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Home :: Archive :: 2009 :: January ::
SBReviews_2: Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0032  Tuesday, 20 January 2009

From:       Hardy M. Cook <
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Date:       Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Subject:    SBReview_2: Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare


SBReview_2: Scott L. Newstok, editor. _Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare_. 
West Lafayette, Indiana: Parlor Press, 2007.  ISBN 978-1-60235-002-1; lv 
+ 308 pp.  US$32.00.

Reviewed by Murray M. Schwartz, Professor, Department of Writing, 
Literature & Publishing, Emerson College


In the mid-1970s, when Kenneth Burke was approaching King Lear's age, I 
had the pleasure of inviting him to spend one week a month for a 
semester with the faculty and students at the Center for the 
Psychological Study of the Arts at SUNY/ Buffalo. "KB," as we came to 
call him, would lecture informally in the mornings, usually on 
Shakespeare, and then meet with students through lunch, when his steady 
sips of vodka would take him off for an afternoon nap. In the evenings, 
we would have dinner together, and he would then often play his own 
compositions on the piano and sing for us. (To understand his singular 
way of thinking, it helps to remember his love of music. He was the 
music critic for _The Dial_ from 1927 to 1929.)

It was not KB's playful penchant for neologistic critical terms, nor his 
jazz-like ability to display quicksilver associations among realms of 
experience that impressed us most. What engaged us most was his intact 
skill as a teacher, the specificity of his responsiveness to each text, 
each student. Unlike some other "mavericks" of the time (but more like 
our resident maverick, Leslie Fiedler), KB was not seeking disciples, 
and his methods could be adapted to almost any intellectual pursuit. As 
in his writings, he was impervious to easy summation; his was a mind 
unbound, open. He delighted in curiosity and fruitful ways of asking 
questions, and we delighted in his endlessly suggestive possibilities 
for evoking symbolic meanings drawn from the Borgesian library of his 
mind. I have been re-reading him ever since, returning often to the 
essays on Freud and on Hitler, to his "Definition of Man," and, of 
course, to the varied essays on Shakespeare. I am always tempted, as he 
was by Freud's works, and as many of his readers are, to "take 
representative excerpts from his work, copy them out, and write glosses 
upon them" (_The Philosophy of Literary Form_, p. 221). KB invites 
dialogue, and he has provoked valuable interplay with just about every 
academic field in the humanities and social sciences.

Scott L. Newstock has now given us, in a superbly edited collection, all 
of Burke's writings on Shakespeare. _Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare_ 
brings together fourteen essays, including the classic studies of 
_Othello_ (1951), _Antony and Cleopatra_ (1964), _Timon of Athens_ 
(1963), _Coriolanus_ (1966), and _King Lear_ (1969), along with the 
earlier essays on _Venus and Adonis_ (1950), "Antony in Behalf of the 
Play" (1935), "Trial Translation (from _Twelfth Night_) (1933), and the 
seminal essay "Psychology and Form" (1925).  He adds three previously 
unpublished papers, "Shakespeare Was What?" (1964), "Notes on _Troilus 
and Cressida_" (1970-71) and "Notes on _Macbeth_" (1970s and 1980s), and 
a fifty-page compendium of all the other references to Shakespeare in 
Burke's works. A 1972 lecture on _A Midsummer Night's Dream_ is also 
included to represent Burke's lesser interest in comic form (" . . . I 
must break down and admit that, with regard to this play, I am still in 
the woods," he wrote (181).). The volume is an important and timely 
contribution to Shakespeare scholarship, now that the wave of 
theory-dominated approaches seems to be subsiding in favor of a more 
exploratory commentary that is amplified by the technological revolution 
in communication and publication.

Burke began writing about Shakespeare when America and Europe had 
recently embraced the rhetorical forms of "public relations" and the 
techniques of modern propaganda (not yet a negative term) in mass 
culture. "Proposition: The hypertrophy of the psychology of information 
is accompanied by the corresponding atrophy of the psychology of form," 
(24) he wrote in 1925. From the outset, he sought to encompass the full 
range of "symbolic actions" that gave meaning to and enabled the 
manipulation of public discourse. Shakespeare became for Burke a central 
instance of the "dramatistic" formal designs that could generate and 
fulfill an audience's expectations. Like Shakespeare's, Burke's was an 
"anticipatory mentality" (14), almost instantly recognizing the 
extensive ramifications of his historical moment. Burke and Shakespeare 
share a diagnostic drive; they want to generate awareness of the 
functions of symbolic acts even as they participate in them, to craft 
their work and show how they are working simultaneously. In Shakespeare, 
this is the metatheatrical dimension; in Burke's writings, there is the 
practice of "thinking out loud," the many ways in which he includes his 
thought processes in his rhetorical strategies. To be sure, this 
penchant can make his essays difficult reading. Sometimes, as in his 
"Notes of _Macbeth_," he can riff his way from one text to another 
before returning to his theme of regicide. But if we are steadily 
attentive, the seeming deflections usually come to function as dilations 
on his central idea, even when he pauses to engage in a skirmish with 
another interpreter (as with Clifford Geertz on pp. 189-190).

One pleasure of Newstock's collection is that the editor retains all of 
Burke's notes and comments on his own thought and composition. Much of 
this material would likely succumb to the computer's delete button these 
days, lost forever. Phrases like, "Let us propose," and "Let us assume" 
initiate provisional thoughts, trial interpretations, ways of seeing and 
hearing Shakespeare that "awaken in us the satisfactions of authorship," 
(44), both Burke's and Shakespeare's. We even read of Burke's own dreams 
as he contemplates Timon's "verbal filth" (108) and links Shakespeare's 
symbolic structures with his own unconscious forms of thinking. "I 
tinker tentatively with an experimental procedure which I call 
'onei-romantic criticism,'" he writes, as he speculates about the 
interpenetration of his dreaming mind and the cathartic process in 
drama. No critic has made better conscious use of what the psychoanalyst 
D. W. Winnicott called the "potential space" of culture, the area of 
experience that permits the free interplay of inner and outer realities. 
It is rare these days to see a critical mind so clearly in dialogue and 
debate with itself, and making use of an enormous range of knowledge, 
from the Greeks to the present. (I wonder which Shakespeare journal 
would publish this kind of uncensored material today.)

Burke's general project was to identify the "ingredients" and the 
"recipes" of symbolic actions and the ways in which aesthetic form 
creates "arrows of expectation" in its audience. In the drama of 
symbolic acts, relations among characters invite distributions of 
attitudes and feelings in the experience of an audience. Burke's 
interest is primarily in the functions of characters' roles in the play 
as a whole. Though a drama may exploit some external tension, such as 
the idea of property in Othello, or the dilemmas of abdication in _King 
Lear_ (he calls these tensions "psychoses," his most unfortunate term), 
Burke wants to coax out the authorizing dynamic of the play's action by 
"prophesying after the fact." The critical act, then, is reconstructive 
(not deconstructive), an account of the drama that justifies its form by 
passing its rhetoric through the "appetites" of its audience. (Burke is 
remarkably interested in both ends of the alimentary canal as metaphors 
of speech acts.) He is especially preoccupied with the ways audiences' 
appetites require sacrifice or victimage, hence his focus on the 
excesses of tragedy. Tragic form, in its poise and rhythm, "perfects" a 
sacrificial process that is, in a sense, inherent in all symbolic 
action. (As the symbol-using animal, we humans must "invent the 
negative" to use and misuse symbolic forms in the first place. The 
symbol substitutes for the thing symbolized, as the scapegoat 
substitutes for the sins of the community.)

Burke explored the trajectories of symbolic action in a brilliant array 
of critical strategies. He assumes the voice of Antony to describe the 
force and structure of his rhetoric in his funeral oration for Caesar. 
In the _Othello_ essay, he adopts the position of the playwright to map 
"the ideal paradigm for a Shakespearean tragedy" (70). At times, he 
plays the historian reflecting on the difference between Renaissance and 
twentieth century dictatorships. He is intensely engaged with a host of 
other important Shakespearean critics of his time. But his most 
consistent and enduring stance is as the anthropologist of dramatic and 
poetic forms. Like Huizinga in _Homo Ludens_, Burke explicates 
Shakespeare against the background of the aesthetic element in human 
culture as a whole. For Burke, the music of form, its "eloquence," 
defines the "truth" of art in an "emotional rightness" that transcends 
both science and religion in its humanistic logocentricity. (We can see 
him as America's answer to Jacques Derrida.)

As a student of both Shakespeare and psychoanalysis, I am particularly 
struck by two related features of the essays collected by Newstock. The 
first is Burke's argument with the representations of character 
exemplified by A. C. Bradley, and the second his sensitivity to the 
bodily basis of symbols and metaphors. For Burke, Bradley's "novelistic" 
approach to Shakespeare leads to "sheer portraiture, and done in a way 
that conceals the functioning of the play" (81). Burke's opposition to 
Bradley's character analysis is fundamental:

For, in contrast with the novelistic 'portrait gallery' approach to 
Shakespeare's characters . . . one should here proceed not from 
character-analysis to the view of character in action, but from the 
logic of the _action as a whole_, to the analysis of the character as a 
recipe fitting him for his proper place in the action. . . .  (80)

To my mind, Burke is both accurate and unnecessarily limiting. Bradley's 
style of character analysis is not the only possibility. The 
psychoanalyst Roy Schafer, for example, developed an "action language" 
for describing the dynamics of character in both art and life that can 
serve Burke's purposes well. [1]  In drama, the dynamics of character 
can create the illusion of real persons _and_ place characters in the 
functional roles of the drama, even when, like Hamlet, their role 
involves constant tension with their "proper place in the action." Burke 
discounts this possibility too quickly. Part of Shakespeare's genius was 
the realization that we are both characters _and_ functions of one 
another in social life as well as art (all the world _is_ a stage). I 
think this is one reason that his plays endure so powerfully through 
historical changes. By narrowing his view of character analysis to 
nineteenth century portraits, Burke diminishes the significance of his 
own attentiveness to the language of individual characters in Shakespeare.
    	
Ironically, Burke could be very good at a different kind of character 
analysis, and here his close readings of individual roles are revealing. 
By following the language of the Porter in _Macbeth_, for example, or 
Orsino at the opening of _Twelfth Night_, Burke evokes the movement of 
consciousness in time, and it is this movement, with its shifts of focus 
and its recurrent idioms that actually reveals the performative 
dimension of character. By using his own associations to Orsino's lines, 
Burke recreates the infantile basis for the character's 
passive-receptive position:

    		If music be the food of love, play on (1)

As cells absorbing sunlight, as the fetus basking in its womb-heaven, 
receiving nutriment; not venturing forth aggressively, predaciously, as 
with those jungle animals that stalk, leap, and capture before they eat, 
and thus must do hating and injuring -- but simply as larvae feed, let 
me take in gentle music. (33)

The "arrow of expectation" is here linked to both character development 
and dramatic function. By playing along with Orsino, Burke is 
representing the manifestations of a character's consciousness as it 
moves through "a discreet synaesthesia" from the nourishment of sound to 
the scent of violets and then to the awakening of an aggressive 
awareness. Orsino's "pure receptivity is ripped by ambition":

    			Enough, no more,
       'Tis not so sweet now as it was before.  (7-8)

And then Orsino awakens to his desire for Olivia. "So, the Duke has gone 
complete from larval thought to the predatory (they are both in our 
tissues) -- and is now critical, diagnostic, in quest . . ." (37). "Will 
you go hunt, my lord?" says Curio.
    	
In less than four pages, Burke has mirrored the elements of Orsino's 
character that will define his role in the play. The interplay of 
passivity and aggression weaves through his character and announces the 
elements of social life that must be brought into balance for the comedy 
as a whole to succeed. Written in 1933, this brief sketch anticipates a 
psychological understanding of consciousness, bodily sensation, and 
infantile experience that would not be systematically studied by 
scientific means for decades.[2] My point is -- When Burke engages in 
close reading of character, he gives us a dimension of "dramatism" that 
can be integrated into his understanding of dramatic form. This is a 
potential of his critical project that remains to be fully realized.
    	
The pleasure and importance of having all of Burke's writings on 
Shakespeare in one volume is that it can send any Shakespearean into 
dialogic thoughts and speculations like mine. As Newstock points out in 
his fine introduction, Burke has had such inspirational effects on 
countless critics, including those most widely admired today. He is 
pro-vocative in the sheer restless energy of his mind. Newstock has 
presented Burke's Shakespeare in a most meticulously edited volume. In 
addition to his introductory essay -- itself one of the most brilliantly 
economic overviews of Burke's style, methods, terminology, and 
historical position in twentieth-century criticism that can be found in 
any collection of Burke's essays -- Newstock provides excellent notes 
and references, leaving no stone unturned. (He realizes that some will 
find him excessive or deficient, and this has been the case with 
reviewers.) His compendium of references to Shakespeare throughout 
Burke's writings contains gems of insight that invite elaboration in 
many directions. His list of Works Cited would make a good library for 
any student of Shakespeare. His volume is designed to appeal to several 
audiences, from beginners to those who return to Burke over a lifetime.
    	
Indeed, Newstock's aim is not only to present Burke as perfectly as 
possible, but to celebrate and promote him simultaneously. His editorial 
labors are themselves marked by various forms of excess. If my count is 
accurate, he lists 213 works in his Introduction. His acknowledgements 
list about 250 names, including the SHAKSPER listserv. The back cover 
contains no fewer than six blurbs from luminous contemporary 
Shakespearean elders. One can easily find a host of admiring journal 
reviews online, including ten five-star substantial statements at the 
Amazon.com site for the book. Noticing this pattern of excess, I began 
to wonder whether Nestock had come to praise Burke or to kill him with 
kindness? But the lasting result, for me, has been to welcome the 
abundance and to agree that these essays "still merit a wider audience" 
(xxxiv). Burke is at least as relevant to the Shakespearean world in the 
twenty-first century, now literally global, as he was in the twentieth. 
Bravo to Scott L. Newstock!


*NOTES*

[1] Roy Schafer.  _A New Language for Psychoanalysis_.  New Haven, 
Conn., and London: Yale University Press, 1976.

[2] See, for example, Daniel Stern.  _The Interpersonal World of the 
Infant: A View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology_.  New 
York: Basic Books, 1985.



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