Readers of Kenneth Burke have noticed that among his many books and essays spanning nearly six decades there exists a “considerable corpus” of critical work on Shakespeare. Editor of Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare Scott Newstok reports that Burke himself had the idea to collect his varied Shakespearean analyses into a single volume. Newstok’s collection is a reference work that does just that: it collects the many critical treatments of Shakespeare to be found scattered among the decades and volumes of Burke’s work, both published and unpublished. In addition, it appends various allusions and mentions of Shakespeare throughout Burke, and in a prefacing essay, editor Scott Newstok reviews commentary about Burke-on-Shakespeare and Burke’s own words about his interest in the Bard.
Three questions occur to me to ask about such a work: Is it a worthy project? Was the project well executed? Does it make some unique contribution to scholarly work?
At face value, this collection is a neat idea. Perhaps if Burke’s extensive work with Shakespeare were not scattered across the texts and decades, not to mention embroiled and embroidered in Burke’s famously difficult theoretical criticism, then Shakespearean scholars might make more use of him and Burke might have a more prominent place among them. The problem may be how clear and accessible is Burke’s criticism and how intelligible is his scholarship—whether on Shakespeare or any other of his army of examples—without some understanding of the complex theoretical “system” that Burke was constantly building with his critical treatments?
The question of utility boils down to a question about for whom this work will be useful. Many of the committed (or fetishistic) scholars of Burke perhaps will not want or need to duplicate their collections, and many Shakespearean scholars will not be so sanguine about dealing with the knotty elements of Burke’s analyses. So be it. For the Burkean, however, there are materials here not readily found elsewhere, including references contained in Newstok’s introduction, the extensive bibliography, the opening lecture “Shakespeare Was What?” a later essay on King Lear, and the very useful appendix of Burke’s minor allusions to Shakespeare (finding things in Burke’s index-free books is always a challenge). And the Shakespearean may well find Burke’s criticism entertaining and edifying quite apart from the larger critical system: His delightful reading of the opening scene of Hamlet or the clever interpretation of Anthony’s speech in Julius Caesar, for instance, depend only on the notoriety of the examples. Later essays on specific texts such as Coriolianus seem to stand on their own more than some of the earlier excerpts from Burke. It is also true that anyone who’s been reading postmodern criticism can quit avoiding Burke’s comparative “difficulty” and begin to discover how refreshing much of his writing truly is.
In terms of the execution of the task, I have not combed through Burke’s enormous corpus to check on Newstok’s thoroughness, but it seems especially complete and detailed. This includes Newstok’s introductory essay which weaves together a great deal of commentary by Burke and others on the role of Shakespeare in Burke’s work and Burke’s contribution to Shakespearean studies. The essay appears more inclined to impress upon Burke scholars that Newstok knows his Burke and his biography—and it succeeds at this—than to be explanatory and inviting to persons interested in Shakespeare coming upon Burke for the first time. It’s hard to fault scholars for what they don’t do, yet I find myself imagining an essay that deals more directly with why the “word man” Burke, in pursuit of a master aesthetics and transformative poetics, might find in Shakespeare a kind of master text, why Shakespeare’s works might represent for Burke a kind of ultimate dictionary of verbal and formal technique (as in Lexicon Rhetoricae), and why writing in the days Burke did might require him to prove himself in virtuoso readings of these academically sacred texts. Newstok might properly reply that now that he’s done his work, it will be much easier for Payne or for anyone else wanting to write such an essay to do so, and that his volume should serve to encourage those efforts. I think he wins that argument.
And this, at last, answers the question about the contribution of this work to scholarship. It should preserve and make accessible Burke’s works with Shakespeare to a broader audience, it should serve as a reference text for Burke scholars who want to find, elaborate, or revisit his various uses of Shakespeare, and one hopes it invites more and more scholars into direct relationship with Burke’s texts and theories. It need not do more.
— David Payne, University of South Florida