- Editor’s Note
It will probably always remain difficult to characterize the influential but erratic Shakespearean criticism of Kenneth Burke, who died in 1993 at the age of 97, just as it remains difficult to characterize Burke's criticism more generally. That readers of Shakespeare as divergent as Paul Alpers, Harold Bloom, Stanley Cavell, René Girard, and Patricia Parker (to name only a handful) can justifiably claim kinship with Burke begins to indicate the heterogeneity of his work.1 By the 1930s, Burke was already an early synthesizer of Marxism and psychoanalysis, and he drew easily from rhetorical, sociological, formalist, historicist, biographical, and genre-based approaches to interpretation—a bricolage, using "all that is there to use."2 His enduring familiarity with Shakespeare likely helped shape his own theory of "Dramatism," an ambitious elaboration of the theatrum mundi conceit. Burke continues to be recognized for his landmark 1951 essay on Othello, which wrestles with concerns still relevant to scholars more than a half century later; his ingenious ventriloquism of Mark Antony's address over Caesar's body has likewise found appreciative readers, as have (albeit less frequently) the many other essays on Shakespeare scattered across his career. Burke's first and last pieces of literary criticism both examine Shakespeare plays, thereby acting as bookends to an impressive, decades-long contribution to the field of Shakespeare studies.3
What follows is a previously unpublished lecture by Burke, recently found in his papers and soon to appear in a forthcoming scholarly edition of his Shakespeare criticism.4 The occasion for the lecture was an invitation from novelist Ralph Ellison, Burke's longtime friend and at that time the Albert Schweitzer Professor in the [End Page 294] Humanities at New York University.5 Burke delivered his talk on the play at NYU on 26 April 1972, and he gave the lecture again on 9 May 1972 for the Institute for Arts and Humanistic Studies housed at Ihlseng Cottage, Penn State University. Burke's subsequent correspondence indicates that he intended to revise and publish this lecture as an essay and include it in a volume of collected writings on Shakespeare. But like many of his projects after the death of his second wife, Libbie, in 1969, these tasks remained unfinished.
This lecture thus involves one of Burke's final engagements with Shakespeare. Furthermore, it's the solitary instance where Burke analyzes a comedy at length; since Burke was generally more inclined to examine the rhetorical isolation of tragic figures such as Timon, this piece represents a late departure for him.6 He turned to A Midsummer Night's Dream after his recent analyses of Coriolanus and King Lear, calling it a "triangulation" of these two studies.7 All three pieces, as well the earlier essay on Othello, emphasize a kind of "psychosis" at the heart of each play.8 This is a term that Burke variously glosses as some underlying tension, or an extrinsic (social) motive, which Shakespeare imitates and transforms to generate a narrative—property in Othello, hospitality in Macbeth, substance in King Lear, rank in Venus and Adonis,and eros in Antony and Cleopatra.9 What intrigues Burke most about A Midsummer Night's Dream is Shakespeare's ability to bridge the gap inherent in the "courtly psychosis"—which, as he acknowledges, could more conventionally be termed "class consciousness." By creating the "woodsy" realm of Oberon and Titania, Burke finds Shakespeare to have (obscenely) "solved" the psychosis of class distinction (a queen becomes infatuated with a tradesman) while at once maintaining that distinction (Theseus and Hippolyta's distance from the "rude mechanicals"). We might find in Burke's preoccupations an anticipation [End Page 295] of recent critical concentration on Bottom and his fellow artisans.10 Even more proleptically, Burke's concluding words on a "technological psychosis" in the contemporary United States mark him as an early ecocritical reader of Shakespeare.11 His emphasis on both social and technological psychoses appears all the more striking, given the 1972 date of his lecture, when criticism of the play was more typically influenced by archetypal or ritual criticism (in the vein of Northrop Frye and C. L. Barber) or the sexually...