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Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare


Edited by Scott L. Newstok


West Lafayette, Indiana: Parlor Press, 2007

Paperback. lv + 307 pages. ISBN 978-1602350021. $32.00


Reviewed by Charles Whitworth

Université Paul Valéry-Montpellier III



Kenneth Burke (1897-1993) belonged to that extraordinary generation of American writers—novelists, poets, dramatists, critics—and artists, born in the last decade of the nineteenth century: Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Henry Miller, e.e. cummings, Hart Crane, Allen Tate, Archibald McLeish, John Peale Bishop, Edmund Wilson, Malcolm Cowley, Caroline Gordon, Zora Neale Hurston, among others (not to mention such legends as Mae West, Oliver Hardy, Duke Ellington and Babe Ruth). Burke knew and corresponded with many of these, published—or rejected—their stories, poems and reviews in journals for which he served as an editor (music as well as literature); and published his own, in staggering numbers, in such national periodicals as The Dial, The Nation, Saturday Review and The New Republic, and in the most prestigious literary magazines (Hudson Review, Kenyon Review, Southern Review, Sewanee Review, Hound and Horn, etc.). Long-lived and prolific, he exercised remarkable influence on his own and subsequent generations of authors and critics, including not least, academic Shakespeare scholars. Burke was a man of letters, not just a literary critic, in the noble tradition. He published poetry and short stories as well as countless essays and reviews. Rhetoric and aesthetics were his main fields of interest: he has been hailed as the greatest rhetorician since Cicero. His vast Motivorum trilogy is a monument in the twentieth-century American theoretical landscape: A Grammar of Motives (1945), A Rhetoric of Motives (1950), Essays Toward a Symbolic of Motives (written 1950-55, published 2007). Other works enjoyed wide circulation on college reading lists: The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action (1941; most widely read in the revised, abridged Vintage Books edition of 1957), which includes some of his classic essays: “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’ ”, Burke’s celebrated review of Mein Kampf first published in The Southern Review in 1939; “Antony in Behalf of the Play”, The Southern Review, 1935, one of the essays reprinted in the volume under review here. Another popular success was The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology (1961). Besides reviewing and interviewing his contemporaries, Burke wrote extensively on Coleridge and Wordsworth, and on Marx and Freud. And Shakespeare.

Shakespeare remained at the heart of Burke’s critical thinking and writing throughout his long career. Newstok is surely right to observe that “Burke’s enduring familiarity with Shakespeare likely helped shape his own theory of ‘Dramatism’, an ambitious elaboration of the theatrum mundi conceit” [xvii]. And, on the same page: “Burke’s first and last pieces of literary criticism both examine Shakespearean plays, thereby acting as bookends to an impressive, decades-long contribution to the field of Shakespeare studies.” None of Burke’s dozen or so monographs, however, is devoted to Shakespeare. His own project to gather his scattered writings on Shakespeare into a single volume never materialized [lv, note]. It is rather in essays and occasional lectures that he exercised his rhetorician’s skills on the plays and poems. Like many other non-academic critics, Burke was drawn more to the tragedies than to the comedies. Notwithstanding, one of his best-known essays is the very short, very sharp “Trial Translation (from Twelfth Night)”, 1933. This, like several of the other pieces in Scott Newstok’s volume, is really a note. The short article “Imagery” (six pages), in part a commentary upon (though not a review of) Caroline Spurgeon’s Shakespeare’s Imagery (1935), was first published in A Dictionary of Pivotal Terms (1937). Among his very latest critical writings are the “Notes on Macbeth”, assembled from several lectures, and published in the present volume, posthumously, for the first time. Over several decades then, Kenneth Burke read, thought and wrote about Shakespeare, from outside the walls of academe (though he held many short-term visiting lectureships and writer-in-residence posts). The pieces assembled by Scott Newstok are the sum of that lifelong preoccupation. The first, considerable, merit of the volume is thus to render to readers Burke the Shakespearean; prior to its publication, one had to search the voluminous periodical literature and collections like The Philosophy of Literary Form or A Rhetoric of Motives to track down the isolated pieces of Shakespeariana in Burke’s vast, diffuse corpus.

Furthermore, three of the fourteen pieces printed here are published for the first time. For that service alone, Newstok deserves thanks. They are Burke’s 1964 lecture given at Kearney State College, Nebraska, positioned here as an introduction, “Shakespeare Was What?”; “Notes on Troilus and Cressida”; and “Notes on Macbeth”. Other essays, previously published in The Dial, The Hudson Review, The Antioch Review, Shenandoah or Shakespeare Quarterly, deal with Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, King Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or with subjects like “Psychology and Form” (The Dial, 1925). “ ‘Socio-anagogic’ Interpretation of Venus and Adonis” was first published in A Rhetoric of Motives. “Timon of Athens and Misanthropic Gold” appeared as a commentary in CJ Sisson’s Laurel Shakespeare edition of the play (1963). The 1972 lecture, “Why A Midsummer Night’s Dream?” was published posthumously in Shakespeare Quarterly (Vol. 37, no. 3; Fall 2006), with an introductory note by Newstok. Scattered writings indeed. “Othello: An Essay to Illustrate a Method” (Hudson Review, 1951), at thirty-five pages by far the longest piece included in the volume, was also certainly the most far-reaching in its impact upon academic critics and students. But it is not for that essay alone that critics as diverse as Harold Bloom, Stanley Cavell, René Girard, Stephen Greenblatt and Patricia Parker, among many others, have acknowledged his influence. Greenblatt’s eloquent homage is particularly quoteworthy: “Age cannot wither Kenneth Burke’s reflections on Shakespeare which are as fresh, vital and quirky now as when they first appeared. This volume would be worth having for the celebrated essays on Othello and King Lear alone …”

Scott Newstok’s meticulously-edited collection however contains even more than the 200 pages of Burke’s lectures and essays. The editor’s forty-page Introduction, “Renewing Kenneth Burke’s ‘plea for the Shakespearean drama’ ” constitutes a critical essay in its own right on Burke the Shakespearean. The seven pages of notes and eleven-page bibliography (which covers the Burke essays as well as the Introduction) bear witness to the editor’s scholarly enterprise. The essays are followed by an Appendix: fifty-five more pages of “Additional References to Shakespeare in Burke’s Writings”, helpfully arranged chronologically under the titles of the works in which they occur. Ferreting out these references, from snippets of a few lines to commentaries of several pages, in publications that appeared over some eighty years, is sleeves-up bibliographical research at the coal face. The twenty-eight pages of notes to Burke’s essays are followed, first, by an “Index of Works by Shakespeare”, covering the editor’s Introduction as well as the essays. Not surprisingly, Bradley’s four great tragedies and the Roman plays loom largest, and there are the few comedies mentioned in essay or lecture titles, plus Venus and Adonis, and briefly, the English histories, The Merchant of Venice, Measure for Measure, The Tempest, Troilus and Cressida, Titus Andronicus. The sonnets get a few passing mentions. Little else, though The Phoenix and the Turtle makes a cameo appearance, if only in an “Additional Reference”. Finally, a ten-page “General Index” bears witness to Burke’s vast culture: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Spinoza and Hobbes vie for pride of place with Freud, Marx, Ibsen, Wagner, Homer and Aeschylus. Also Tertullian, Quintilian—and Cicero. Homme de lettres s’il en fut.

It will be clear from the foregoing that the publication of Scott Newstok’s beautifully-edited volume of Kenneth Burke’s collected Shakespeare criticism is, in the opinion of this reviewer, a very welcome event. Scholars, academic critics and students need frequently to be reminded that there is a world of Shakespeare criticism, infinitely rich and evocative, elsewhere also.



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