Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare

By Darcy, Robert | Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, April 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare


Darcy, Robert, Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies


Kenneth Burke Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare. Ed. Scott L. Newstok. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press, 2007. 368 pp. $30. Reviewed by Robert Darcy

This collection of Kenneth Burke's complete writings on Shakespeare, gathered together for the first time in Scott Newstok's new edition, provides a welcome contribution to Shakespeare studies and preserves a previously endangered piece of the historical record of twentieth-century literary criticism. Newstok's "Editor's Introduction" orients the reader with admirable economy toward an encounter with Burke, summarizing the author's critical idiom and contextualizing his biography and reception as a critic who is part rhetorician, part theorist, and part dramaturg. The editorial introduction both advocates and apologizes for Burke, whose writings on Shakespeare are energetically earnest but often informal and even, at times, impishly playful. The cartoon caricature of Burke on the book's cover helps convey the spirit of engagement that the edition asks of its readers as they indulge the passionately quirky mind that Newstok aims to reveal and chronicle. The collection includes thirteen chapters and an additional "Introduction" (by Burke) entitled "Shakespeare Was What?", a previously unpublished address (delivered in 1964 at the University of Nebraska at Kearney) that doubles as a microcosmic primer of Burkean criticism, revealing both his style and his methodology. The thirteen chapters that follow are arranged chronologically, and two of these-"Notes" on Troilus and Cressida and Macbeth-have never been published before. Newstok's edition joins a body of recent publication of Burke's writing that has extended the life in print of this important American formalist. It also appears at a moment when some coherent version of a "new formalism" seems likely to emerge. An opportunity to revisit, or to begin again with, Burke is therefore exceptionally well timed alongside the "return to form" and the incipient debates about what that might mean for the profession.

Although a general familiarity with Burke's name and contribution to the field exists within Shakespeare studies, Newstok's edition essentially presents a new coherence to this body of writing. He brings together familiar articles with previously unpublished work, and he also includes chapters and essays from out-of-print books and now-defunct journals or reviews, such as The Dial and The New English Weekly. Burke's essay "Timon of Athens and Misanthropic Gold," for example, has apparently remained buried in the 1963 Laurel Shakespeare edition of the play, a resource most scholars would be unlikely to discover. Other important essays, such as Burke's "'Socio-anagogic' Interpretation of Venus and Adonis," a cogent psychoanalytic and Marxist reading of the poem that would be relevant for any classroom discussion of it today, remain entombed in Burke's obscurely titled and poorly indexed monographs (in this case, A Rhetoric of Motives [1950; 1969], now also out-of-print). Eight of the book's chapters, in fact, cannot be traced to their original sources through the MLA International Bibliography. The book's organization of previously scattered pieces of writing spanning more than four decades into successive chapters has a clarifying and totalizing effect for the reader, even if it necessarily limits exposure to Burke's thought and method by including only what he wrote about Shakespeare. Newstok's chronological arrangement of Burke's writings (with the single exception of the 1964 introductory essay) compels a reflection on the critic's theories and methods as contextualized by the larger history of twentieth-century literary criticism.

Perhaps the most pressing question generated by this new exposure to Burke is how to interpret and contextualize his relevance for a twenty-first century professional readership. What is to be done with Burke and his personality-rich brand of formalism, most of which predates the advent of poststructural theory? …

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