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UBC Theses and Dissertations

A dancing of attitudes : Burke’s rhetoric on Shakespeare Rowan, Stephen Charles


Since F.S. Boas coined the term in 1896, All's Well That Ends Well, Troilus and Cressida, and Measure For Measure have been generally accepted as "problem plays," and many critics have offered biographical, thematic, and formal explanations of why these plays are so "dark." In this thesis, I accept that these plays are "problems" and I propose a rhetorical explanation for dissatisfaction with them, especially with their endings. Drawing on Kenneth Burke's philosophy of literary form and his anthropology of man as the symbol-using animal, I show that in these plays Shakespeare frustrates the expectations of an audience for a definite ending through death or marriage which would define the "terms" characterized in each play; secondly, he provides no scapegoat whose victimage would allow the audience to recognize an order clearly proposed for its acceptance; finally, he supplies no symbol of order which credibly demonstrates its power to establish a renewed society. As rhetoric, these plays show an intense "dancing of attitudes" toward symbols of order and toward conventional forms which would provide a clear sense of an ending. As such, they show what Burke calls "self-interference" on the part of the playwright — a deliberate balancing of arguments for the sake of "quizzicality" toward language as symbolic action. According to this analysis, the problem plays remain problems for an audience which seeks identification with symbols of order; they are, however, a tribute to the agile mind of a master rhetorician.

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