Kenneth Burke. Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare. Ed. Scott L. Newstok. West Lafayette, Indiana: Parlor, 2007. lv+308pp. ISBN 978 1 60235 002 1.

Douglas Bruster
The University of Texas at Austin

Douglas Bruster. "Review of Kenneth Burke, Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare.".  Early Modern Literary Studies 14.1/Special Issue 18 (May, 2008) 9.1-9<URL:>.


1. So brilliant, idiosyncratic, frustrating, charming, and illuminating is Kenneth Burke’s writing—and often on the same page—that one is hard pressed to resist analogies that might somehow harness his complexity. “Aristotle on Amphetamines,” for starters. Or perhaps, to account for his odd mix of pragmatism and pure rhetorical theory, “The Unacknowledged Child of Thorstein Veblen and Jacques Derrida.” Or imagine listening to a crazy uncle in his cups; in the midst of tipsy reminiscences about the New Deal, you hear him utter seven or eight stunning things about life that change the way you see things forever. That is what reading Burke feels like: attending to someone brighter than us whose brazen engagements with any idea or text are, in their intelligence, always a bit humbling.

2. Many know of Kenneth Burke’s writings from a distance, having seen well-thumbed copies of his works on the shelves of libraries or secondhand-book stores, or having invoked (with or without reading it first) his famous essay “Literature as Equipment for Living” (1938) in a classroom defense of literary education. For an increasing number of academics, however—and particularly for those in the field of composition studies—Burke is no longer some cultish figure of coterie admiration, but one of the twentieth century’s major critics and theorists.

3. This renaissance has been spurred recently by four editions of Burke’s writings from Parlor Press, of which the volume under review here, Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare, is one. Scott L. Newstok’s welcome and exhaustively researched collection of Burke’s writings on Shakespeare features essays written from 1925 through approximately 1982 (born in McKinley’s first term, Burke would die in Clinton’s), with over fifty additional pages of shorter references to Shakespeare that appear in Burke’s work (and, in one case, transcriptions of his handwritten responses to a student essay on Troilus and Cressida). Presented in order of their composition, the essays forming the body of the collection deal with Hamlet, Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar, Venus and Adonis, Othello, Timon of Athens, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, King Lear, Troilus and Cressida, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Macbeth.

4. As this list may suggest, Burke is more interested in tragedy than comedy. In fact, his two forays into comedy—the essays on Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night Dream—are surprisingly weak when compared with the dazzling treatments of Shakespeare’s tragedies, where Burke feels most comfortable analyzing the actions of elite speakers. This is not to say that Burke’s Aristotelianism renders him a prig; far from it. His early immersion in Marxist theory gave him a lifelong penchant for seeing power not only from behind but also from under its operations. Too, the dawning religions of celebrity and charisma in the 1920s and 1930s made a focus on powerful figures seem natural. His early ventriloquism of Orsino’s opening speech in Twelfth Night, for instance, came the same year as the Reichstag fire, and Burke’s interest in commanding speeches would be apparent both in essays like that on Julius Caesar and in his famous treatment of “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’” (1939). Whatever the cause, Burke’s criticism is so much stronger on the tragedies that such asks us to ask whether that imbalance doesn’t reveal something crucial about his critical practice.

5. By distilling all of Burke’s writing on a single corpus, Newstok’s collection helps us identify that practice in a way that we might not be able to when confronted by the twelve hundred pages of the “Motivorum” triology: A Grammar of Motives (1945), A Rhetoric of Motives (1950), and Essays Toward a Symbolic of Motives, 1950-1955 (2007). Were Burke’s theories confined to this trilogy, a reader might be able to express confidence in somehow “knowing” Burke. But the scattered nature of Burke’s writings makes it nearly impossible for the non-specialist to feel any such mastery. Thus Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare works as a crystallizing force upon the Burke canon. In fact, along with the concentrated readings of Shakespeare, Newstok’s concise introduction and bibliography here (xvii-l) form the single best guide to Burke’s methodology I have encountered.

6. Readers just picking up Burke would do well to start with this volume’s introduction, especially the three-page section titled “Dramatis Personae,” where Newstok defines key terms and players (as it were) in the mini-dramas that are Burke’s essays. Thereafter, a nugatory version of Burke’s practice can be gleaned from his short essay on Venus and Adonis (56-64), wherein “the goddess, boy, and boar represent three different motivational classes,” with “goddess . . . to mortal as noblewoman is to commoner” (59). Following this essay, readers might take up “Antony in Behalf of the Play” (38-48), where Burke channels Stanislavsky and Burbage to explore the motivational rhetoric between character/player and Elizabethan audience as it unfolds in act 3, scene 2 of Julius Caesar. The crown jewel in this collection, however, is its more difficult but tremendously rewarding sixth chapter, “Othello: An Essay to Illustrate a Method” (65-100). Originally published in 1951, Burke’s essay contains what seems like a lifetime’s worth of sensitivity to Shakespeare, with nearly every page bearing a profound insight into Shakespeare’s craft.

7. Something like a book-in-miniature, this interpretation of Othello resists easy summary, for (as his title points out) Burke calls upon Shakespeare’s play to illustrate his way of reading. Convinced that the psychic energy Desdemona disturbs in us draws upon “motives outside the play” (68) as well as in it, he locates those formations in the early modern practice of enclosure, “whereby the common lands were made private” (69). Burke’s implication is that the tragic scene of Othello plays out a kind of fort-da game by which the theater audience comes to understand the human costs of private property and possessiveness. Burke sees Othello as offering a ritualistic solution to a public problem (that of appropriation and engrossment), and goes on to map the structure of this ritual with a sequence-template that holds for the five acts of Shakespearean tragedy in general: (I) “the way in;” (II) “the definite pushing-off from shore;” (III) “the withinness-of-withinness;” (IV) the “pity act;” (V) the “separating out” (75-77).

8. In this essay, as in his criticism generally, Burke draws upon Marxism, formalism, structuralism, psychoanalysis, rhetorical theory, and anthropology, seamlessly weaving together an interpretation that transcends these fields precisely because they are dedicated to the name of action. In fact, with his concern for literary function, for the “steps” and “arrows” that lead us (and the work) forward, Burke sometimes strikes one as an example of that most cherished of mid-twentieth century figures, the industrial efficiency expert. There are moments here, in fact, where one imagines Burke, standing before a gigantic whiteboard, reverse-engineering the workings of a Shakespeare play (“prophecy after the event,” in his words [xix]) so as better to comprehend the manufacturer’s design.

9. Whether we see him as a genius in a lab coat or a loquacious bureaucrat in a gray flannel suit—in truth he is a bit of both—Burke seems a character that Pynchon would have created had he not actually lived. Burke’s first job at The Dial was to set type for T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (significantly, Virginia Woolf would perform this labor on the other side of the Atlantic). He lived long enough that, during his essay on Macbeth he breaks off into a multi-page diatribe on the effect of television violence on children (206-8). A through-line in this long and idiosyncratic career was his fascination with Shakespeare’s works. We are fortunate that this was so, and to have Newstok’s collection, for it confirms with the rigor of the best editions Burke’s lasting contributions to Shakespeare studies.

Works Cited