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Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare (review)

From: Comparative Drama
Volume 42, Number 2, Summer 2008
pp. 234-237 | 10.1353/cdr.0.0005

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Only singular obtuseness could fail to value a work whose cover features testimonials to the author from the likes of Stanley Cavell, Stephen Greenblatt, and Patricia Parker, out of more than three dozen indebted American Shakespeareans (xxxv–xxxvi). And only uncommon ingratitude could fail to appreciate Scott L. Newstok’s work ferreting out what Kenneth Burke, extraordinary rhetorician, seminal and quirky thinker, and original critic, produced on Shakespeare. This compendium of printed essays includes as well previously unprinted manuscripts and passages, provides annotations and cross references, introduces the historical and critical contexts, and lays out major contributions that Burke made to Shakespeare criticism, rhetoric, and critical theory.

After the introductory “Shakespeare Was What” lecture in 1964, there appear thirteen essays in chronological order (1925–82) analyzing individual plays, poems, and passages: Hamlet, Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar, imagery, Venus and Adonis, Othello, Timon of Athens, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, King Lear, Troilus and Cressida, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Macbeth. Then follow some fifty pages of brief Shakespeare excerpts from other works (1921–82). Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare promotes our understanding of Shakespeare, Burke, twentieth-century American rhetoric, and the history of Shakespeare criticism.

Even read chronologically, these wide-ranging essays and passages focus and illuminate, indeed insist, that we heed, recurring themes. Burke’s prominent contribution comes through analyses of how Shakespeare’s plays function. For his approach the germ of a play appears in the opening, its implications develop in the midst, and its resolution retroactively wraps up factors implicit initially. His most satisfyingly comprehensive analyses, those on Othello (aptly subtitled “An Essay to Illustrate a Method”) and Coriolanus, as well as those less fully worked out, such as those on Titus Andronicus, Macbeth, and The Merchant of Venice, argue that each play’s conclusion bears out the entire pattern from the point of view of an audience experiencing a series of stages from anticipation to satisfaction. Sometimes analysis takes the form of categorizing the normative pattern of a five-act tragedy (as Corneille’s Cinna): 1) setting up crucial implications; 2) developing or diversifying into subthemes or humanizing; 3) revealing and intensifying; 4) rousing pity; 5) pulling everything together. Sometimes he names the acts, as for Timon of Athens: “Timon the Bountiful”; “The Reckoning”; “Timon Transformed and Alcibiades Banished”; “The New Life as Misanthropos”; “Timon’s Death and Alcibiades’ Victory.” Sometimes he works through explaining technical devices, most based on Aristotle’s formulae, as the hubris (“pride” or “excess”) that makes Coriolanus into a sufficient scapegoat for tragic catharsis. At other times he focuses on a generalized theme such as abdication or release of authority in Lear or regicide and hospitality in Macbeth, though these too he generally tests by gauging audience experience employing his analytic tools. Variations of his formulaic refrain “points the arrows of the audience’s expectations” echoes through passage after passage.

Although Burke’s audience is primarily the viewing or reading audience, he attends carefully as well to the onstage audience. He repeatedly accounts for patterns in the psychological reception of multiple audiences both off- and onstage. Most notable in this respect is his popular essay on Antony’s speech over the bloody corpse of Julius Caesar. Here he accounts for the responses Antony’s address rouses in the Roman mob, the Elizabethan crowd, and twentieth-century readers/auditors by way of Antony’s ventriloquized formal explanation of the speech’s functions. Middle-late Burke insists that the irony characteristically produced by a Shakespeare play appears in the discrepancy between the viewers’ realization of what is going to happen and the surprise of unwitting characters undergoing events.

Burke’s dramatistic investigations often begin with analyses of how sets of Shakespeare’s characters interact with other characters to constitute a play. Observations about juxtapositions such as Cordelia and the Fool never appearing onstage at the same time because they serve the same function pervade his analyses. His work with a student comparing and contrasting the major characters in The Merchant of Venice so as to derive three couples paired by love or charity, Bassanio-Portia, Gratiano-Nerissa, and Lorenzo-Jessica, and one by justice, Antonio-Shylock, yields strategic formal and personal questions about relationships...



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