Hunt, Maurice. Review of Scott L. Newstok, ed., Kenneth Burke on ShakespeareDiscoveries 25.2 (2008). 30 November 2008. <http://cstl-cla.semo.edu/reinheimer/ discoveries/archives/252/reviewHunt252pf.htm>

 

"This volume gathers and annotates all of the Shakespeare criticism, including previously unpublished notes and lectures, by the maverick American intellectual Kenneth Burke" (xvii). So begins editor Scott Newstok, in what amounts to a valuable contribution not just to Shakespeare studies but also to the history of American criticism of the Bard. In his "Editor's Introduction: Renewing Kenneth Burke's 'plea for the Shakespearean drama,'" Newstock places Burke in the context of literary commentary before and after the New Criticism and explains that Burke's determination not to become a university-employed Shakespeare scholar replete with endnotes apparently later cost him citation by the academy and a standing equal to Northrop Frye's and Wayne Booth's. Especially impressive are Newstok's painstaking collection of excerpts of Burke's references to the playwright throughout Burke's many non-Shakespearean writings and the editor's list of cited works pertinent to the Shakespearean Burke. This book includes, then, not only Burke's most important, well-known essays such as "Othello: An Essay to Illustrate a Method," "Timon of Athens and Misanthropic Gold," "Shakespearean Persuasion: Antony and Cleopatra," "Coriolanus-The Delights of Faction," and "King Lear: Its Form and Psychosis," but also lesser known pieces such as "Why A Midsummer Night's Dream?" "Antony on Behalf of the Play [Julius Caesar]," and "Trial Translation (from Twelfth Night)." Burke believed that theater was not simply a metaphor for life, but that life and language responded to "dramatistic" analysis based on shifting ratios within the pentad of act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose. Thus Burke felt he need not apologize for speaking in the first person as Orsino paraphrasing at length the first eighteen or so lines of Twelfth Night, or for speaking as "I" Antony in telling the reader directly how and why he masterfully created the rhetorical fireworks exploding among Caesar's assassins.

 

On the back of this paperback volume, Newstok has printed endorsements of his volume and the importance of Burke's Shakespeare criticism by Harold Bloom, Stephen Greenblatt,  Paul Alpers, Stanley Cavell, Patricia Parker, and William Pritchard. Only Harry Berger is missing from a list of major scholars who represent different critical methodologies in the study of Shakespeare, each of which was anticipated by the protean Burke before it became associated with a well-known scholarly name. Burke was essentially an Aristotelian interpreter. He believed that Shakespeare began his plays at the end, with the action--the motive--that he wanted the whole play in all its dramatic elements to realize. In Timon of Athens, this action focuses on the accumulation and loss of property and their effect on Timon; in King Lear, it centers on different senses of abdication, not just of the old but of the young as well. The playwright, to use Burke's word, builds up character according to "recipes," in which secondary characters are to be understood in their roles of contributing the necessary ingredients to realize the main character's contribution to the realization of the action. Shakespeare built up Alcibiades, Timon's false friends, and his steward Flavius, for example, to illuminate Timon's character as it accumulates and loses property. Burke maintained that the memorable tics of character especially valued by readers were added later by Shakespeare to "round out" characters  who almost always conform to types Burke could identify.

 

This Aristotelian methodology made Burke influential with Shakespeare and Spenser scholars such as Alpers and Berger and with subscribers to the University of Chicago Neo-Aristotelian School of Criticism who wanted to show how their authors line-by-line, stanza-by-stanza, rhetorically manipulated readers' responses. (Burke showed how Shakespeare built up character and dialogue to get readers to feel complex emotions in a certain order about the end toward which a work is driven.) By showing in a "paradox of substance" how characters were grounded in sociological terrain and how that terrain determined who they had become (and would be), Burke anticipated New Historicism and Cultural Materialism. A tinge of Marxism always remained in the colors of Burke's criticism, even though he forswore the far Left at the end of the 1930s and erased references to Communism in his writings during the early 1950s. Harry Berger could write about how Desdemona, Othello, and Iago are all co-conspirators because Kenneth Burke had once shown, better than anyone else, how Shakespeare's characters mutually "build up" each other in an entelechy. Burke's subtle explication of the slightly different but related meanings of the word "salt" in Othello (95) resembles the philological sensitivity of close-reading Patricia Parker, and most likely explains part of her blurb--that "she has been inspired by the example of Kenneth Burke for his repeated emphasis on the inseparability of language, rhetoric, and discourse from political and social issues." Fine praise, indeed, for a fine Shakespeare scholar now enshrined in a valuable single edition.

 


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