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Kenneth Burke, Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare.

Kenneth Burke, Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare

Edited by Scott L. Newstok

West Lafayette, Indiana: Parlor Press, 2008

Scott Newstok's Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare provides an extraordinary service. This volume collects all of Burke's known discussions of Shakespeare, from his peculiar and at times wonderful essays on Othello, Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, and Antony and Cleopatra to stray remarks made en passant in Burke's various books (Newstok has deftly assembled these passages in an appendix). Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare enables us to take a panoptic view of a significant critic. The book's blurbs--by Harold Bloom, Stanley Cavell, Paul Alpers, Stephen Greenblatt, Patricia Parker, and William Pritchard--attest to Burke's influence among Shakespeareans.

What, then, did Burke contribute to Shakespeare studies? In contrast to Wilson Knight, who brilliantly explored the Shakespearean mythos, but at the expense of narrative structure, Burke joined mythos and structure, and attempted to show how they work together. In this he resembled Northrop Frye, a largely unacknowledged influence on Burke. But in contrast to Frye, Burke underlined the fact that Shakespeare's drama is an advanced instrument of persuasion, committed to addressing different segments of the audience in much the way that a politician addresses a crowd (thus the iconoclastic punch of Burke's deservedly famous "Antony in Behalf of the Play," first published in 1935).

The main presence in Burke's criticism is Aristotle, and Burke often wrestles with the Aristotelian question of the priority of plot over character. Like Aristotle (in the Chicago school reading), Burke argues that tragic plot functions by way of the audience's judgments about right and wrong action. But unlike Aristotle, he is also anthropologically oriented, and so emphasizes the audience's identification with the sacrificial victim. For the identification to work, the victim (the tragic hero) needs to be a fascinating character who recognizes and incorporates different aspects of the audience. In order to explain this process, Burke turns to the study of rhetoric, with its overt appeal to the crowd. Often he finds a kinship between political manipulation and aesthetic response; though he sometimes acknowledges the difference between the two, he fails to grapple with the task of defining this difference.

Burke's double focus on plot and character leads to an interesting dilemma. Newstok reproduces Burke's comments on a Washington University graduate student's paper on Troilus and Cressida (a good example of how far this ingenious editor has dug): Burke tells the student, "You are tending to write glosses from the standpoint of sheer portraiture, thereby losing somewhat the stress upon dramaturgic function. The two realms of observation overlap considerably, hence all this is to the good" (169). The waffling here is deeply telling. From time to time Burke assails A. C. Bradley for being a character critic and thus neglecting the play's persuasive functioning or (in Aristotelian-Burkean jargon) "entelechy." (Bradley still stands pretty much untouched, as one might expect.) But Burke's own comments occasionally display a confusion about how character portrayal and dramatic logic intersect. In his stimulating essay on Othello, from 1951, Burke argues that Shakespeare (in a notoriously unconvincing move) makes Iago jealous of Emilia so that he can play off Iago against Othello: the latter's jealousy is noble, Iago's is ignoble. So Iago's jealousy functions structurally, rather than as an insight into his character. (Shakespeare, and Iago too, have barred the way to such insight, Burke implies--following Coleridge.) Yet in the course of this discussion, Burke concedes that "in our novel-minded age at least, the actor is helped in building up his role by such portraiture as Bradley aims at" (86). So Burke waffles again on the question of character and structure. Iago may only seem to be a limit-case in this respect: the actor's job could be to indicate how Shakespeare's Venetian villain, ever wily, slips out of the motives that he plays at having. But this, too, is a form of portraiture, and the audience studies the portrait.

In order to unravel this a bit further, we might consider an example not discussed by Burke: does Hamlet delay because he identifies with Claudius (Ernest Jones's argument, perhaps best refined by William Kerrigan in his Hamlet's Perfection), or is the identification demanded by the structure, and the symbolic logic, of the play? I suspect that Burke would have said that Shakespeare constructs a parallel between Hamlet and Claudius for symbolic reasons, and that Hamlet's identification, assuming that it is there, exists in order to make the parallel work, not to offer us knowledge about Hamlet's psyche. But this line of argument begs the question. Hamlet doesn't identify with his uncle just because Shakespeare makes him do so; his identification inevitably tempts us, driven toward the heart of his mystery, to psychoanalyze him. Add to this the fact that Hamlet, like Iago, is a character dedicated to shaping the play itself, and the mutual implication of plot and hero thickens still further. There is, to be sure, a kind of character criticism that fails to account for the structural dynamics of the play--but (as Burke seems to admit in his Troilus and Cressida remarks), when a critic does the job well, there's no reason why these two aspects need be in opposition.

In his ambivalence about portraiture and dramatic function, Burke seems to acknowledge that Aristotle can be turned on his head: structure also has its roots in character. In a superb essay on Antony and Cleopatra, Burke sensitively traces the dialogue between the imperial and the everyday that is at the heart of the play. The poor worm, Cleopatra murmurs, is the "baby at my breast / That sucks the nurse asleep" (5.2.300-301)--and, Burke sublimely remarks, "Here all the Mediterranean grandeurs are swept away in a flash" (119). But, as Burke seems to grant, the play's opposition (and then paradoxical equation) between world-claiming grandeur and ordinary existence would mean little if it were not incarnated in the triumphant beings we see onstage. In a case like this, how is it possible to decide between the hero and the play?

Burke frequently tempts us to think we can choose structural myth over character, so that we won't be tricked by our sympathy for Shakespeare's heroes, but instead remain alert to how Shakespeare uses them to manipulate us. The tragic protagonist becomes a sacrifice brought forward to appease us; we can renounce and embrace him at once, and therefore go away reinforced in our biases (until the critic steps forward to instruct us in the hidden Shakespearean mechanisms that control our responses). The ostensible hardheadedness of this line bears a resemblance to the ideological decoding fashionable in the 1930s and '40s, and again today; but Burke wears a more genial face than the Marxist or Foucauldian one. He seems uncertain as to whether the tragic process just described is an exhilarating or a sinister phenomenon--and this uncertainty suggests the generosity of his critical spirit. Burke loves these plays, and he wants us to love them too; but he remains touched by a suspicion that Shakespeare's greatness required him to dominate the minds and emotions of his audience. This ambivalence, too, can be fruitful, like so much else in Burke. Yet his aggressively demystifying turns sometimes raise the reader's eyebrow, rather than her interest (eloquence, he writes at one point, is "the result of that desire in the artist to make a work perfect by adapting it in every minute detail to the racial appetites" [30]).

When Burke ventriloquizes Shakespeare's characters, he once or twice spins off the path altogether. In a 1933 reading of Twelfth Night that seems determined to outdo Empson (the latest sensation), Burke makes Orsino say, in his opening speech, "You cannot take my gloom to mean that I am, in that which concerns me, without a future, as there is not one single member of this entire audience that is without a future (without an image of something like that which is, in the sixteenth century, vaguely deemed available in America)" (35). Throughout his career, Burke was capable of such unconvincing large-scale gestures, but he seems to have been particularly reckless early on. Two years later, in the essay on Julius Caesar, Burke is much more persuasive, though this too has its odd moments (Brutus, we are told, "takes on the nobility that comes of being good for private enterprise" [42]).

Burke is at his best in his most familiar essays: "Coriolanus--and the Delights of Faction," "Othello: An Essay to Illustrate a Method," and "Antony in Behalf of the Play." "Shakespearean Persuasion: Antony and Cleopatra," which I have also mentioned, is less famous, but equally worthwhile. Other parts of the book present something of a problem. The earliest essays seem tentative and rather wobbly to me; and the ones from the 1970s on give evidence of an unfortunate period of decline, no doubt connected to Burke's increasing ill health. The two latest essays in the book, on Midsummer Night's Dream and Macbeth, do not make for pleasant reading. When Burke begins, unprompted and at some length, to rant against "our current vulgarians" in his Macbeth essay (206), the reader feels like looking away from the disturbing spectacle of an eloquence turned bitter and unbalanced. (In a fine essay from the sixties on Timon of Athens, Burke speaks for the worth of invective, as he does in his Coriolanus discussion; but invective tended to be a mark of weakness, rather than strength, in Burke himself.) We return with appreciation, and relief, to Burke's central essays on Shakespeare, presented by Newstok with such great scholarly care.
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Author:Mikics, David
Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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