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"All the world’s a stage."
—William Shakespeare

Dramatism, introduced by rhetorician Kenneth Burke, made its way into the field of communication in the early 1950's as a method for understanding the social uses of language and how to encounter the social and symbolic world of a drama (Brock, Burke, Burgess, Parke, and Simons 1985). Dramatism's intent is to offer a logical method for understanding human motives, or why people do what they do (Fox, 2002). Dramatism is the belief that language is a strategic, motivated response to a specific situation (Griffin 2006). It views language as a mode of symbolic action rather than a mode of knowledge (Burke 1978). Kenneth Burke's view was that life is not like a drama, life is a drama. Dramatism theory has the layout of a play, complete with actors and plotlines. Dramatism comprises identification, dramatistic pentad, and the guilt-redemption cycle.



Dramatism was Kenneth Burke’s favorite word to describe what he observed when people open their mouths to communicate (Miller 2005). Burke's theory might best be summarized as an elaboration of Shakespeare's Renaissance commonplace "All the world's a stage", and Burke's career-long engagement with Shakespeare's plays. These connections might offer some insight into his theoretical approach. Kenneth Burke has been highly influential in the field of communication and his work is widely embraced. Many scholars have argued over the past fifty years how dramatism should be viewed: The two world views are argued 1) An ontological system which offers literal statements regarding the nature of the human beings as a symbol user and the nature of language as an act, or 2) an epistemological system which assumes but one way of viewing human beings and human activities, such as the usage of language. Burke’s dramatism has been continuously compared to Aristotle’s Rhetoric (Overington 1977). Scholars have studied dramatism as a method and how it addresses the empirical questions of how people explain their actions to themselves and others, what the cultural and social structural influence on these explanations might be, and what effect connotational links among the motivational terms might have on these explanations and on the action itself (Overington 1977). Dramatism has covered complex studies, but it offers simplicity; the basic dramatic form allows consideration of the full range of activities it intends to study (Crable 2000).

Perspectives of Dramatism



Identification is the common ground that exists between the speaker and audience. Without identification there is no persuasion (Griffin 2006).

Features of Identification

  • Substance describes a person’s traits, personality, beliefs, values, and occupation.
  • More overlap of substance with speaker and listener - greater identification.
  • Identification flows in both communicative directions.
  • Unity and Division. Unity occurs when individual's interests are joined, and simultaneously are divided.

Dramatistic Pentad

Dramatistic Pentad is the tool to analyze how the speaker tries to persuade the audience to accept their view of reality as true (Griffin 2006). Using the pentad to analyze our social situations can communicate to us which aspects of the situation were more important than others. The pentad is made up of the five elements of human drama.

  • Act: what was or will be done.
  • Scene: generally thought of as where and when; context of act.
  • Agent: entity that could be construed as performing an act.
  • Agency: the methods or tools used to perform the act.
  • Purpose: goal of the act; entelechy.

Burke also developed ten ratios of the pentad. An example of the scene-act ratio is the Supreme Court deciding that emergency measures are admissible because they have determined that there is a state of emergency. The scene, the state of emergency, determines the act, emergency measures (Benoit 1983). This is a causal statement.

Guilt-Redemption Cycle

Guilt-Redemption Cycle is considered the plot of the whole play and human drama or the root of all rhetoric (Griffin 2006). In this perspective, Burke concluded that the ultimate motivation of an agent is to purge ourselves of our sense of guilt. The term guilt covers tension, anxiety, shame, disgust, embarrassment, and other similar feelings. Guilt is created through symbolic interaction. Guilt comes when we are estranged from the natural world or estranged from others in our world. Guilt serves as a motivating factor that drives the human drama (Miller 2005).

Choice of the Speaker

  • Mortification-purge guilt through self-blame, admit they are wrong, ask for forgiveness.
  • Victimage-blame problems on someone else, lash out on who people fear, designating an external enemy, a scapegoat.
  • Ignorance-simply don't address the problem, pretend it doesn't exist; neither accept responsibility nor blame others.

Utilization of theory

  • Ideas studied by scholars in a variety of fields, including English, communication, political science, psychology, sociology.
  • Analyze public address (why a speaker selects a certain strategy to identify with audience, like a Malcolm X speech).
  • Religious themes.
  • Political advertising and political campaigns.
  • Corporate realm, business influence on federal policy agenda (Berger 2001).
  • Used in writing courses to help students understand how language produces knowledge, professional communication, case studies (Fox 2002).
  • Examine the nature of texts and narratives (Manning 1999).
  • Study to test and compare other Burkeian methods (Hamlin and Nichols 1973).


  • Benoit, William L. (1983). Systems of Explanation: Aristotle and Burke on Cause. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 13, 41-57.
  • Brock, Bernard L.; Burke, Kenneth; Burgess, Parke G.; Simons, Herbert W. (1985). Dramatism as Ontology or Epistemology: A Symposium. Communication Quarterly, 33, 17-33.
  • Burke, Kenneth. Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare. Parlor Press, 2007.
  • Burke, Kenneth. (1978). "Questions and Answers about the Pentad." College Compositions and Communication, 29, 330-335.
  • Crable, Bryan. (2000). Burke's Perspective on Perspectives: Grounding Dramatism in the Representative Anecdote. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 86, 318-333.
  • Fox, Catherine.(2002). Beyond the Tyranny of the Real: Revisiting Burke's Pentad as Research Method for Professional Communication. Technical Communication Quarterly, 11, 365-388.
  • Griffin, Em. (2006). A First Look at Communication Theory. (6th ed.) New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
  • Hamlin, William J.; Nichols, Harold J. (1973). The Interest Value of Rhetorical Strategies Derived from Kenneth Burke's Pentad. Western Speech, 37, 97-102.
  • Manning, Peter K. (1999). High Risk Narratives: Textual Adventures. Qualitative Sociology, 22, 285-299.
  • Miller, K. (2005). Communication theories: perspectives, processes, and contexts.(2nd ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
  • Overington, M. (1977). Kenneth Burke and the Method of Dramatism. Theory and Society, 4, 131-156.


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