Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare.
As Scott Newstok points out in his substantial introduction to this collection of Kenneth Burke's writings on Shakespeare, Burke was odd man out in academia. Although he taught at various universities, including Yale, he did not hold even a bachelor's degree. His writings on Shakespeare, many of them appearing in small magazines or scattered throughout his books, show an awareness of academic trends (such as the New Criticism), but are more eclectic and idiosyncratic than is traditional academic criticism. Burke's critical interests and theoretical perspectives were wide-ranging, his project nothing less than an anatomy of Man as the "symbol-using animal." Burke was also, by their own testimony, an influential figure for many well-known Shakespeareans. Yet his name rarely appears in footnotes. Thus, Kenneth Burke remains something of a mystery critic, perhaps, as Newstok suggests, because he was at heart a bricoleur--less easily used as a model and less readily categorized in the annals of Shakespearean criticism than figures such as T.S. Eliot or Northrop Frye.
The essays collected in Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare are organized chronologically by date of first publication. Only "Shakespeare Was What?" is moved out of place to head the volume as a general introduction. Each essay is preceded by an informative headnote with publication information and, in the case of lectures, the circumstances of their delivery. Among the essays readers will recognize established classics: "Antony in Behalf of the Play," "Othello: An Essay to Illustrate a Method," "Shakespearean Persuasion: Antony and Cleopatra," and "Coriolanus, and the Delights of Faction." There are, as well, representative pieces from later in Burke's career, such as the 1969 "King Lear. Its Form and Psychosis," which, like Stanley Cavell's contemporary analysis of Lear, was conditioned by the experience of Vietnam, and pieces on Macbeth and A Midsummer Night's Dream. I found "Notes on Troilus and Cressida," a response to a graduate student essay on the play, a little unnerving, for few of us write comments on student papers that would hold up under publication. In his remarks, Burke is sometimes overbearing, telling the writer where he disagrees with her, putting forward his own reading, and pointing her toward his other writings. But he also provides a serious, sustained intellectual engagement with this student's work; I could see how Burke really could be at once a bricoleur and a systematizer--at times, his ability to stick with an idea is almost frightening--and how engaged and engaging he could be in the classroom. The volume concludes with a fifty-page "Appendix of Additional References on Shakespeare in Burke's Writing," culled by Newstok from many different places. I found the exercise of reading through these references interesting; they will be most useful, I think, used in connection with the index to find information on specific plays or concepts.
Newstok's Introduction does a very good job of placing Burke, theoretically and historically, and of orienting non-Burkeans to useful ways to engage his texts; it also provides students with a handy summary of key critical terms (e.g., paradox of substance, character, psychosis, ritual). The volume's apparatus includes compact explanatory notes identifying figures from Nicholas Boileau to Henry Ford, and other helpful information. For scholars, the inclusion of deleted materials from Burke's manuscripts also provides a fresh look at the writer's mind at work. (It will also create sympathy for the editors, past and present, who have worked with that unruly mind.) I gave the index, which includes terms as well as proper names, a pretty good workout, and found everything I was looking for except "metaphor."
Reading Burke's Shakespeare criticism in isolation from the theoretical contexts in which it often appears is instructive. Collectively, the essays explore the notion of dramatism, Burke's "ambitious elaboration of the theatrum mundi conceit" (xvii). Like Aristotle, he starts with dramatic plot, often providing workmanlike plot summaries that sometimes are excised from the published version. But plot really just provides Burke with a "way in" to issues of character and of audience response. Burke's concept of the relation between dramatic character and human motive can be seen clearly in the introductory essay, "What is Shakespeare?," an address to the Sigma Tau Delta honorary society at Kearney State College in Nebraska, which he frames as an attack on biographical criticism. Even the Sonnets, Burke warns sternly, are not biographical portraits; the sequence's overarching story, whatever its truth value, "gives ample signs of having been developed in accordance with the rules of a highly complicated stylistic game" (4). In Shakespeare's plays, we get not a world of "little persons," as A.C. Bradley had claimed, but clusters of ideas, or allegorical elements, that ebb and flow with personality as their dramatic function demands. While they may have verisimilitude, Shakespeare's characters are hyperbolic in their dimensions; Coriolanus, for instance, is "excessively downright" (131) and, appropriately for such a character, is embroiled in an excessive tragic trajectory that features not one, but two crucial turning points: "a nonpolitical man's venture into politics, and a fighting man's failure to join in battle when success was certain." This doubling Burke calls "a kind of peripety-atop-peripety" (135).
Burke is less interested in what Shakespeare's plays mean than how they work; his concern with art as persuasion therefore leads him away from character per se to the dynamics of audience response. For audiences, dramatic artifacts must mean something different than they do for the author or for the characters themselves. As he notes somewhat puckishly in "King Lear. Its Form and Psychosis," "it seemed to me obvious that although the play is about a foolish old king who turned his kingdom over to his daughters, it certainly couldn't have been written for an audience of foolish old kings who abdicate their thrones. For what dramatist would write for so limited a public?" (151). Burke pursues the social effects of drama by combining an Aristotelian framework (which emphasizes catharsis) with a ritual model of theater (which focuses on the purgative role of the scapegoat). For Shakespearean tragedy, at least, the audience's relation to the tragic hero seems to be one of "vicarious victimage" (130). The audience thus "collaborates" with the play in exorcising its thematic "psychosis," the term "collaboration" communicating a sense of ambivalence appropriate for a post-World War II writer whose Rhetoric of Motives was preceded by the epigraph, ad bellum purificandum.
Not only is dramatic catharsis something of a guilty pleasure, but literature itself, as a stylized answer to cultural questions, plunges us into complicated, if exhilarating, ethical territory. The brief essay on "Imagery," a meditation on Caroline Spurgeon's book Shakespeare's Imagery, develops in an extended note the discussion of a rhetoric as well as psychology of metaphor. While Spurgeon tracks the now-familiar machinations of the poet's unconscious, Burke invites us to consider a more Nietzschean rhetoric of deceitful metaphors. What, he asks, if imagistic analyses of unconscious motivations led writers toward a "corrective hypocrisy" (50), a kind of self-fashioning by metaphor-manipulation in which the writer stylishly adopts more "healthy" or "ethical" metaphors? Burke sees such activity not as merely decorative, but substantive--as Richard A. Lanham explains in his further development of Burke's rhetoric of identification, the means by which a self can be built from the "outside in." In this way, metaphoric manipulation, or hypocrisy, becomes the vehicle of pure sincerity, a process of "character-building by secular prayer" (50).
And what has all this to do with Shakespeare? Burke concludes the essay by providing a new twist on the nineteenth-century meta-narrative of Shakespeare's creative biography. Edward Dowden had argued that in the "great tragedies," Shakespeare descends into the depths, but rises triumphantly to the heights of wisdom in retirement with The Tempest. In Burke's retelling, the Shakespeare who wrote Hamlet became so immersed in novelistic confession that he lost touch with his craft, risking what Burke calls "psychological unemployment" (53). But Burke's Shakespeare biography ends not with the belletristic triumph of Prospero, but Shakespeare's recovery of his professional balance in the mixing of pastoral images with the imagery of trade in Cymbeline. It is almost as if Burke's engagement with Spurgeon leads him down a path that would be trod later by Raymond Williams, a comparison also made by Newstok in his critical introduction.
The socialist in Burke not only values literary craft but also makes him ambivalent about rhetoric even as he celebrates its social uses. His heart really lies, as he thinks Shakespeare's does, with characters who lack or reject eloquence. Burke's combined reservations about eloquent characters and audience complicity comes to a crux in the essay "Antony in Behalf of the Play," a monologue in which Antony himself explains how drama works to three audiences at once: the fictional Roman plebians, the so-called "gluttons" of Shakespeare's own theater, and Burke's own readers of the 1930s. Antony's critical excursus, laying bare ingenuously the rhetoric of his famed oratory, in fact exposes him as the (perhaps evil) doppelganger of Shakespeare's less fortunate tongue-tied heroes, such as Cordelia and Coriolanus. Ventriloquized through and espousing the theory of dramatism, Antony seems much less attractive than he had previously, so that Burke gives us visual/aural confirmation of the highly imbricated relation between drama and persuasion.
If I were looking for a single essay with which to introduce students to Burke's rich array of critical themes, I would choose his "Socio-anagogic Interpretation of Venus and Adonis." Here, Burke engages, as he often does, with big figures, those whom Foucault called "founders of discursivity." His elegant analysis of Venus and Adonis marries Marx to Thomas Aquinas, using Thomas Carlyle as its conceptual bridge between these two mighty opposites. Burke's own method in working through his argument is to begin boldly by exposing the frankly allegorical nature of reading (it is no surprise that he appreciated the scholarship of Rosamund Tuve). In fact, he positively flaunts the excess required to translate the poem from a religious to a social vocabulary: Having rejected the notion that Venus is a goddess in any theological sense, Burke proposes that she "stands somewhat 'enigmatically' for an aspect of noble status in general" (59).
We do not intend to plead for a set of perfect correspondences, based on this substitution of social superiority for "divinity." If hard-pressed, one could work out such an interpretation. Venus would stand for the upper class, Adonis for the middle class, the boar for the lower classes (as seen through middle-class eyes using courtly spectacles). The horses might represent the potent aspect of the middle class, though ambiguously noble (like all love-making, because of its "divine elation"). The figure of the boar could, roundabout, identify the lower classes with the dregs, with moral evil. In this particular poem, the boar (hence the lower classes) could be the evil embodiment of the homosexual offense that seems involved in Adonis' unresponsiveness. Or it could stand for offensiveness generally ... (59-60)
This analysis of thematic alignments involving the dramatis personae of Shakespeare's poem offers perhaps the best view possible of Burke's flexible view of human motive. Characters move in and out of allegorical configurations, taking on "substance" only in relation to one another.
Reading the essays in Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare in chronological order paradoxically points up the recursive rather than developmental nature of his thought. The psychology of form is the bridge between Burke's notion of character (motive) and of audience. Scott Newstok's anthology opens and concludes, fittingly, with essays that engage with this notion. "Psychology and Form [Hamlet]," the second essay, works out in musical terms the long scene that culminates with Hamlet's encounter with the ghost of his father. The final piece in this volume, "Notes on Macbeth," brings together writing from 1975 and 1982, when Burke was in residence at Emory University. Here, Burke returns to the psychology of form to show how the rhetorical exchange between "foul" and "fair" in this Shakespeare play enriches and complicates the simple formula of its plot: "Why did Macbeth kill Duncan? FORMALLY because it is a play about regicide" (210). At the same time, characteristically, Burke demonstrates how the characters in such a constrained situation are also "perfect" in their roles, in the etymological sense. In this way, Burke demonstrates how literature's formal qualities both reflect and engage the full range of human motive.
To conclude, I would like to offer a word of praise for the press. In an age when commercial presses are seeking out smaller manuscripts, Parlor Press is willing to publish a longer compilation of criticism such as this one. At the same time, there is no "fluff"; the book is tight and--a tribute to both editor and press--cleanly edited. Not least important, the paper is of good quality, the typeface handsome, and the binding solid. My copy traveled by plane, train, and automobile across the Atlantic and suffered the usual indignities of academics' paperbacks, including the use of pens and pencils as bookmarks, ali without significant wear. These production values, in combination with Kenneth Burke's quirky mind and Scott Newstok's judicious editing, make Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare an aesthetically pleasing as well as edifying read.
Reviewed by Christy Desmet, University of Georgia.
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|Publication:||The Upstart Crow|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2006|
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