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Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare (review)

From: College Literature
36.1, Winter 2009
pp. 160-162 | 10.1353/lit.0.0044

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In Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare, Scott Newstok brings together all of the late Kenneth Burke’s surprisingly voluminous Shakespearean criticism, including an appendix of references to Shakespeare in Burke’s major works and, perhaps most excitingly, Burke’s previously unpublished, extensive notes on Macbeth and Troilus and Cressida. Yet, as Newstock’s clear and well-informed introduction suggests, given Burke’s critical strategies and temperament, the volume and depth of Burke’s lifetime of work on Shakespeare should not surprise us. Newstok understands Burke rightly as Aristotelean at his critical core, as an analyst of a given text “seeking a deeper structural rationale for its development” (xviii). And he offers a list with definitional commentary of “some crucial concepts that play a generative role in Burke’s Shakespearean criticism” (xix).A cursory glance at these terms would show even a newcomer to Burke’s work just how deeply Burke thought about texts, and how deeply rhetorical were his unceasing engagements with them. As Newstok points out in no uncertain terms, Burke’s grounding in Aristotelean principles, especially the affect-based concept of catharsis, allows him “the latitude to posit formal principles without falling into formal rigidity” (xxix).This latitude, moreover, theorized in Burke’s concept of dramatism —the famous pentad of act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose—seems “an ambitious elaboration of the theatrum mundi conceit,” and may have taken shape in Burke’s thinking, Newstok provocatively suggests, as a result of his “enduring familiarity with Shakespeare;” indeed, Newstok contends that Shakespeare may have been “the core motivation” (xxv).

Ironically, Burke’s characteristic latitude with formal principles, perhaps the most engaging feature of his critical work and the one most consonant with contemporary ideas about the intersection of texts and cultural contexts, has also marginalized him from the academic critical mainstream, both within Shakespeare studies and without. Newstok’s introduction tackles squarely the issue of Burke’s place in contemporary criticism. He acknowledges that Burke’s “lack of scholarly engagement” with academic criticism, though clearly a “virtue,” has been an “impediment to the circulation of his work in academia” (xxx). But he also acknowledges the fundamental absurdity of lumping Burke in with New Criticism because of his inventions with the concept of form, preoccupied as those inventions always are with speakers’ motives and a range of potential audience reactions; that is, not with static form but with a rhetoric of emergent form (xxxi). Moreover, as Newstok recognizes, Burke has shown, perhaps as a consequence of the grand heuristic sweep of his dramatistic method, an ability to “have been here before us”—that is, to have already framed readings of Shakespeare later pursued, as Newstok shows, by such recently influential Shakespearean critics as Stephen Greenblatt, Janet Adelman, Frank Whigham, and Michael McCanles (xxi–xxii).

Newstok organizes Burke’s Shakespearean criticism chronologically, and the introduction also reminds us that “we must place Burke’s early Shakespeare essays . . . in a fraught center: between activists politically to his left, and fellow critics who found Burke’s own politics too radical” (xxviii). Thus, Burke’s analysis of Marc Anthony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech in Julius Caesar in “Antony on Behalf of the Play” (originally published in The Southern Review in 1935) shows Burke moving from a formally mediated but “aesthetically isolated” concept of audience, governed by strategies directed at a listener internal to a text, to a more expansive one including “anyone who should be concerned about understanding demagoguery in demagogic times”—what Burke himself calls in the essay “the grim intentions of the mob” (xxiv; 47).This move gives us the Burke most of us know, the “socio-anagogic” Burke, the irrepressible interpreter of a text’s “implicit identifications” as they culminate in the “mystifications” of “judgments of status” and of “social order.” This Burke sees himself, in the discussion of Venus and Adonis from A Rhetoric of Motives (1950), as working from “Marx’s theory of ‘mystification’” but “neutrally,” without “Marx’s rage” (63).Thus, in an excerpt from A Grammar of Motives included here, Burke makes a seemingly obvious, definitional point about the relation of scene and act in Macbeth – that the “witches were representative of Maspeth’s inner temptations” (236...



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