44 The “Stages” of Life

Will Ziff

I am dedicating this chapter to my Grandfather, who, when he was alive, taught me so much about life, how to be a better person and helped me find my passion in sports. I am also writing it for my cousin Caleb, who inspires me every day with how he perseveres while having autism. I will be giving him this chapter when I finish it, and I hope that he takes away a lot of knowledge. He is the best, and he deserves the world.


Keywords: Scenario, Stage, Language, Meaning, Identity


As William Shakespeare penned in As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Kenneth Burke, a famous author and thinker in rhetoric was greatly inspired by Shakespeare and his ideas regarding human actions and interactions. Burke created the term “dramatism” to analyze human relationships through language. Burke claimed that people are “motivated to behave in response to certain situations” (Burke, Grammar of Motives). People can use dramatism to analyze their present and past interactions and find interesting details about their lives. Dramatism helps us understand your life and that your life is a drama. Dramatism helps set one’s “stage” of life and define our actions, words, and surroundings (Burke, The Elements of Dramatism). After reading and looking at Burke’s numerous journals and other leading academic writers’ pieces, I have come to realize that dramatism can be applied to so many aspects in one’s day-to-day lives, including in the workplace, in a classroom, or even in one’s daily life at home. Words are so powerful that, with their mere presence, they can change a scene or act. Dramatism is a metaphor describing the study of the various relations that make up the pentad, including act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose (Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form). Dramatism holds the notion that the world is a stage where everyone is an actor and their actions contribute to a drama. In my chapter, I split what I call “The Stage” into three aspects of dramatism: identification, pentad, and guilt associated with drama.


The pentad originated in the book A Grammar of Motives by Burke to describe our living stories. The scene of the pentad includes both the actual location and contextual situation surrounding an event and answers “when?” and “where?” (Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form). An act aligns with the scene, and although it might be straightforward, it could be the most critical aspect of the pentad in resolving the true meaning of a situation; the act answers “what?” The agent of the pentad is associated with the person who does action and answers “by whom?” The agency describes how one does a specific deed, and by whom, and is the means of someone doing something; the agency answers “how?” The purpose is the “why” is the meaning of life that the agent of the situation seeks through identification. The pentad works in dramatic situations involving humans, but it is less useful in describing nature scenes because of the human aspect of the terms. The pentad as a whole explains that specific actions have many different and competing explanations. My favorite example of a “pentad” that I see in the world is the family. The family household could be considered a “stage,” and the “agents” of the family are the parent(s) and child(ren). The parents’ “agency” is mentoring their children throughout their childhood for them to achieve their goal of having their kids be successful and great people, or whatever other goals other parents may have. The children’s “agency” is doing whatever they can to be the best son/daughter, sister/brother, student, and friend to reach their “purpose” of being a great, successful person. Life in itself could very easily be split up into “acts,” such as toddler years, early childhood, early adolescence, and high school years. These “acts” could be split up even more into “scenes,” such as notable moments in one’s life (first day of school, birthdays, first tooth falling out, graduation of high school) or by certain months or years go by for a family.


The identification in dramatism is common ground regarding people’s characteristics, such as personality, talents, and occupations. The more that we share, the greater the identification (Burke, The Elements of Dramatism). A great example of identification is Martin Luther King Jr. During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Black people rightly felt as though, despite abolishing slavery 100 years prior, discrimination was rampant.  Especially in the South, Black people had more than enough prejudice and violence against them. They, led by leaders such as Rosa Parks, King, Malcolm X, and the Freedom Riders, mobilized and for two decades fought for equality until several acts, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 were passed. During King’s speeches, including the legendary “I Have a Dream,” he used his own identity to attempt to bring all people together as one because, in the end, he realized that we are all people. We all can find something in common with each other. Malcolm X’s famous speech “The Ballot or the Bullet” could be compared to Burke’s ideologies and definitions of dramatism (Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form). Compared to MLK, who attempted to bring all people together, Malcolm X identified as a Black person to raise all Black people as one identity against the white community that had held them down for centuries in this country. The “scapegoating,” as Burke defines it, would be white America, as Malcolm X claimed that they must be sacrificed for the black community to be able to succeed.


According to Burke, guilt redemption is the plot of all human drama. Guilt, “combined with other constructs, describes the totality of the compelling force within an event which explains why the event took place” (Burke, Grammar of Motives). Scapegoating is an integral part of the process of feeling guilt, and it is when one turns regret into external parties, such as friends, teachers, or even the public. There are two different types of scapegoating, universal and fractional. In universal scapegoating, the speaker blames everyone for his problem, and after time, the speaker becomes the victim as the audience starts to feel bad for them. In fractional scapegoating, the speaker blames a specific person or group for their problem. That is why they are the victim in many instances because the audience becomes divided. The people who take action against the victim become known as heroes in this situation. Recently, an example of guilt that completely changed the sports world was in 2014, when NBA team owner Donald Sterling was implicated for saying racist things in a leaked private message to a mistress of his (Billings). Sterling later tried to redeem his guilt, but it is evident that he was the scapegoat in this situation, in a narrative created by the media. Sterling’s expression of regret, which was his “sacrifice,” as Burke would say, was not nearly enough to gain any sympathy or support from his critics, much less the entire American society. Part of the reason Sterling’s attempt to gain respect from the public was that his next few weeks after the leak was a complete PR disaster (Billings). He made several almost contradictory statements during this time, as he “played” the victim card and the apologist while not fully embracing either role. He was scapegoated by the media, messed up so badly in his attempt to play the victim role because he did not own up to his massive mistake in the slightest, and everyone turned on him. It was an embarrassment not only to him but for the entire NBA. In the end, the NBA had no choice but to force him to sell the team. After this debacle, the environment surrounding the ownership of sports teams has become much more progressive towards social justice, which has made the relationships between the players and owners much better. In this situation with Donald Sterling, Adam Silver, the newly-appointed NBA Commissioner (president of the league), became known as a hero. He took decisive action against the villain Sterling, and the public revered him for doing so. It was a great start to what has been a great seven years for the league under Silver’s leadership (Billings).


Guilt is our primary motive for communication, and we humans tend to get away from our guilt by putting it on others. Looking back at our own lives to see when we have pretty or unfairly done this makes us realize that the way one deals with guilt can significantly impact personal relationships. Personally, many people have tried to put their guilt onto me, and it has affected the way I feel about them. Looking at identification in our life is very important. For me, being a Demon Deacon will get me far in life because I feel as though Wake Forest is a family. Sharing that identification as Demon Deacons with others will help in school and after I graduate.


Burke’s arguments do exist without a bit of controversy, even from his most significant followers. In 1984 in a dramatism-based panel in New Mexico, Burke himself encountered a counterargument on the meaning(s) of dramatism, including how people believed it was symbolic and not applicable to humans. Many of his most prominent followers argued that dramatism is purely symbolic and has no real human value. At the same time, Burke insisted that it can be very easily applied to humans themselves and their motives. Writer Bryan Crable in a journal called “Defending Dramatism as Ontological and Literal,” mentioned that dramatism was an ontological theory and it can be represented with day-to-day human interactions. It can be taken very literally rather than just a symbolic idea. I agree with Crable’s argument: dramatism can very easily be interpreted into so many different aspects of life, including how professors teach differently from one another or how other social groups interact with one another.


Dramatism is beneficial not only for the analysis of movies and shows but also for everyday life and every interaction. For example, how we act in a classroom, at a party, with our parents, and alone in our rooms is hugely different. Each situation presents a different “stage” for the drama that is known as life. We adjust our actions and appearances to best suit our surroundings. With this knowledge, we can better understand our actions and the actions of those around us. Dramatism is prevalent in so many walks of life, including arts, school, and literature. The human mind is fantastic, and the way we have different “stages” of our drama in our life is a concept I have never thought of before taking this class (Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form). Now I am starting to understand these “stages” of life, and I have now begun to think about my own decisions in the past and present. I can look back at my childhood and interpret how my interactions with my family and friends were, especially in memorable (good or bad) moments. I have realized that in those moments, my family and best friends were always there for me. I invite readers to do the same: looking back and looking in-depth about how being treated in different “acts” of life can change how we feel about ourselves and those around us. Using dramatic terms and ideologies to understand how much I feel loved makes me feel so much better about life as a whole.

Works Cited


Billings, Molly J. “The Dramatistic Implications of Burke’s Guilt Redemption Cycle in the

Donald Sterling Communication Crisis.” Digital Commons @Brockport, digitalcommons.brockport.edu/honors/114/.

Burke, Kenneth. The Philosophy of Literary Form. University of California Press, 1990.

Burke, Kenneth. The Elements of Dramatism. Longman, 2002.

Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. Forgotten Books, 2018.

Nordquist, Richard. “What Is Kenneth Burke’s Dramatistic Method?” ThoughtCo, www.thoughtco.com/dramatism-rhetoric-and-composition-1690484.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Rhetoric in Everyday Life by Will Ziff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book