Once upon a time, I’d guess 1989 or 90, I was at a conference attended by some former students of Kenneth Burke (1887-1993). One asked another how the old man was doing, and the reply was that Burke was bitter, because he felt that many “new” ideas that were circulating were little more than what he’d written years ago, and he wasn’t being properly recognized. At the time, what little I knew about Burke was mostly from reading Goffman, who drew heavily upon Burke’s idea (which he credits to Aristotle) that what we think of as motives depend on distinct rhetorical presentations; motivation is less an internal state than an effect of self-presentation. I only actually read Burke recently, specifically the volume of his disparate writings on Shakespeare, collected by Scott Newstok. Burke isn’t fun reading for me; his thoughts seem to outrun his pen. But I have to place him among those few authors who have changed the way I read. And after all these years, I now agree that his sense of not being properly recognized was fair enough.
Burke argues that we tend toward what he calls a novelistic reading of Shakespearean drama. In reading that way, we miss the drama, the push and pull. If we read as if we were audience members, what we see are characters playing parts that are required by a plot, and each’s part takes shape in relation to the other characters. Consider what Burke writes about Coriolanus, and if you don’t know that play (it’s about ancient Rome), fill in his name and the other characters’ names with characters from whatever story you like; there’s a generalizable principle here. Or fill them in with players in a medical drama: patient, doctor, nurse, worried family member, clinical student, technician. All these people are playing parts in their understanding of what the plot is. Burke writes:
“The citizens [of ancient Rome] have the mixture of distress, resentment, and instability that enables them to help Coriolanus get into the kind of quandaries necessary for him to enact his role. As for the Tribunes, besides their function in making Coriolanus’ bluster look admirable in comparison with their scheming, they serve to carry the play forward by goading him into the rage that leads to his banishment, and thus eventually (as one thing leads to another) to his death.” There’s much I love in those lines: the idea that we each help others to enact their roles, as we ourselves are helped; that drama is always about carrying forward, the never ceasing movement of life; and Burke’s understanding of narrative as being about one thing leading to another. But then he writes what I appreciate most: “All told, in being the kind of characters they are, the other figures help Coriolanus be the kind of character he is; and by their actions at precisely the times when they do act, they help lead the appointed…victim to the decision required, by the logic of the plot, for his downfall” (136-37).
What Burke characterizes as novelistic understanding (which may be unfair to readers of novels) is taking characters as individuals who have self-contained identities, although of course as they bounce off each other, different things happen. Coriolanus isn’t who he is, except insofar as other characters help him (in Burke’s ironic usage) to be that person, and this person is whom the plot requires, if the play is to move forward, relentlessly. Not only are characters brought into being through dialogical relations, but the dialogue is always in motion, speeding up and slowing down. The challenge is not only whether we can read with that in mind; it’s whether we can experience our own lives, with their relationships and plots, as interdependencies in motion. Living during a pandemic should make that easier, and maybe some people’s pandemic panic results from being brought up against the recognition that none of their choices is or can be entirely their own. That shouldn’t be scary, but for many people, it is.
“And when he is threatening to lead an army against Rome,” Burke writes about Coriolanus, “he does not know himself” (140). For me that recalls Regan’s line about her father, Lear: “he hath ever but slenderly known himself” (I.1.308-9). Is it too gross a generalization to say that the Shakespearean drama is always a drama of self-knowledge, and the effects of whether it is slender or sufficient? The plot’s tension is whether self-knowledge can be attained before something inestimably valuable is lost. That goes all the way back to Oedipus, who literally doesn’t know who he is, and maybe further back: Achilles only realizes who he is when he gives Hector’s body to Priam. In the present, the writers of illness memoirs realize how partial their previous knowledge of themselves had been; these too are dramas of self-knowledge. But because these narratives are memoirs, as a novelistic genre of story, most writers don’t go as far as Burke in realizing how other characters “help” them to enact their parts in…what? In dramas where the tension is between different characters’ commitments to different plots: who is willing to go how far to make the action to lead where.
Burke radicalizes my understanding of how vulnerable humans are in our dependence on others who shape–Burke’s “help”–the characters we enact, and in that enactment, become. In Coriolanus, the characters help the protagonist to his destruction, which makes that a tragedy. In As You Like It, Rosalind helps Orlando to become the character whom she marries; that’s comedy. In the forward movement of our own lives, who is helping toward what?