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Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare (review)

From: Parergon
Volume 25, Number 2, 2008
pp. 173-175 | 10.1353/pgn.0.0086

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Scott L. Newstok explains that this book 'gathers and annotates' all of the 'Shakespeare criticism, including previously unpublished notes and lectures, by the maverick American intellectual Kenneth Burke (1897-1993)' (p. xvii). This is in itself a grand undertaking and there is more. Newstok also provides an appendix that details 'Additional References to Shakespeare in Burke's Writings', a valuable guide to the presence of Shakespeare in the major works, among them Counter-Statement (1931), A Grammar of Motives (1945), A Rhetoric of Motives (1950), The Rhetoric of Religion (1961). In addition, he supplies his own clear and knowledgeable introductory essay to the collection.

This is just as well because Burke is a difficult thinker, and he needs introducing. Newstok claims modestly that his essay is no more than the 'recursive gathering of different perspectives' on Burke's 'Shakespearean meditations' (p. xvii). However, it insightfully explores the extent of Burke's influence on Shakespearean criticism and reflects on why this is so rarely acknowledged. Burke's influence is everywhere to be seen in several different areas, he notes, 'yet paradoxically [each] field does not seem to recognize fully this influence' (p. xxi). The same applies to Shakespearean scholarship. Burke's influence is 'acknowledged largely through indirection'; he is often 'found in characteristically grateful but buried footnotes' (p. xxiii). Meanwhile, Burke is not included in any of the recent genealogies of Shakespeare criticism (p. xxxi).

There are several possible reasons for this that Newstok cites, and in some cases discounts: his 'neologistic impulses' (p. xxiv), his lack of engagement with all but a few secondary works, and even, as Newstok hesitantly suggests, 'a complicated resistance among American intellectuals to come to terms with their native theoretical roots' (p. xxi). But the main reason proposed is the sheer scale of Burke's ambition, which is 'to examine "the farthest reaches of our subject ... the ultimate secrets of man, as the symbol-using animal"' (p. xxv; citing Burke in this edition p. 100).

This quotation comes from the conclusion to Burke's longest essay, 'Othello: An Essay to Illustrate a Method', which was published in The Hudson Review in 1951. This piece illustrates the difficulty of Burke's thinking, but also why it is worth staying with him. I say 'thinking' rather than 'writing'. Newstok describes Burke's style as 'legible', and I would agree with this. The difficulty that readers are likely to encounter is with following the train of his thought. In this essay, he begins characteristically at the end: 'Othello: ACT 5, Scene 2. Desdemona, fated creature, marked for a tragic end by her very name (Desdemona: "moan-death") lies smothered' (p. 65). Burke reflects on the function of Othello, Iago and Desdemona, and explores this in terms of the 'internal relations' of the play. It is not until we arrive at the heart of the essay, however, that he explicitly tells us what he is doing and why: his method emphasises dramatic explanations for character effects. And he contrasts this with the '"novelistic" approach' to Shakespearean drama that is the legacy of nineteenth-century character criticism, which 'conceals the functioning of the play' (p. 81). 'Shakespeare is making a play,' Burke reminds us, 'not people' (p. 84).

1951 seems rather late in the day to be offering a critique of A. C. Bradley, which is what Burke is doing here. But Burke's intention is much broader than this. He is also performing and reflecting on the process of critical thinking. The problem with Bradley is that his critical thinking ends too soon. He is absorbed by Shakespeare's characters and forgets that these are 'an illusion arising functionally from the context' of the play. This is an example of a critic ending where 'he should begin' (p. 85).

Burke's method in this essay is to proceed 'from the logic of the action as a whole, to the analysis of the character as a recipe fitting him for his proper place in the action' (p. 90). One implication of this is to consider how often we still read plays as 'readers', not as writers who are looking for dramatic explanations. When we read Shakespeare, we would do well...



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