Burke's Pentad (Dramatism)

Kenneth Burke developed a critical technique called dramatism1. The foundation of dramatism is the concept of motive: the reasons why people do the things they do. Burke believed that all of life was drama (in the sense of fiction), and we may discover the motives of actors (people) by looking for their particular type of motivation in action and discourse. He set up a "pentad," which are five questions to ask of any discourse to begin teasing out the motive. You may recognize these questions as similar to the six news reporter's questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how.

  1. Act: What happened? What is the action? What is going on? What action; what thoughts?
  2. Scene: Where is the act happening? What is the background situation?
  3. Agent: Who is involved in the action? What are their roles?
  4. Agency: How do the agents act? By what means do they act?
  5. Purpose: Why do the agents act? What do they want?

Of dramatism, Burke said: "If action, then drama; if drama, then conflict; if conflict, then victimage.


1: Burke, Kenneth. 1945. A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969


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