First some notes on my encounter with Frye, and then some passages from the Anatomy on comedy and tragedy.
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I believe that I have read through Northrup Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, beginning to end, twice, once as an undergraduate and once as a graduate student. I don’t recall the circumstances of my undergraduate reading, but I was no doubt in connection with a course taught by Dick Macksey; I don’t recall whether it was required or optional. The graduate reading would have been in a seminar taught by David Hays, in linguistics, where we read a number of major works in various fields, some suggested by the students, some by Hays. We also read Gombrich’s Art and Illusion, for example.
My copy is heavily notated. The title page has a handwritten list of page numbers and associated topics written in blue and red ink. The body of the book has underlining in red and blue along with marginal notations and cross-references to other pages.
One of a small number of things that sticks with me, and about which I have thought time and again over the years, are some remarks Frye made about the curious kinship between comedy and tragedy. Crudely: comedy is a triple form; you lop off the third section and you get a tragedy.
That’s one reason I’ve been so attracted to Much Ado About Nothing and Othello. One is a comedy, the other a tragedy. While the comedy has a double plot, as Shakespeare’s comedies do (if not triple), the plot that gives the play its shape is set in motion in the same way as the plot in the tragedy: in both cases a man (Claudio, Othello) wrongly accuses his beloved (Hero, Desdemona) of being unfaithful. Thus we have a natural experiment on which to “test” Frye’s observation. I’ve written an essay on that and, though I do like that essay, the results are inconclusive.
Here’s the problem: comedies “make sense” in a way that tragedies don’t. Comedies have happy endings and people like happy endings. So how come tragedies are so very effective despite the lack of a happy ending? What’s going on in tragedy that “replaces” the happy ending of comedy?
I’ve never been able to figure that out to my satisfaction. That’s why I say that the results of that essay were inconclusive. I’d figured that, given the similarity between the two plays, I might be able to get a peek into the inner dynamics and figure out just how tragedy works. But I didn’t. I’m sure the answer is right there, waiting, but I just don’t know how to see it.
This current business of center point construction and ring forms brings this all back to me, for those texts tend toward the tragic. They also tend toward the ontological and the metaphysical in a way that comedies don’t. THAT’s what I’ve got to work on.
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The page numbers are from the 1965 Atheneum printing of the Anatomy. All of the passages are from “THIRD ESSAY: Theory of Myths”, which is online (along with the rest of the book). The boldfacing is mine.
An extraordinary number of comic stories, both in drama and fiction, seem to approach a potentially tragic crisis near the end, a feature that I may call the "point of ritual death" a clumsy expression that I would gladly surrender for a better one. It is a feature not often noticed by critics, but when it is present it is as unmistakably present as a stretto in a fugue, which it somewhat resembles. In Smollett's Humphry Clinker (I select this because no one will suspect Smollett of deliberate mythopoeia but only of following convention, at least as far as his plot is concerned), the main characters are nearly drowned in an accident with an upset carriage; they are then taken to a nearby house to dry off, and a cognitio takes place, in the course of which their family relationships are regrouped, secrets of birth brought to light, and names changed. Similar points of ritual death may be marked in almost any story that imprisons the hero or gives the heroine a nearly mortal illness before an eventually happy ending.
In its most elementary form, the vision of law (dike) operates as lex talionis or revenge. The hero provokes enmity, or inherits a situation of enmity, and the return of the avenger constitutes the catastrophe. The revenge-tragedy is a simple tragic structure, and like most simple structures can be a very powerful one, often retained as a central theme even in the most complex tragedies. Here the original act provoking the revenge sets up an antithetical or counterbalancing movement, and the completion of the movement resolves the tragedy. This happens so often that we may almost characterize the total mythos of tragedy as binary, in contrast to the three-part saturnalia movement of comedy.
If we are right in our suggestion that romance, tragedy, irony and comedy are all episodes in a total quest-myth, we can see how it is that comedy can contain a potential tragedy within itself. In myth, the hero is a god, and hence he does not die, but dies and rises again. The ritual pattern behind the catharsis of comedy is the resurrection that follows the death, the epiphany or manifestation of the risen hero. In Aristophanes the hero, who often goes through a point of ritual death, is treated as a risen god, hailed as a new Zeus, or given the quasi-divine honors of the Olympic victor. In New Comedy the new human body is both a hero and a social group. The Aeschylean trilogy proceeds to the comic satyr-play, which is said to have affinities with spring festivals. Christianity, too, sees tragedy as an episode in the divine comedy, the larger scheme of redemption and resurrection. The sense of tragedy as a prelude to comedy seems almost inseparable from anything explicitly Christian. The serenity of the final double chorus in the St. Matthew Passion would hardly be attainable if composer and audience did not know that there was more to the story. Nor would the death of Samson lead to "calm of mind, all passion spent," if Samson were not a prototype of the rising Christ, associated at the appropriate moment with the phoenix.
The characterization of tragedy is very like that of comedy in reverse.