespeare is one of my most treasured possessions. It is of course based upon the Droeshout portrait. The publisher apparently did not know that Frye mischievously said of this portrait that it depicts “a man who is clearly an idiot.”

Here’s a Frye anecdote it’s never occurred to me to relate here before.  I took his undergrad Shakespeare course, which he taught that year with Julian Patrick.  The arrangement was that they would each give a one hour lecture per week, the third hour reserved for tutorials. Each also attended the other’s lectures. As the end of the second term approached, Patrick made reference to the fact that our final exam was to be April 23rd. “Shakespeare’s birthday,” he said encouragingly. Frye piped up: “Also the day he died,” which brought a roar of laughter from the class of about two hundred students. I’m glad to say we gave him a sustained round of applause at the end of his last lecture, which, as he left the stage, he paused to acknowledge with a small but pleased smile.

Saturday Night Documentary: “Looking for Richard”


To celebrate Shakespeare’s 447th birthday, here’s Al Pacino’s excellent film about putting together a production of Richard III, Looking for Richard. Treat yourself: watch this. It’s very lively, and the performances are wonderful. As a bonus, there are French subtitles.

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The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s very funny and completely irrelevant biography of Shakespeare

Today is the anniversary of both Shakespeare‘s birth (traditionally ascribed to this date) and his death: 1564-1616.  If we decide to observe this anniversary here every year, we’ve got lots to work with because the new Collected Works volume of Frye on Shakespeare is now out.

Frye produced more essays and books on Shakespeare than on any other writer, Blake included.  The reasons don’t need to be guessed at. Shakespeare’s is a comprehensive literary imagination, and the four traditional dramatic genres — comedy, tragedy, history, and romance — are (if we take the history plays to be a form of irony-satire) expressions of the four mythoi laid out in Anatomy. The two were made for each other.

Now that we seem to be outgrowing the cramped restrictions of the literary criticism of the last thirty years, it’s easier to talk openly again about an imagination so vast that it is difficult to conceive of any boundary to it. Shakespeare’s global appeal is perhaps the best evidence there is of imaginative constants common to all people and all cultures — a universality recognizable as shared human desires and expectations whose imaginative dimension is always available to be explored. Shakespeare’s articulation of them as archetypal concerns is, of course, also a matter of poetry so fully realized that it cannot be entirely lost in translation. His wide appeal seems to be that he not only brings out the best in the English language, but also the best in any language that makes his work part of its own.

We can begin just about anywhere when it comes to Frye on Shakespeare. It’s always easy, for example, to be drawn to the way he consistently pushes aside our reflexive instincts to engage in biographical fallacy, especially when confronted with genius this expansive. It’s not that Shakespeare doesn’t have a biography that might in some way on some occasions be relevant to the work. It’s that Shakespeare’s literary power far exceeds any biographical consideration. The reductive nature of much Shakespearean critical biography ends up as an embarrassment. As Frye says, when a literary critic takes on Shakespeare, it is the critic and not Shakespeare who is being judged. His unique contribution to Shakespeare scholarship is crediting the independent authority that the literary work itself always possesses, even if that authority is only imperfectly understood. The single biographical detail that gives me a thrill is the coincidence of a life beginning and ending on the same date. It means nothing as a matter of historical fact, but it does suggest that when those arbitrary dates are superstitiously aligned, our notions of life and death may cancel one another out, leaving behind an imaginative perspective that encompasses both. And that is something that is always relevant to Shakespeare.

So let’s start this year with this observation from “Shakespeare and the Modern World”:

Human nature being what it is, a great deal of writing on Shakespeare has consisted of efforts to peek around the personal barrier. I am not speaking of the cranks who have tried to prove that he was somebody else, although the number and vociferousness of them show how irritated people get when they can’t attach a body of poetry to a personal body. I am speaking of serious people who have ransacked the plays for clues to Shakespeare’s moods when he wrote them, and then tried to string the moods together into a biography. In the sonnets, Wordsworth said in a moment of misguided enthusiasm, Shakespeare unlocked his heart; so hundreds of people have read the sonnets for no other purpose than to try to find out who W.H. and the youth and the dark lady and the rival poet were. One scholar, Caroline Spurgeon, studied the imagery of the plays in search of unconsciously dropped clues to the writer’s personality. What emerged was a dismally amiable mediocrity whose favorite game was probably bowls. It is a pitiful haul that scholars have salvaged from their research: a will, a few addresses, a baptismal certificate, and some financial transactions that suggest only a commonplace middle-class snob. (CW 28, 231)

Thomas Bowdler


The BBC Animated Shakespeare, The Tempest (part 1)

Physician and self-appointed censor of Shakespeare, Thomas Bowdler, died on this date in 1825 (born 1754).

Frye makes a point at his expense in “On Value Judgments”:

Every age, left to itself, is incredibly narrow in its cultural range, and the critic, unless he is a greater genius than the world has yet seen, shares that narrowness in proportion to his confidence in his taste.  Suppose we were to read something like this in an essay published, say, in the 1820s: “In reading Shakespeare we often feel how lofty and genuine are the touches of nature by which he refines our perceptions of the heroic and virtuous, and yet how ignobly he condescends to the grovelling passions of the lowest among his audience.  We are particularly struck with this in reading the excellent edition by Doctor Bowdler, which for the first time has enabled us to distinguish what is immortal in our great poet from what the taste of his time compelled him to acquiesce in.”  End of false quote.  We should see at once that that was not a statement about Shakespeare, but a statement about the anxieties of the 1820s. (CW 27, 260-1)

Thomas Cranmer


The prosecution and martyrdom of Thomas Cranmer from David Starkey’s documentary series, Monarchy. (Video not embedded: click on the image above and hit the YouTube link.)

On the heels of yesterday’s post regarding the execution of Henry VIII’s fifth wife Catherine Howard, her accuser, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, was declared a heretic by Queen Mary on this date in 1556.  Catherine Howard’s lady-in-waiting, Jane Boleyn — Anne Boleyn’s sister-in-law who was executed as Catherine’s accomplice in treason — had previously been instrumental in bringing down Queen Anne by affirming her supposed incest with her brother (and Jane’s husband) George.  With the execution of Cranmer under Queen Mary, this particular nemesis cycle draws to a bloody close.  The person who rides the new cycle upwards is, of course, Anne Boleyn’s daughter, who ascends the throne as Elizabeth I after the premature death of her half-sister Mary.  Elizabeth as queen undoes all of Mary’s effort to make England Catholic again — and that effort was the reason for Cranmer’s arrest, conviction and execution as a Protestant heretic in the first place.  So yet another mortal cycle spins round.

Here, appropriately enough, is an excerpt from “Romance as Masque,” in which Frye once again addresses the tragic perspective provided by the wheel of fortune in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII:

The hero of Henry VIII is not so much the king as the wheel of fortune.  The first turn of the wheel brings down Buckingham, the second turn Wolsey, the third Queen Katherine and others.  If we like, we can see a rough justice or even a providence operating: Wolsey’s fall is the nemesis for his treatment of Buckingham, and Queen Katherine, though innocent, has to go in order to get Elizabeth born.  For this reason it is unnecessary to apply moral standards to King Henry: whether we think of him resolute or merely ferocious, we cannot be sure if he turns the wheel of fortune or has simply become part of its machinery.  Certainly the crucial event of the final scene, the birth of Elizabeth, there is a factor independent of his will, even though he takes credit for it, as befits a king.  In this final scene there is a “prophecy” by Cranmer about the future greatness of England under Elizabeth and her successors, which generically is a very masque-like scene, a panegyric of the sort that would have normally accompanied the presence of a reigning monarch in the audience.

The only difficulty is that the scene shows the final triumph of Cranmer and of Anne Boleyn, and the audience knows what soon happened to Anne, as well as to three of her successors, and eventually to Cranmer.  It also knows the reign of Elizabeth was preceded by that of Queen Katherine’s daughter, whose existence Henry appears to have forgotten: “Never before / This happy child, did I get any thing,” he says. (CW 18, 144-5)

Catherine Howard and Jane Boleyn


The executions of Catherine Howard and Jane Boleyn, from the television series The Tudors

On this date in 1542 Catherine Howard, the 17 year old fifth wife of Henry VIII, and her lady-in-waiting Jane Boleyn, were executed for Howard’s adultery with courtier Thomas Culpeper.

Frye in A Natural Perspective on Shakespeare’s depiction of the world of Henry VIII as a tragic one associated with the wheel of fortune:

The wheel of fortune is a tragic conception: it is never genuinely a comic one, though a history play may achieve a technically comic conclusion by stopping the wheel turning half way.  Thus, Henry V ends with triumphant conquest and a royal marriage, though, as the epilogue reminds us, King Henry died almost immediately and sixty years of unbroken disaster followed.  In Henry VIII there are three great falls, those of Buckingham, Wolsey, and Queen Catherine, and three corresponding rises, those of Cromwell, Cranmer, and Anne Boleyn.  The play ends with the triumph of the last three, leaving the audience to remember that the wheel went on turning and brought them down too.  Henry VIII turns the wheel himself, and is not turned by it, like Richard II, but history never can end as comedy does, except for the polite fiction, found in Cranmer’s prophecy at the end of the play, that the reigning monarch is a Messianic ruler.

Boris Pasternak


The conclusion of Pasternak’s translation of King Lear (with English subtitles).  Lear’s “howl” speech begins at the six minute mark.

Today is Boris Pasternak‘s birthday (1890-1960).

Frye cites Pasternak in The Modern Century to distinguish between an ideologically enforced “stupid realism” and a fully liberated “revolutionary realism”:

It seems clear that an officially approved realism cannot carry on the revolutionary tradition of Goya and Daumier.  It is not anti-Communism that makes us feel that the disapproved writers, Daniel and Babel and Pasternak, have most to say to us: on the contrary, it is precisely such writers who best convey the sense of Russians as fellow human beings, caught in the same dilemma that we are.  Revolutionary realism is a questioning, exploring, searching, disturbing force: it cannot go over to established authority and defend the fictions which may be essential to authority, but are never real. (CW 11, 33-4)