Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare

Scott Newstok, editor of Kenneth Burke On Shakespeare, asked if I would review his book.  This would be a challenge, and I said as much.  I’m no academic, I’m a computer geek.  To put it simply, I have no idea who Kenneth Burke was.  His wikipedia page contains only a single passing reference to Shakespeare (as “lifelong interpreter”, whatever that means), and all the other reviews on Amazon I found said things like “I learned who he was when my roommate in graduate school introduced me to him.”  No help there!  But with that understanding I agreed to take a look at Scott’s book. A quick scan of the book shows that it is truly dedicated to the academic crowd that wants more information about Burke’s work.  Over 1/3rd of the book’s 300 pages are dedicated to Appendices and Notes of various sorts, as well as a hefty index.  That’s not counting the liberal footnotes throughout the book.  There is no biography to speak of, other than a token “About the author” paragraph on the last page.  The introduction goes into great detail about *what* he analyzed, and why and how.  But never do I get any sort of biographical sense of the man and why Shakespeare came into his life at all. In my research I learned that Burke is most famous for his essays (the book is divided into 13 such essays) on Othello and King Lear, so I figured I’d start there.  Not so much.  I can’t understand a word that man is saying.  “Iago As Katharma”, the Othello piece begins.  As what?  On the next page I’m to learn that “katharma” is a Greek word meaning “that which is thrown away in cleansing.”  That is but one example.  One essay is entitled “Socio-anagogic interpretation of Venus and Adonis.”  Yeah, good luck with that.  Maybe those are the kinds of things to make a graduate student sit up and take notice, but they make my eyes glaze over. On recommendation, though, I checked out a very different essay called “Anthony In Behalf of the Play.”  This one I found fascinating.  In it, Burke writes in the voice of Anthony the character, explaining his purpose in the play as a whole.  I learned quickly that this was apparently Burke’s common theme, focusing on the “meta play” and delving into why it did what it did, what a given scene or character was supposed to invoke in the audience.  So as Anthony he explains to the audience that his job is to help the audience figure out what they’re supposed to feel.  Is Caesar a good guy, or a bad guy?  He’s the title character, after all.  Cassius and the conspirators have taken great pains to show how horrible Caesar is, and yet, Cassius and crew are bad guys.  So what should you, the audience, be thinking right now?  I, as Anthony, will walk you through it.  Anthony becomes in Burke’s words a “plot substitute” for Caesar.  Since Anthony is a good guy, we will emotionally attach ourselves to him in Caesar’s absence. The great thing about this essay is that it totally makes sense, it flows naturally, and I could easily see an English professor doing exactly such a thing to explain the play to his class.   I immediately started looking for other such casual essays in the book.   The introductory chapter, entitled “Shakespeare Was What?” was a similar treat to read, although not quite as easy to follow.  I love, for example, how the opening like from Burke is to say right off, “Look, I’m not going to read Shakespeare’s private life into his work.  I can’t find any evidence of it, and even if there were, surely he punched it up a bit anyway.”  He even dives right into the question of homosexuality, claiming that he’s not at all squeamish about it.  (It also did not go unnoticed by me that Burke makes a connection between Shakespeare and  Boolean algebra in regard to the invention of computers :).  As a computer geek I immediately spotted that. :)) One last thing. The Notes section is quite fun to read.  These are the brief explanatory comments added by the editor where it was necessary to clarify what Burke meant.  I actually learned what “socio-anagogic” means!  Apparently Burke made that word up.  But, I also learned that Christopher Marlowe was an English playwright and poet.  Really?  In this book, about this subject, we needed a comment about who Christopher Marlowe was?  And that’s the line we get?   I suppose it makes sense in the overall structure.  I mean, a comment by Burke that just says “the celestial and bookish imagery of Marlowe” merits some note about who he’s talking about.  I’m just used to the sort of book that would just go ahead and make a Marlowe comment right there inline.   In the end, I can’t change my original position – I am not the audience for this book.  It’s not the kind of thing I can read cover to cover, and I don’t ever see myself confidently speaking on Burke and his writing.  It has, however, introduced me to the topic.  And I did learn some things.  From other reviews that I’ve read (mostly to get references to Burke’s body of work), this particular compilation is different in its inclusion of those more casual essays that I found so fascinating.   I’m left wondering if an entire book could have been made out of the ones like that, or if those were the only ones Burke did.  For that matter, perhaps a more dedicated student of this stuff doesn’t see the same distinction I do, and reads the Othello piece with the same appreciation that I read the Anthony one. I think that the sheer breadth of content that Scott has managed to pack into this reasonably sized paperback (I carry it in my backpack) is very impressive.  Just because I’m not as familiar with the topic doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the work that’s gone into it.  If you’re looking for a single volume that cuts across a a wide sampling of everything Burke had to say on the subject of Shakespeare, this one might be worth checking out. 

3 thoughts on “Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare

  1. Have you read “Me and Shakespeare, Adventures with the Bard” by Herman Gollob? A Jewish editor from Texas and New Jersey, who discovers Shakespeare after he retires and starts teaching Shakespeare classes to seniors in New Jersey. He also tries to discover the Talmudic influence in King Lear. (not just the Biblical influence, but the Talmudic. I assume he means the first 5 books which are the Mosaic books). There’s actually a LOT about the King Lear Play in this book. And he even does a three week course at Oxford University (UK) on Shakespeare. Its a much more readable book – a memoir and narrative. You might enjoy it. Doubleday Books 2002

  2. Thanks for the recommendation, Historia. I’ve actually got a stack to work through. I’m almost done with Bill Bryson, and I have to complete Shakespeare Wars one of these days. Then it’s on to Master of Verona. I did Burke as a favor to Scott, and to expand my horizons a bit :).

  3. Historia?

    How does Gollob account for a Talmudic influence on King Lear? The Talmud is a record of prominent rabbis’ discussions and interpretations of the laws set out in in the Tanakh or Jewish bible, and given that Jews had been forbidden from living in England for hundreds of years, the likelihood that Shakespeare had had substantial contact with Jewish religious and ethical deliberations, let alone a translation of Talmud into a language he could read is highly improbable.

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