Newstok, Scott L., ed. 2007. Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare. West Lafayette, Indiana: parlor press. $65.00 hc. $32.00 sc. Iv + 308 pp.
Ironically, Burke's characteristic latitude with formal principles, perhaps the most engaging feature of his critical work and the one most consonant with contemporary ideas about the intersection of texts and cultural contexts, has also marginalized him from the academic critical mainstream, both within Shakespeare studies and without. Newstok's introduction tackles squarely the issue of Burke's place in contemporary criticism. He acknowledges that Burke's "lack of scholarly engagement" with academic criticism, though clearly a "virtue," has been an "impediment to the circulation of his work in academia" (xxx). But he also acknowledges the fundamental absurdity of lumping Burke in with New Criticism because of his inventions with the concept of form, preoccupied as those inventions always are with speakers' motives and a range of potential audience reactions; that is, not with static form but with a rhetoric of emergent form (xxxi). Moreover, as Newstok recognizes, Burke has shown, perhaps as a consequence of the grand heuristic sweep of his dramatistic method, an ability to "have been here before us"--that is, to have already framed readings of Shakespeare later pursued, as Newstok shows, by such recently influential Shakespearean critics as Stephen Greenblatt, Janet Adelman, Frank Whigham, and Michael McCanles (xxi-xxii).
Newstok organizes Burke's Shakespearean criticism chronologically, and the introduction also reminds us that "we must place Burke's early Shakespeare essays ... in a fraught center: between activists politically to his left, and fellow critics who found Burke's own politics too radical" (xxviii). Thus, Burke's analysis of Marc Anthony's "Friends, Romans, countrymen" speech in Julius Caesar in "Antony on Behalf of the Play" (originally published in The Southern Review in 1935) shows Burke moving from a formally mediated but "aesthetically isolated" concept of audience, governed by strategies directed at a listener internal to a text, to a more expansive one including "anyone who should be concerned about understanding demagoguery in demagogic times"--what Burke himself calls in the essay "the grim intentions of the mob" (xxiv; 47). This move gives us the Burke most of us know, the "socio-anagogic" Burke, the irrepressible interpreter of a text's "implicit identifications" as they culminate in the "mystifications" of "judgments of status" and of "social order." This Burke sees himself, in the discussion of Venus and Adonis from A Rhetoric of Motives (1950), as working from "Marx's theory of 'mystification'" but "neutrally," without "Marx's rage" (63). Thus, in an excerpt from A Grammar of Motives included here, Burke makes a seemingly obvious, definitional point about the relation of scene and act in Macbeth--that the "witches were representative of Macbeth's inner temptations" (236).This same observation is then turned, in the "Notes on Macbeth," into a remark about how "the 'grotesque' dimensions of the drama, the scenes of the Witchery," point towards "our sense of the work's development ... in a motivational realm beyond tragedy" that shows "the engrossing ways whereby, implicit in the beginning, there is an end" (205). Such are the pleasures of reading Kenneth Burke, where textual analysis suddenly turns to Aristotelian teleology, and with the suggestion of the kind of fully contextualized reading that our own critical culture embraces, in the case of Macbeth implying historical topics like regicide, and psychoanalytic ones like castration-fueled, grandiose ambition.
Newstok rightly sees Burke's marginalization in Shakespeare studies as well as in the culture of contemporary criticism as revealing "a complicated resistance among American intellectuals to come to terms with their native theoretical roots." This resistance, no doubt, results in no small part from Burke's penchant for expansively idiosyncratic readings (xxi). However, this volume provides a decidedly friendly venue for overcoming that resistance, as Burke could not be presented in more accessible form. The focus on Shakespeare keeps the reader grounded in familiar texts, as that reader either learns or reviews how to follow Burke's improvisational dances with his major (and sometimes neo-logical) critical terms. Moreover, Newstok nicely balances what he calls Burke's "ecstatic readings of Shakespeare" with an "Appendix" of shorter, more theorizing excerpts on Shakespeare from Burke's major works (xxxiv).The excellent introduction outlines with care the issues relevant to placing Burke's Shakespearean criticism within both Shakespeare studies and within the historical reception of Burke s titanic, provocative, edifying, and at times maddening oeuvre. The editor's notes to Burke's essays and "Notes" are thorough and unfailingly helpful. Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare is a timely and important book, both for Shakespeare studies and for the deeply embedded rhetorical strivings and biases of American literary and cultural critique.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2009|
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