Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Gerald Chapman: "Burke on Shakespeare"

Gerald Chapman
University of Denver

Book Review

Scott L. Newstok, ed., Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare, Parlor Press (West Lafayette, Indiana, 2007), 307 pp. ISBN: 978-1-60235-002-1. $32.00 (USD).

1> Kenneth Burke seems always in rediscovery, justly so. The last five years alone produced two collections of private letters, one of them with William Carlos Williams, an edition of the late essays (1967-1984), an edition of the late poems (1968-1993 the year of Burke’s death), and publication of all the prose fiction gathered for the first time and introduced by Denis Donoghue. Last year added an edition of all the literary reviews and an extension of the philosophic canon in Essays Toward a Symbolic of Motives, 1950-1955 in which William Rueckert, the doyen of Burke studies, pieced together what remains among Burke’s papers of an unfinished third book of the Motivorum trilogy. Now Scott Newstok has made available for the first time Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare, a project that Burke himself long intended. In addition to the magisterial “Othello: An Essay to Illustrate a Method” (1951), the long essay of which Burke was most proud, as well as “Coriolanus—the Delights of Faction” (1966), Newstok brings together all the scattered essays, lectures, or chapters on Shakespeare, some hard to find. While glancing at other plays, they engage directly all the major tragedies, two comedies, and Venus and Adonis. He also has found a previously unpublished lecture “Shakespeare Was What?” and extensive unpublished typescript notes on Troilus and Cressida and Macbeth. In several footnotes he quotes alternative draft passages or omissions from the essays as published. Finally, if that were not riches enough, Newstok has appended more than fifty pages of Additional References, every comment on Shakespeare large or small in Burke’s published writings from 1921 to the 1980’s. This is lasting scholarship, a book for the permanent shelf.

2> In his own introduction, entitled “Renewing Kenneth Burke’s ‘plea for the Shakespearean drama,’” Newstok explores the place of Burke in Shakespeare criticism and at the same time queries just what character of mind accounts for the surprising omnirelevance of Burke to so many diverse perspectives as Harold Bloom and Edward Said, Stanley Cavell and Joel Fineman, Marjorie Garber and Jonathan Goldberg, René Girard and Frank Kermode (a footnote continues a list of over 40 Renaissance literary scholars).

3> Born the same year as Faulkner, Burke belonged to “the first apprentice generation,” in Hugh Kenner’s discerning phrase, of American Modernist writers whose “homemade worlds” hammered out a new poetic. His ambition as poet and fiction writer, though never entirely abandoned, was displaced sometime in the 1930’s when he discovered his métier as a systematic philosopher exploring concretely how language as “symbolic action” constructs all the dramas of the human animal. Long before his death at ninety-six, he loomed for many as one of the great experiencing natures in the American 20th-Century, a voice of passionate integrity and counter-statement in a line from Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and William James. And throughout his long journey Burke turned repeatedly to Shakespeare as mentor and paradigm of intelligence working at the height of known possibilities with language. In a lecture on A Midsummer Night’s Dream he marveled at “the wondrous constructive rationality of the word, so masterfully embodied in Shakespeare’s blithe dramaturgic schemings,” “the astonishing rationality” even in A Midsummer Night’s Dream “with which he put together his things of the imagination . . . . For what he believed in above all was the glory of the trade [of playwrighting] itself, which is to say, the great humaneness of the word, and the corresponding search throughout the range of all its aptitudes.” If this is bardolatry, it is a practical kind. “Shakespeare’s theater is, from start to finish, a masterful enterprise in the arts of persuasion,” he remarks in an essay on Coriolanus, but persuasion that belongs to a poetics of playmaking, not to politics. Burke is nonpareil as a rhetorician detecting how Shakespeare slyly maneuvers the expectations and sympathies of an audience. But his larger goal lifelong is more philosophic: theoretical formulation of just what went on in Shakespeare’s productive consciousness as he arrived at decisions for the texts as we have them.

4> For a sample of originality and experimentation, consider the essay “King Lear: Its Form and Psychosis” (1969), announced as a sequel to the earlier essay on Coriolanus. Remembering how as a young man he had been “shaken to the roots” when he first saw the tragedy in performance, Burke, now seventy-two, asks why such intense catharsis from a play of so many absurdities, which he lists. Often in discussing tragedy Burke touches base with Aristotle in the Poetics and the Rhetoric, but now he also cites Tertullian’s theological dictum credo quia absurdum for an “aesthetic analogue”: It is “precisely by straining our credulity to the limits” accompanied by a preposterous speed-up of events onstage that Shakespeare maneuvers his audience, as if in ritual, to an “attitude of complete surrender” to belief in the mystery of the tragedy, which is about surrender, abdication of identity, relinquishment of authority even over oneself. The essay proceeds in stages of increasing philosophic generality. Moving on from aesthetic particulars, Burke stipulates that a play by Shakespeare, as if by recipe, taps into a “social psychosis” that his audience in the outside world inhabits and believes to be reality, and that intelligent Shakespeare, who thoroughly understands it, can transform into pleasure for the stage. “Psychosis” is of course a provocative term, even puckish, but has no easy equivalent: in the essay on Coriolanus it is a “set of ethical quandaries” pervading some “unresolved tension typical of a given social order (or of life in general).” Since the 19th century, for example, a technological psychosis has accelerated throughout the modern world. A hierarchical psychosis underlies the class conflicts between privileged and underprivileged in Coriolanus but also, more gently, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A Judeo-Christian psychosis energizes The Merchant of Venice. In Othello is a psychosis of love as spiritual ownership, implicit for example in monogamous love when a beloved is felt to be property. And Lear is founded upon a “psychosis of authority pure and simple” in which representations of identity and loyalty are distributed through “a spectrum of differentiated roles.” As Burke remarks elsewhere, Shakespeare knew “even more thoroughly than Plato, how any given idea would behave, when translated . . . into a scattering of personalities.” The temptation to treat Shakespeare’s incomparable characters, say Cordelia or Kent or even Oswald, as “living people” overlooks the fact that they also are “derived” from one another to meet requirements of the plot: the more you study them, the more they dissolve into “the functioning of the work as a whole.” Generalizing one step higher in the essay, Burke pursues Shakespeare’s working consciousness to a philosophic universal prior to drama as such or any social order, what in several essays he terms “the paradox of substance”: “the puzzle at the basis of all drama, as it is in life” that our personal identity, yours and mine, is “indistinguishably woven” into extrinsic things: offices (such as kingship or general of the army), situations, relationships, events, with which we become “identified.” When such identifications are stripped away, or proved a lie, we can find ourselves like Lear, like Othello, peering “over the abyss into the region of pure abstract loneliness.” Or put another way, a whole cast of characters is needed if Lear or Othello is to “be himself” in the play.

5> This is the halfway mark of the essay. Having arrived at a root belief and perception that Shakespeare “must have had” when he started a play, Burke now executes a stunning volte-face. Starting himself from the paradox of substance, and holding in view the “socio-psychotic situation” that he knows the end-product will explore, and drawing in concepts of tragic ritual, scapegoat, catharsis elsewhere discussed, Burke “generates” one by one the dramatis personae, themes, and plot of King Lear just as, by a sequential logic of requirement, Shakespeare might have thought them out step by step as he worked (“as if Shakespeare had said to himself” so and so, and then so and so). Burke calls his method, which he applies to plays elsewhere and for which he owns the patent, “prophesying after the event” (from another theological term vaticinium post eventum). There is no substitute of course for reading the last half of his essay in all its astonishing detail.

6> The many challenging books, including a spate of recent ones, on Shakespeare’s “thought” or Shakespeare as “thinker” are rarely the work of philosophers, Stanley Cavell excepted. Burke is a unique philosophic voice, and a common experience of his readers is to be startled by a sudden leap of theoretical formulation that opens and leaves open-ended a whole new line for possible thought. While illuminating Shakespeare’s texts with imaginative intimacy and fresh attention, Burke is also “doing” philosophy as he goes: Shakespeare is not just a subject for investigation, but a leading partner in discovery.

Gerald Chapman, Professor of English Emeritus, University of Denver, scholar of Renaissance and 18th-century English studies, Department Chair for twelve years, has also taught at Northwestern, Harvard, and the University of Texas.

APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture,, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume One (2008): Genres & Cultures

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