- Kenneth Burke on Behalf of the Bard
Scott Newstok has done the literary community a tremendous favour by gathering all of Burke's essays, talks, and notes on Shakespeare into one volume, a project contemplated over the years by Burke himself and by other scholars, but one requiring Newstok's assiduous efforts to achieve such splendid fruition. The editor's introduction is superb, the notes are comprehensive, and the appendix, made up of additional references by Burke to Shakespeare, offers us more than fifty pages of apposite material gleaned from books, articles, reviews, and letters. Although ten of the thirteen pieces in the main text have been published before, reading them together as an emergent body of work reveals how central Shakespeare is to Burke's dramatistic view of literature and language as modes of symbolic action. Indeed, many of Burke's foundational concepts concerning rhetoric, form, tension, catharsis, entelechy, substance, courtship, and so forth are more accessible in his Shakespearean criticism than in his denser, more philosophical treatises, mainly because his approach is resolutely pragmatic and functional, focusing on how Shakespeare's plays point the arrows of our expectations and arouse, frustrate, and fulfil our desires.
From Counter-Statement (1931) onwards, Burke recognizes the ubiquity of the rhetorical motive in literature. 'If rhetoric is but "the use of language in such a way as to produce a desired impression upon the hearer or reader," ' he writes, 'then "effective literature" could be nothing else but rhetoric' (CS 120). The central premise of the rhetorical approach to literature is enunciated in 'Psychology and Form,' the first chapter of Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare (KBS).
Form [is] the psychology of the audience . . . the creation of an appetite in the mind of the auditor, and the adequate satisfying of that appetite. [End Page 1085] This satisfaction - so complicated is the human mechanism - at times involves a temporary set of frustrations, but in the end these frustrations prove to be simply a more involved kind of satisfaction, and furthermore serve to make the satisfaction of fulfillment more intense. (KBS 22)
Form, 'an arousal and fulfillment of desires,' can be divided into four categories: 'progressive form (subdivided into syllogistic and qualitative progression), repetitive form, conventional form, and minor or incidental form' (CS 124).
Syllogistic progression follows the logic of linear development and 'is the form of a perfectly conducted argument, advancing step by step . . . Insofar as the audience, from its acquaintance with the premises, feels the rightness of the conclusion, the work is formal' (CS 124). Qualitative progression is subtler.
Instead of one incident of the plot preparing us for some other possible incident of the plot (as Macbeth's murder of Duncan prepares us for the dying of Macbeth), the presence of one quality prepares us for the introduction of another (the grotesque seriousness of the murder scene preparing us for the grotesque buffoonery of the porter scene). (CS 124-25)
What we have 'is a bold juxtaposition of one quality created by another, an association of ideas, which, if not logical, is nevertheless emotionally natural' (KBS 28).
Repetitive form is 'the consistent maintaining of a principle under new guises . . . the restatement of the theme by new details' (CS 125). Examples of this kind of form include iterative imagery or symbolism, a character repeating his or her identity in different circumstances, regular metre, rhyme scheme, and so forth.
Conventional form 'involves to some degree the appeal of form as form' and has an 'element of "categorical expectancy" . . . Whereas the anticipations and gratifications of progressive and repetitive form arise during the process of reading, the expectations of conventional form may be anterior to the reading' (CS 126-27).
Minor or incidental forms are set pieces within a work that can be discussed as formal events in themselves: speeches, soliloquies, epiphanies, conceits, thematic moments, and so forth. In any given work, of course, the manifold aspects of form usually overlap.
The lines in Othello, beginning 'Soft you, a word or two before you go' and ending 'Seized the circumcised dog and smote him thus (stabs himself...