- Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare
It would be churlish not to be grateful for this collection. Kenneth Burke was, after all, one of the most inventive and distinctive critical voices of the last century, and it is certainly nice to have his essays, notes, and remarks on Shakespeare collected in one place (as he intermittently but recurrently, intended to do). The big question for readers of this journal, however, is not whether the collection is of interest as an archive for the history of criticism, but whether the collection is of interest to practicing Shakespeare critics, scholars, and teachers. I think that the collection is of such interest, mainly through the power of one central idea in it, together with some guidelines for general orientation. To use the terms that Isaiah Berlin famously borrowed from Archilochus ("The fox has many tricks, the hedge [End Page 277] hog only one—one good one"),1 Burke might seem to be one of the great "foxes" of the critical tradition—writing on verbal sign systems of all kinds and on texts ranging from Mein Kampf to Saint Augustine's Confessions to George Herbert Mead's writings—but conceptually speaking, he is a hedgehog. Burke has a small number of very good tricks that he deploys in relation to all these materials. It must also be said that Burke is, as far as the written record goes, interested in only a relatively small number of Shakespeare's plays: the Roman plays (not including Titus Andronicus) and the major tragedies. Unlike Northrop Frye, with whom he can, as a systematic critic, be reasonably compared, Burke is stymied by comedy; he says as much in his lecture on A Midsummer Night's Dream. His critical province is the structural and verbal world of tragedy. His most important contributions to Shakespeare studies are when he deploys his Big Idea in relation to Othello and to King Lear.
But let me start with the guidelines for general orientation. Burke believed that Shakespeare was aware of living in a period of major socioeconomic transition from feudalism to a centralized state and capitalism or what Burke called, in an uncanny anticipation of Michel Foucault, a system of "'power-knowledge'" (50). "As a profound poet," says Burke, Shakespeare "feels the change profoundly" (53). But Burke was always clear that the social world and its inner consequences—what he often, confusingly, called the underlying "psychosis" of the plays (67, 78, 156)—was only the formal cause of the plays. What was required to make them plays, and great ones, was art. Burke was an Aristotelian insofar as he saw plot as a key structure for analysis. But it is not clear that he saw plot as the soul of drama; he seems to have seen it as something more like drama's skeleton. He says wonderful things about the five stages (he is wary of acts) of Shakespearean drama, pointing out that the second act tends to be one in which "while events are developing towards the peripety [of the third act], the audience is allowed to become better acquainted with a secondary character"; it is "the most nearly 'novelistic' act" (70). This is shrewd and helpful, as is the characterization of the fourth act of the tragedies as "the 'pity' act" (73). When Burke says that the fifth act of a tragedy "permits us the great privilege of being present at our own funeral" (77), he has arrived at the kind of stunning formulation that only the greatest critics ever attain. That sentence is certainly the most powerful and convincing account of the depth of tragic pleasure that I have ever encountered.
Nevertheless, Burke asserts that the greatness of Shakespearean tragedy depends not on the construction of the plots but on the linguistic details "proper to a particular intrigue" (Burke's phrase for plot) (77). Strangely for an Aristotelian, Burke insists on eloquence as the defining feature of the greatest drama; plots must work in certain ways and will do so in works...