Northrop Frye followed in the footsteps of Aristotle and the author of the Tractatus Coislinianus in his attempt to define and describe the main aspects of the literary genres in the monumental Anatomy of Criticism. For centuries Aristotle's theory of poetics had been understood as prescriptive instead of descriptive; thus any effort to establish a schematic approach to literary theory in the twentieth century--the age of experimentation, rule bending, and wholesale rule breaking--was likely to encounter strong opposition. While there are certain limitations to Frye's schematic system in dealing with many modern and postmodern works that defy classification into any genre, it is precisely the clear delineation of subcategories and elements within the genres that promotes his theory as the most useful in a study of works that either are based upon a prescriptive view of poetics or are contemporary revisions of such works.
I am not suggesting that Shakespeare's notions about dramatic genres were shaped by Aristotle's Poetics, or that he would have necessarily understood them as prescriptive; equally, I am not suggesting that AnnMarie MacDonald necessarily relied on Frye's theory to write her play. I am merely taking Aristotle as an example of a generic theory which, while it may not have directly influenced English Renaissance playwrights or Shakespeare himself, certainly resonates with Horace's much-read Art of Poetry and is exemplified in the much-imitated tragedies of Seneca--two crucial literary forces whose authority during the early modern period became the foundation of the future prescriptive and rigid understanding of genre theory. In a similar fashion, Frye's work is the best twentieth-century example of a schematic approach to literary theory that many understood as prescriptive, and it is, because of his appropriation of Aristotelian terminology, a perfect complement to Aristotle's Poetics in my comparative analysis of dramatic texts from two eras.
For this reason, the full virtuosity and complexity of a postmodern work such as Ann-Marie MacDonald's play Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)--which not only revisits two Renaissance narratives, but appropriates them, revises them, and subverts their original genres by defusing the tragic elements and substituting them with comical ones--can be fully appreciated only through an approach based on a literary theory that clearly delineates the characteristics of and boundaries between the genres. Indeed, as Frye himself points out, the boundaries between the genres are anything but rigid. Rather, these hazy frontier areas where genres are fluid and merge into one another often become the inspirational playground of versatile artists like MacDonald who appear to enjoy thumbing their noses at form.
Othello and Romeo and Juliet are both tragedies, and because much of the humor of MacDonald's play depends on the audience's acquaintance with the source narratives, and in particular on our understanding of the stories as "tragic;' it is necessary first to identify briefly the generic paradigms in the narratives that define them as such.
As both Aristotle and Frye point out, tragedy needs primarily a hero or heroine who is superior in degree to other men and women, but not to his/her environment. The destruction of the hero is typically a product of hamartia, a Greek term that has been traditionally translated either as a "flaw" in character or an "error" in judgment. Without getting trapped in the debate about the theoretical fallacies bred from the possible mistranslations of hamartia, we can generally accept that tragedy properly deals with an individual and the tragic hero's fall as an individual act, an inevitable outcome of the confrontation with an overwhelming and inscrutable force--be it Fate, the will of the gods, the laws of a society, or one's own psyche. Frye explains:
Tragedy in the central or high mimetic sense, the fiction of the
fall of a leader (he has to fall because that is the only way in
which a leader can be
isolated from his society), mingles the heroic with the ironic. …