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Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare (review)

From: Shakespeare Bulletin
Volume 26, Number 3, Fall 2008
pp. 107-108 | 10.1353/shb.0.0021

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Scott L. Newstok’s anthology of Kenneth Burke’s writings on Shakespeare makes clear Burke’s proleptic affinities with such succeeding movements as New Historicism, Cultural Materialism, and Reader-Response criticism (though emphatically not with Deconstructionism). Burke shared with the New Critics who dominated his working life a passion for close reading, but his readings were far more culturally informed and broadly conducted than theirs. As opposed to their view that literary works were self-contained artifacts beyond history and time, Burke time and again worked the point that Shakespeare “believed in exploiting the tensions of his society for dramatic effects” (17). Says Burke, “he knew how to translate some typical tension or conflict of his society into terms of variously interrelated personalities—and his function as dramatist was to let that whole complexity play itself out” (18).

This volume offers an introduction that summarizes Burke’s main ideas, puts them into historical context, and tries both to account for and to remedy his relative neglect today. Essays included in the volume cover Hamlet, Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar, Othello, Timon of Athens, Coriolanus, King Lear, Troilus and Cressida, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Macbeth. In an appendix, Newstok offers excerpts from other essays by Burke in which Shakespeare is incidentally discussed. This section is valuable for giving us glimpses into the range of Burke’s interests, and for setting his observations of Shakespeare in that context.

Burke’s extraordinary essay “Antony on Behalf of the Play,” a culturally dense, historically drenched close reading of Antony’s oration at Caesar’s funeral, is a prime example of Burke’s interest in showing how Shakespeare went about “exploiting the tensions of his society for dramatic effects”(17)—in this instance, the political “trend toward centrality” (7) of his day—through the medium of particular characters in particular dramatic circumstances. The same is true of pieces like “Trial Translation (from Twelfth Night).” Elsewhere, Burke uses the Enclosure Acts to elucidate relations among Desdemona, Othello, and Iago, and anticipates Bourdieu in his account of human affection as property (60).

However, I am reviewing this book for the readers of Shakespeare Bulletin, and therefore I want to concentrate on Burke’s relationship to performance criticism. And it must be admitted that as a performance critic, as the term is generally understood today, Burke is pretty much a dunce. When he ventures to speak of theatrical performance, he speaks disparagingly of the “noble” female roles in Shakespeare’s plays being “played by boys’ wheezy falsettos” (34). Of course Cleopatra says the same—but the joke is that the words were spoken by a superbly prepared boy actor.

Burke worries about the dilemma of the actor “who doesn’t quite know what to do with himself at times when he is on stage but the playwright does not happen to have given him enough ‘action’ for the particular stretch of time” (11–12). Burke’s naïve solution is that the actor might light a cigarette to give himself something to do. That a character’s silence might be intensely dramatic—might be the point of the scene—does not occur to his theatrically limited imagination. The character does of course have an action: he is not saying anything, which does not mean that he is not thinking, responding, partaking of significant theatrical blocking. Burke mentions Stanislavsky, but tosses off his theatrical method as no more than “novelistic improvising” (86).

But such theatrical naivety aside, Burke does in fact have insights to offer performance criticism, beginning with his insistence on elucidating Shakespeare’s dramatic craftsmanship, his deployment of “surprise and suspense” as “methods of maintaining interest” and creating “a psychology of form” (27), and his concept of “arrows of expectation” as a dramaturgical technique. Burke, in comments that will help any director comprehend the pulse and sinew of a dramatic work, views the writing of plays as an art of exposition, with each element a prelude to the next, proceeding in linked stages toward dramatic closure. Burke speaks of “the astonishing rationality [Shakespeare] brought to his trade as playwright” (184)—his sheer skill as a shaper of plots. As he shapes a plot, Burke points the...

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