Scott L. Newstok (ed.), Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare. West Lafayette, Indiana: Parlor Press, 2007. lv+308pp. ISBN 978 1 60235 002 1.

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Written by Katalin Palkóné Tabi

A review by Katalin Palkóné Tabi
Pázmány Péter Catholic University

 

Kenneth Burke (1897-1993) is primarily known to Hungarian (or should I say continental?) scholarship as a rhetorician who was among the first to apply rhetoric theories to social and political aspects of society. (One of his most influential essays is "The Rhetoric of Hitler's 'Battle'" [1939].) He is known to have dropped out of university to become a writer. He wrote poems and novels, and he was also a critic and editor. Despite his failure to have got a degree, due to his scholarly achievements he was invited to teach at the different colleges in the States. His main field of interest included the philosophical, linguistic and social aspects of symbols and rhetoric in society, and, as it becomes apparent from this volume, this is basically what fascinated him about Shakespeare too.

Expecting the readers' unfamiliarity with Burke's Shakespeare heritage, Scott L. Newstok, the editor of this book, spared no effort to bring Burke home by helping the reader with the understanding of the essays via elucidating his style and general approach to Shakespeare. He can only be praised for his impeccable editorial achievement: the collection of Burke's essays, along with appendix, footnotes and endnotes. First he has painstakingly compiled all of Burke's essays on Shakespeare. Furthermore, he provides all of Burke's other references to Shakespeare in an appendix. In footnote, he even includes the manuscript passages which Burke eventually omitted from the edited versions of his essays, and provides an endnote to any reference Burke makes-even if, occasionally, to the point of stating the obvious (we learn, for instance, that Martin Heidegger is a German philosopher). This meticulous editorial procedure cannot but make the reader stand in awe, especially at points when Burke hints at a passage from a book (probably common knowledge in his time), and one finds the full passage with all the bibliographical details cited in the endnote.

As we understand from the Editor's Introduction, this splendid editorial material is only too much needed since, despite his international reputation as a rhetorician, Burke's contribution to Shakespeare studies has so far been little acknowledged and appreciated on the literary scene of Europe as well as, apparently, of the other side of the Atlantic. Newstok devotes about one third of the Editor's Introduction to giving reasons for Burke's lack of appreciation, which, according to Newstok, reflects "a complicated resistance among American intellectuals to come to terms with their native theoretical roots" (xxi). European scholarship is also condemned for "having hardly glanced at Burke" (xxii), and this line of resentment is followed by the listing of all the influential men of letters and thinkers, including Paul de Man, Northrop Frye and Stephen Greenblatt, who all admired Burke's shrewd insight.

With this impressive list of scholars, the question seems even more urging to be answered: Why has he been neglected as a Shakespeare scholar so far? Newstok suggests the reason lies in his "suspected Communist sympathies" (xxviii). It is true that in his essays an evident Marxist attitude can be observed, although this is not surprising if we consider that he lived in the heyday of industrialization. Burke, like many of his contemporaries, was influenced by Marx's socialist ideas as well as by Freud's psychoanalysis, formalist thinking or New Criticism. These approaches all held great appeal at the beginning of the twentieth century. Moreover, Burke's way of weaving all these approaches together with his erudition of classical literature, and using them aptly to support his own ideas of the pragmatic use of rhetoric and of Shakespeare's dramaturgical technique, make his style attractive to any reader. In fact, Burke's pleasurable essayistic style, sometimes reminding the Hungarian reader of István Géher's witty but erudite manner, is one of the great merits of this book.

For all the above reasons, his Marxist approach does not seem to be the single reason for his lack of attention. Another plausible reason may well be his irregular and sporadic intellectual engagement in Shakespeare. Burke published only one essay on Shakespeare in every two or three years, and even these essays, although undoubtedly contain several intellectual gems, show an uneven quality. His analysis of the first lines of Twelfth Night (1933), for example, is rather weak, not going beyond the limits of a "trial" as the title of the essay suggests. His much praised 1951 article on Othello, however, is the other end of the scale. This article, with the subtitle "An Essay to Illustrate a Method", is not only an "essay" (an attempt) but an elaborate account of many of Burke's key concepts in six sub-chapters.

Apropos key concepts, in his exhaustive Introduction, Newstok provides a neat list of the key concepts of Burke's mental framework (xix-xx). The "entries" given here include "Aristotle" standing for the significance of his Poetics and Rhetoric in Burke's critical oeuvre, "audience" indicating Burke's special engagement with the role of the audience in relation to a given dramatic speech, "expectation" referring to Shakespeare's skill at exploiting his audience's desires, or "psychosis" meaning "some underlying tension" that governs the motives of a dramatic character-usually for the gain of "power" and "possession" in a socialist fashion. These ideas are further elaborated in some other essays. The power relations between the different social classes form the basis of analysis, for example, of Venus and Adonis (1950) and A Midsummer Night's Dream (1972).

Perhaps the most interesting idea of Burke's-also discussed in the Introduction-is his so-called "dramatism," an application of Shakespeare's "all the world's a stage" metaphor to the rhetoric of Shakespeare's dramatic speeches emphasizing their twofold nature of addressing another dramatic character as well as the audience. In his essay, "Antony in Behalf of the Play" (1935), maybe the wittiest one of the volume, Burke demonstrates how his idea of "dramatism" works. Here, Burke, like a ventriloquist, uses Mark Antony as his dummy, and presents his famous speech (Julius Caesar, Act 3, scene 2) to the Roman mob in first person singular, in a meta-theatrical context revealing (and betraying) Antony's manipulative behaviour as well as the relevance of the speech to today's spectators. Similarly, the poetic and dramaturgical fulfillment of audience expectation is analyzed, for instance, in his essays on King Lear (1969) and his "Notes on Macbeth" (1975-82).

At this point it is worth devoting a few sentences to Burke's most well-known essay, the above mentioned "Othello: An Essay to Illustrate a Method" since it includes many of Burke's key concepts like "ritual" (the underlying ritualistic nature of poetry), "psychosis," "character" (Shakespeare's dramatic characterization as opposed to novelistic), "paradox of substance" (the philosophical implications of "property" in a character's identification), and "entelechy" (taken from Aristotle, this concept refers to the seed containing the whole plant; Burke uses it for a play's beginning or ending).

He views the play as "an initiation into a mystery" (74), and regards possession as the central motive in Othello. Informed by psychoanalysis, he asserts that Iago plays the role of the scapegoat, who eventually serves as an objective location for Othello's uneasiness, and thus his vice is instrumental in the catharsis of the audience. He expands on the workings of initiation and catharsis in an act-by-act dramaturgical analysis of the play.

He also argues for the ritualistic and therefore symbolic nature of Shakespeare's characterization laying special emphasis on Shakespeare's dramatic turn of mind as opposed to A. C. Bradley's "novelistic portraiture" (85). According to Burke, Shakespeare's characters seem fragmentary only because he was thinking in terms of drama, not novel, and therefore Bradley's novelistic criterion of "well-roundedness" cannot be called to account. This is just one example of Burke's critical dialogue with the contemporary literary scene; another, more extended, example being "Imagery" (1937), an essay commenting on Caroline Spurgeon's seminal book, Shakespeare's Imagery.

Many of the so far mentioned features can be traced in Burke's 1964 lecture, "Shakespeare Was What?"; therefore, the editor places it in an introductory chapter, out of the chronological order. Here, Burke explains his understanding of Shakespeare as a man of social awareness who discussed the transition from feudalism to capitalism with sensitivity to the problems of social order and injustice. He also emphasizes Shakespeare's poetic power to make the audience see what he is talking about, and that he is primarily concerned with the dramatistic nature of Shakespeare's art, the way he "is shaping [scene by scene] the patterns of our expectation" (14). Especially the way the first (and last) scene of a play encapsulates the whole plot ("entelechy").

Burke's ideas are classically framed, with a wide range of academic knowledge. It is his synthesizing approach that makes his essays worth reading for scholars as well as students, even though his insistence on Shakespeare as a socialist thinker or his discussion of Shakespeare's works in terms of tension between classes may understandably discourage some Central-Eastern European readers at first sight. But if we give a second chance to Burke, he will most probably convince us that his thoughts can still be instructive to several fields of research such as communications theory, new historicism, iconology, or drama theory. Even though from a postmodern perspective some aspects of Burke's critical approach, like the search of the playwright's intention, has been superseded, Burke's writings cogently establish many of the notions which have subsequently been built into and are still used by current scientific trends.

As a final point, Newstok's conscientious editorial work has to be mentioned again as the greatest merit of this collection. He provides those interested in Burke's Shakespeare oeuvre with all necessary information, and, consequently, his book achieves its goal to call our attention to the literary achievement of a versatile modernist scholar whose idiosyncratic approach has had an impact, although indirectly, on many later scholars.

Publisher: Pázmány University Electronic Press - Budapest, ISSN 1785-6515
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