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Dramatism, an interpretive communication studies theory, was developed by Kenneth Burke as a way to analyze public speaking. Dramatism focuses on the role of the critic and their responsibility of uncovering a speaker’s motives. In this theory, Burke discusses two important ideas – that life IS drama, and that the ultimate motive of rhetoric is the purging of guilt. There are three key concepts associated with dramatism – identification, the dramatistic pentad, and guilt-redemption [1].

Key ConceptsEdit

Dramatistic PentadEdit

The Dramatistic Pentad is an instrument used by the critic to discover how the speaker convinces the audience to accept his view of reality. This is done through the five key elements of human drama – act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose [1].

  • Act: What was done
  • Scene: Where it was done
  • Agent: Who did it
  • Agency: How the speaker did it; methods or techniques
  • Purpose: Why it happened

While it is important to understand each element of the Pentad on its own, it is more important to understand how the elements work together. This is called a ratio, and there are ten possible ratios within the Pentad. Burke maintained that analyzing the ratios of a speaker’s presentation would allow the critic to realize why the speaker selected a certain strategy and what this means about their worldview.

The Pentad is a simple tool for seeing and understanding the complexity of a situation. It reveals the nuances and complications of language as symbolic action, which in turn, opens up our perspective [2].

Guilt RedemptionEdit

According to Burke, Guilt Redemption is considered the plot of all human drama, or the root of all rhetoric. In this perspective, Burke concluded that the ultimate motivation of man is to purge oneself of one's sense of guilt through public speaking. The term guilt covers tension, anxiety, shame, disgust, embarrassment, and other similar feelings. Guilt serves as a motivating factor that drives the human drama.

Burke claimed that the speaker could purge their guilt in one of two ways:

The first way is through victimage, or the process of scapegoating. Here, the speaker blames an external source for his ills[1]. According to Burke, there are two different types of scapegoating, universal and factional. In universal scapegoating, the speaker blames everyone for the problem, so the audience associates and even feels sorry for the victim, because it includes themselves. In fractional scapegoating, the speaker blames a specific group or a specific person for their problems. This creates a division within the audience [3]. The victim, whoever it may be, is vilified, or made up to violate the ideals of social order, like normalcy or decency. As a result, by people who take action against the villains become heroized because they are confronting evil [4].

The second way the speaker purges their guilt is through mortification. This is a confession of guilt by the speaker and a request for forgiveness [1]. Normally, these people are sentenced to a certain punishment so they can reflect and realize their sins. This punishment is specifically a kind of “death,” literal or figuratively.

Many speakers experience a combination of these two guilt-purging options.

Application and Uses of theoryEdit

  • 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
  • Used in writing courses to help students understand how language produces knowledge, professional communication, case studies
  • Examine the nature of texts and narratives
  • Study to test and compare other Burkeian methods
  • Diplomacy as an example of stagecraft


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Griffin, Em. (2009). A First Look at Communication Theory. (7th ed.) New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
  2. 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.
  3. Moore, M. P. (2006). To Execute Capital Punishment: The Mortification and Scapegoating of Illinois Governor George Ryan. Western Journal Of Communication, 70(4), 311-330. doi:10.1080/10570310600992129
  4. Blain, M. (2005). The politics of victimage:. Critical Discourse Studies, 2(1), 31-50. doi:10.1080/17405900500052168


  • Adams, Gregory (1963). All the World's a Stage. New York, NY: Basic Books.
  • 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 Composition and Communication, 29(4), 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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