Friday, November 23, 2007

"Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare"

Scott Newstok is Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Rhodes College and editor of Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare, an annotated volume of "all of the Shakespeare criticism, including previously unpublished lectures and notes, by the maverick American intellectual Kenneth Burke."

Newstok applied the Page 69 Test to the book and reported the following:
Kenneth Burke (1897–1993) meditated at length on the need for selecting a “representative anecdote” when creating any kind of critical vocabulary. Per the guidelines of the page 69 test, is the following passage ‘representative’ of his criticism? I’m the editor, rather than the author, of this book by a brilliant, idiosyncratic American thinker — one whose writings influenced later Shakespeare critics such as Northrop Frye, Harold Bloom, and Stephen Greenblatt. So I’m understandably reluctant to speak for him — although Burke himself made some ingenious ventriloquisms of characters in his Shakespeare criticism. In fact, page 69 of Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare derives from his landmark 1951 essay on Othello, a piece that was first drafted in the voice of Iago (fascinating 1930s versions are to be found at the Burke Papers at Penn State University). While he subsequently abandoned this approach, there are traces of it still present on this page. (Kenneth Gross, no stranger to such projective voicing himself, suggests that Auden’s “Caliban to the Audience” was perhaps inspired in part by Burke’s earlier example of speaking through Marc Antony in “Antony in Behalf of the Play.”) We find Burke here attempting to read roles in the play not as novelistic characters (contra A. C. Bradley — perhaps unfairly identified with this supposed Victorian impulse), but rather as positions, strained against one another; or as clusters, or even as functions. We also see Burke’s ‘socio-anagogic’ impulse, a desire to read Shakespeare as ingeniously absorbing contemporary social tensions and translating them, by analogy, into dramatic tensions. Finally, there is an emphasis on scapegoating, which RenĂ© Girard would later admire (and borrow) from Burke.

So, yes, there is much that is characteristically Burkean here — an anticipatory “whispering,” perhaps. Just take care not to term this a “psychoanalytic approach,” a later critic's reductive evaluation that purportedly made Burke weep.

From Page 69:

In sum, Desdemona, Othello, and Iago are all partners of a single conspiracy. There were the Enclosure Acts, whereby the common lands were made private; here is the analogue, in the realm of human affinity, an act of spiritual enclosure. And might the final choking be also the ritually displaced effort to close a thoroughfare, as our hero fears lest this virgin soil that he had opened up become a settlement? Love, universal love, having been made private, must henceforth be shared vicariously, as all weep for Othello’s loss, which is, roundabout, their own. And Iago is a function of the following embarrassment: Once such privacy has been made the norm, its denial can be but promiscuity. Hence, his ruttish imagery, in which he signalizes one aspect of a total fascination.

So there is a whispering. There is something vaguely feared and hated. In itself it is hard to locate, being woven into the very nature of “consciousness”; but by the artifice of Iago it is made local. The tinge of malice vaguely diffused through the texture of events and relationships can here be condensed into a single principle, a devil, giving the audience as it were flesh to sink their claw-thoughts in. Where there is a gloom hanging over, a destiny, each man would conceive of the obstacle in terms of the instruments he already has for removing obstacles, so that a soldier would shoot the danger, a butcher thinks it could be chopped, and a merchant hopes to get rid of it by trading. But in Iago the menace is generalized. (As were you to see man-made law as destiny, and see destiny as a hag, cackling over a brew, causing you by a spell to wither.)

In sum, we have noted two major cathartic functions in Iago: (1) as regards the tension centering particularly in sexual love as property and ennoblement (monogamistic love), since in reviling Iago the audience can forget that his transgressions are theirs; (2) as regards the need of finding a viable localization for uneasiness (Angst) in general, whether shaped by superhuman forces or by human forces interpreted as super-human (the scapegoat here being but a highly generalized form of the overinvestment that men may make in specialization). Ideally, in child- hood, hating and tearing-at are one; in a directness and simplicity of hatred there may be a ritual cure for the bewilderments of complexity; and Iago may thus serve to give a feeling of integrity.

These functions merge into another, purely technical. For had Iago been one bit less rotten and unsleeping in his proddings, how could this play have been kept going, and at such a pitch? Until very near the end, when things can seem to move “of themselves” as the author need but actualize the potentialities already massed, Iago has goaded (tortured) the plot forward step by step, for the audience’s villainous entertainment and filthy purgation.
Learn more about Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare at the publisher's website, and visit editor Scott Newstok's faculty webpage.

Check out the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue