Frye in the Classroom: Teaching Shakespeare with Northrop Frye and Harold Bloom

By Hawkins, Paul | English Studies in Canada, June 2011 | Go to article overview

Frye in the Classroom: Teaching Shakespeare with Northrop Frye and Harold Bloom


Hawkins, Paul, English Studies in Canada


AS FRYE OBSERVED in the "Polemical Introduction" to The Anatomy of Criticism, teaching literature is actually the teaching of criticism of literature and aims at developing in the student a fluency in terms, categories, and critical approaches that permit a vision of the coherence of literature. But how do you do this without relying excessively on secondary sources and displacing the primary text? At the same time as one is setting out to accomplish lofty goals, a major challenge in college-level teaching is practical: how do I encourage students to read and make sense of the primary text without their feeling that they need the guidance of secondary sources in order to understand it? This is perhaps especially acute with a writer like Shakespeare, whose language can be difficult for many of us without the benefit of explanatory notes. Above all, I want students to read and take naive pleasure in the stories, characters, and themes of the plays, to discover literature itself and its intense pleasure and not simply other people's readings of literature, and to experience what overreliance on secondary material can shut students' minds to: the liveliness of the text right here, right now, in this classroom, and inside our own minds, and the openness of great literature to competing interpretations unprompted by secondary material. Aside from their both being major critics, and Frye the major influence on Bloom's own criticism, Northrop Frye and Harold Bloom are both useful in the college classroom because they focus on literature and the aesthetic, because their central critical insights are easy to summarize and share with students, and further because these insights can be keys that help students unlock the primary texts for themselves. Frye and Bloom offer the teacher a way of introducing criticism while keeping the primary text primary.

Frye's criticism is everywhere rich in flexible schemes and categorizations (presented with Frye's habitual great wit) that can open our imaginations to literature, and many such schemes are condensed in Fools of Time, on Shakespeare's tragedies, and A Natural Perspective, on his comedies and romances (and on which I focus below). In turn, Bloom's criticism in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human can generate exciting debates. Bloom is a passionate and opinionated reader whose insights are crystallized in helpful sound bites that students can then argue for or against. For all the interconnections of their work, Frye and Bloom also strongly contrast. Bloom's focus is character rather than the play, and he treats the characters as real people, while Frye describes the dramatic structure of the comedies and romances considered as a whole, and he warns of Bloom's kind of inquiry that "criticism devoted to the vividness of characterization in Shakespeare may get out of proportion ... Shakespeare tells a story that stylizes his characters" (13-14). In short, whether I want a discussion within or outside of proportion, Harold Bloom and Northrop Frye are my constant companions when I teach Shakespeare.

The opening of Frye's A Natural Perspective begins my unit on As You Like It and Twelfth Night. Scholars often approach subjects making broad distinctions, Frye says, and while acknowledging that "these statements are clearly oversimplified, rhetorical rather than factual," he makes a similar broad distinction when it comes to literature and literary criticism: "All literary critics are either Iliad critics or Odyssey critics. That is, interest in literature tends to center either in the area of tragedy, realism, and irony, or in the area of comedy and romance" (1), and "This distinction rests on a much broader one, the distinction implied in the traditional view of the function of literature as twofold: to delight and to instruct. On the most naive level of literary study there is the contrast between the person who reads to improve his mind or his command of the language and the person who reads detective stories in bed" (1-2). …

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