Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Scott Newstock (ed.), Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare (Parlor Press 2007)

Scott Newstock (ed.), Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare, Parlor Press 2007), ISBN: 978-1-60235-002-1. 308 pp. Pbk. £18

Reviewed by Shona McIntosh

[1]  Kenneth Burke’s criticism of Shakespeare often takes a distinctly corporeal form, as this collected volume of his writings on the Bard makes clear. His essay on Twelfth Night, a ventriloquistic piece in the ‘character’ of the Duke of Orsino, proclaims that ‘even in our frailest imaginings we must imagine with our bodies’ (34). For Burke, this bodily imagining often takes the form of hunger, as instanced by his repeated references to the dramatist’s manipulation of the audience’s ‘appetite’, and his motif of the ‘recipe’ for Shakespearean drama in which each character fulfils the role of an ingredient. Burke’s own cultural appetites are famously wide-ranging: Scott L. Newstok draws attention to this cultural omnivorism in his introduction, quoting R. P. Blackmur as saying ‘with perhaps as much admiration as censure, “I think that on the whole [Burke’s] method could be applied with equal fruitfulness either to Shakespeare, Dashiell Hammett, or Marie Corelli”, and pointing towards Wayne Booth’s adage that ‘his methods work as well on trash as on King Lear’ (xxvi). Any sense, however, that such a broad spectrum of interests leads to a lack of distinction on the part of the critic is disproved by his extended discussion of Macbeth in tandem with 1970s violent TV. Burke rants against the ‘TV Vulgarians’ as ‘the very Soul of Unimaginativeness’ (207), who can have no grasp of the oblique and poetic ways by which Shakespeare conveys the violence of Duncan’s murder with Lady Macbeth’s retrospective musing ‘Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?’. Burke’s focus on this phrase as an example of the way in which Shakespeare uses linguistic resources to convey such a corporeal experience as this excessively bloody murder is typical of his method throughout his career. All of these essays, spanning a time period from 1925 until 1983, return in one way or another to such questions of linguistic and dramatic embodiment.The emphasis on eating suggested by the ‘recipe’ motif also inevitably invokes its corollary, evacuating, as is most evident perhaps in his wonderful piece on Timon of Athens, reprinted here as Chapter 7, which picks apart the often violent imagery of consumption in this play to demonstrate how ‘eating is but an incipient stage of excretion, in the same motivational bin with offal and invective’ (112). Burke declares as an aside in another essay: ‘I respect shit, which is a good fertilizer [sic]’ (206), and it is perhaps this willingness to dig around (perhaps like Timon himself, although with different motives) in the dirty underbelly of Shakespearean plays that makes Burke such a rewarding critic. He resists any temptation towards Bardolatry and always insists on the playwright as above all an entertainer, working primarily for the satisfaction of his audience, ‘as customers who own some shares in love’ (115) for whom Shakespeare ‘will aggrandize their holdings, however modest, by running up the value of the stock in general’.

[2]  Burke’s fondness for Aristotle’s concept of entelechy, which he defines primarily as finding the seed of an ending indicated at an early stage in the play, informs much of his work. It can be seen in his suggestion above that eating is only an incipient form of excretion, and it is given explicit expression in a quotation from a private letter which Newstok uses as a section heading in his introduction: ‘I guess beginnings are logically the same thing as endings’ (xx). Perhaps for this reason, the ultimate ending of death is everywhere in these writings, proclaimed even on the front cover, which shows Burke sitting on a pile of playbooks examining a skull with a magnifying glass. Or, more accurately, he holds a magnifying glass up to the skull while directing a challenging gaze, eyebrows raised, towards his audience. This is an excellent summary of his typical manner of proceeding, highlighting the nuances of particular moments in Shakespeare, and challenging his own audience to make what they will of it. The centrality of death is one of these challenges, and the various ends to which this ultimate end can be put are well exemplified by ‘Trial Translation: Twelfth Night’, and ‘Antony in Behalf of the Play’, the two pieces in which Burke speaks as a Shakespearean character to draw attention to the dramatic strategies at work in each particular instance.

[3]  The knowledge of death coincides with the rhetorical manoeuvrings of a ruler in ‘Trial Translation’, as Burke comments on the first 18 lines of Twelfth Night, picking up on the ‘dying fall’ of the music which seems to move Orsino so effectively in line 4 and exposing the volte-face which the Duke enacts with his opening words. Burke’s Duke brings death into the picture almost immediately, talking of man’s ‘responsiveness to beginnings’ which ‘even (ironically enough) treats burial as a symbol of a birth-in-heaven’ (33). The imagery of the following paragraphs subconsciously harks back to this knowledge of burial as the final end, with its focus on feeding larvae, ‘ground […] stretching beneath fine rain’, and the symbolic meaning of ‘fall’ to people ‘whose heaven is above them and who are put to rot six feet under’ (34). This essay skilfully shows how Shakespeare’s Duke begins his speech with a disingenuous claim to passivity which, in his imagistic shift from sound to smell, is swiftly discarded as he assumes the active and aggressive pose of the huntsman about to give chase to a prey whose scent has caught in his nostrils. Burke’s own language mirrors this shift, as the passivity of burial drops out of focus in favour of a more visceral imagining of death as caught up in the violence of Elizabethan life – ‘a turbulent nation of brawlers and huntsmen’ (35) to whom a show of weakness verges dangerously on ‘invitation’. Such an audience must be intimidated with a show of virility if they are to be conquered, either politically or dramatically.

[4]  But of course, as Burke is well aware, the audience of brawlers and huntsmen also experience a desire to be conquered (in the playhouse at least). The active complicity of the audience in the violence and murder dealt out on stage is explored in ‘Antony in Behalf of the Play’, which shows the fatal consequences of the ‘invitation’ which Orsino makes sure to avoid. Caesar’s bodily weaknesses are listed: ‘he had the falling-sickness […], had a fever […], cried out as “a sick girl” […], his wife is barren […]. And worst, for an emperor, on a night of storm and portents he appeared on stage in his night-gown – so let him die’ (40). Noting that the audience’s complicity in Caesar’s murder is balanced by the limited sympathy which is nonetheless elicited from it, Burke’s Antony suggests to them that ‘in weeping for his death you will be sweetly absolved’ (42), but I suspect Burke himself knew this to be as ingenuous a pose as Orsino’s playing dead. The necessity of death and violence as ingredients in any play is also at work in his assessment of Othello which begins by examining the cathartic role of Iago, noting ‘Iago has done the play some service’ (66). His perception of any play as a form of conspiracy between dramatist and audience informs all of these essays and provides endless interpretative possibilities. He is also constantly aware of the various levels of the audience of which (and to which) he speaks, seeming to hold in mind at once the Elizabethan audience, current theatrical audiences, and the audiences for his own lectures, of which so many of these essays are essentially transcripts. This leaves the reader with a distinct sense of his or her own complicity in the appetites of which Burke speaks, continually demanding a self-reflexive interrogation of one’s own expectations and assumptions regarding Shakespeare.

[5]  In general, the essays speak to one another in a remarkably coherent fashion, as Burke’s preoccupations with certain issues recur, but each time offering new emphases or perspectives which prevent any sense of repetitiousness. The ‘Notes on Troilus and Cressida’, (Chapter 11), sits uneasily with the rest of the collection, however, being Burke’s note, not on the play itself, but on an essay about Troilus written for him by a student – what is reprinted here is distinctly fragmentary, omitting his comments on his student’s writing style but including statements such as ‘I’m having trouble trying to see the play your way’ (167). Not being privy to the original essay, this makes for a disjointed experience for the reader, and the slightly surreal feeling that one has strayed into some kind of Nabokovian hyper-text. Newstok’s notes throughout the whole edition also tend towards the intrusive. While it is an admirable aim to make this volume useable for students of all levels, it seems a little unnecessary to footnote Coleridge or Freud, and frankly ludicrous to have a footnote on page 24 explaining that William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was an ‘English dramatist’ (24 note 5). However, these are minor quibbles with what is otherwise a very successful collection, and Newstok, having pointed in the ‘Introduction’ to Burke’s slightly tangential relationship to the Academy, is clearly staking out his claim that Burke deserves to be fully acknowledged as a major figure in Shakespeare studies whose insights, particularly into the (ever popular) theme of the relationship between art and political power, can still be considered relevant. In this, Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare proves its editor entirely correct.

University of Glasgow, March 2009

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