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Burke on Shakespeare Hot

Julian Lopez-Morillas
Written by Julian Lopez-Morillas     April 08, 2009    
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Burke on Shakespeare
  • Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare
  • by Scott L. Newstok, ed.
  • Publisher: Parlor Press
  • Published in January 1, 2007
  • 3

A new volume, edited by Scott L. Newstok, brings together a number of lectures, essays and notes on Shakespeare by the idiosyncratic American critic and philosopher Kenneth Burke (1897-1993). Burke, regarded as something of an intellectual maverick, was an influential figure in American letters and critical thinking, and his approach to Shakespeare’s works had wide-ranging repercussions throughout the intellectual community, as witnessed by the testimonials from figures like Harold Bloom, Stephen Greenblatt and other respected thinkers that accompany this volume.

This reviewer, a theatre actor and director whose experience with Shakespeare is mostly practical and oriented towards performance, lacks the comprehensive knowledge of trends in New Criticism that might place this book within a larger critical context. And it may be inevitable that a collection drawn from such a plethora of different sources should fall short of articulating a consistent overview of Shakespeare’s life and work. There are essays in the volume which provide keen and persuasive insights into individual plays and characters. But many of the pieces are fragmented, with a dizzying proliferation of footnotes, side-notes and material originally excluded from publication; the chapter on Troilus and Cressida is essentially a series of notes in critique of a student’s graduate thesis, and a 55-page appendix serves as a sort of catchall for scraps and bits of observations that the editor apparently couldn’t fit into the loose structure of his collection. So it’s anything but a smooth read.

Burke’s most consistent, and most interesting interpretive perception is how character and plot develop together as a necessary strategy for the writer to work out of his theme. Burke identifies the principal theme of King Lear, for example, as that of “abdication,” and then demonstrates how the particulars of Lear’s character and the playing out of the action are shaped by the requirements of that theme. It’s certainly a fresh and original way of talking about what the playwright is doing, but it also seems somewhat reductive. If the theme of abdication is in fact the starting point for Shakespeare’s creation of the work, then the argument has some plausibility. But for a writer who inherited nearly all his plots from other sources, there seems to be room for doubt whether the theory represents a real analysis of how Shakespeare worked, or whether a creative process is being tailored, after the fact, to fit the critic’s own theories. Again, reading Burke’s chapter titled “Othello: an Essay to Illustrate a Method,” I found I was learning more about the “method” in question than about the play it was using as an exemplar.

One is constantly struck by the obvious brilliance of Burke’s thinking, but his specialized vocabulary can sometimes make for some heavy going. He deploys terms with his own particular meanings attached to them: one is likely to be puzzled by talk of “psychosis,” for instance, until one realizes he is using it to mean something like “conflicts within a character.” (“Peripety” and “entelechy” are also favorite concepts.) The overall tone is literate to the point of obscurity at times, and some of the analogies he draws seem forced. But it is refreshing to find that Burke regards watching the plays in production to be a richer experience than reading them: “It is not my aim… to give you… the kind of experience that you can get somewhat by a sympathetic reading of the work we are to discuss, or still better, by seeing it expertly performed.” He acknowledges that this opinion puts him at odds with Aristotle, who believed that a play was a purer experience when read.

There are problems with consistency of tone throughout the volume. Burke is at his strongest in close analysis of individual plays and scenes, where his perceptions can be very arresting. The chapter on Timon of Athens respects the thorny originality of this difficult play, and his lecture on A Midsummer Night’s Dream has some lovely, perceptive things to say about the worlds of town, woods and fairyland, and how a spirit of “relaxation” transforms social conflicts into the stuff of sweet-natured comedy. An essay on Macbeth provides Burke with an opportunity to explore a novel theory of form, which he defines as “the arousing and fulfilling of expectations,” which is fresh and persuasive-- but then suddenly degenerates into several pages of shrill, invective-filled attack on the purveyors of modern popular entertainment. Burke is liable to veer off-topic and into asides about his own political bêtes noires (American imperialism, Vietnam) which are not really germane to the question at hand.

In general, this is a useful volume for the Shakespeare specialist, and for those interested in the currents of twentieth-century criticism. There are valuable insights into the structures and rhetorical underpinnings of Shakespeare’s plays, and some very original critical thinking is on display. But its lack of overall structure, and a somewhat fussy scholarly format, make it a less desirable choice for the more casual reader, or for those whose delight in Shakespeare is based on his essential straightforwardness.

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