Case 13
Frye on Shakespeare

When the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays was published in 1623, it included some prefatory material, including a poem by Ben Jonson. In that poem there’s the well-known line: “He was not of an age but for all time.” This was a very generous and accurate remark, but it was too bad that Jonson couldn’t fit “not only of an age,” which was what he meant, into the metre. Shakespeare has two sides to him: one is the historical side, where he’s one of a group of dramatists working in Elizabethan London and writing plays for an audience living in that London at that time:  the other is the poet who speaks to us today with so powerfully contemporary a voice.  If we study only the historical, or 1564-1616, Shakespeare, we take away all his relevance to our own time and shirk trying to look into the greatest mystery of literature, the mystery of how someone can communicate with times and spaces and cultures so far removed from his own.  But if we think only of Shakespeare as our contemporary, we lose one of the greatest rewards of a liberal education, which is studying the assumptions and values of societies quite different from ours, and seeing what they did with them.

From the Introduction, Northrop Frye on Shakespeare.
Markham, ON.: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1986.