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Bart Van Es. Shakespeare in Company.

Bart Van Es. Shakespeare in Company. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. xiv + 357 + 12 b/w illus. $45.00.

This is an important book that ably treads the fine line between, on the one hand, explaining or even discounting the artistic work by recourse to a consideration of its conditions of production, and, on the other, consigning it to an autonomous decontextualized realm of "universality":
   There is inevitably a connection between the literary features of a
   work and the material conditions of its creation. Of course, lines
   of poetry are crafted by individuals, but they are also moulded by
   surrounding social contexts and tailored to specific practical
   demands. (37)

The author claims, and makes his argument with considerable sophistication, that the strength of his approach lies in the welding of theater history to textual criticism--an approach that enables the development of a complex argument that, without minimizing their artistic and literary merit, places Shakespeare's plays in their historical context of production and delineates the ways in which they reflect that context:
   This book has set out a history of Shakespeare's writing that is
   based on his evolving material circumstances and institutional
   affiliations.... It could be said to bring together two separate
   stands of current thought on the playwright. On the one hand there
   is the work of theatre historians, doing more and more to uncover
   the practical realities of early modern performance.... On the
   other there is a more literary criticism that explores the
   classically informed wit of the playwright and connects him to a
   Renaissance culture of imitation. (309)

At its center is the argument "that Shakespeare's decision to become a stake-holder in the theatre industry transformed and would continue to affect the way that he wrote his plays" (2). But Shakespeare was always, Van Es argues, writing "in company": initially in the literary company of other playwrights, with whose works the early plays are in intertextual dialogue; then in the company of actors when he joined the Lord Chamberlain's Men; then in the closer company of sharers and householders at their new fixed venue, the Globe; and finally again in the company of playwrights through collaboration and (again) intertextual links to the work in particular of Fletcher.

Van Es stresses "the deep, fibrous intertextuality of Shakespeare's early work" (28); his suggestion that it is "often spectacularly imitative" (36) has important ramifications for reading characters such as Aaron in Titus Andronicus, or Richard III.

He then links already well-attested stylistic developments around 1594 to the fact that at this time Shakespeare became a sharer in the Lord Chamberlains Men (81). He argues for the significance of an emerging interest in the mechanics of a play's preparation for the stage in Love's Labour's Lost and A Midsummer Night's Dream (79), a move to relational characterization (93), and evidence of writing for the skills and profiles of the performers of the company (98). "The company--its sharers, its hired men, and its apprenticed boy players taking women's and children's parts--were the matrix through which he could structure his thinking" (111).

This put Shakespeare in a unique position among his contemporaries (125), a singularity further increased with the building of the Globe in 1599: "During these early years of the fellowship Shakespeare was singular as a playwright within a company of relative equals, but with the construction of the Globe the nature of this singularity would change" (146). The author's treatment of the Globe period (1599 until the long-postponed initiation of Blackfriars in 1608) concentrates on Shakespeare's relations with Robert Armin and Richard Burbage, and the extent to which their particular talents and "roles" fed into the plays: "More fully than any other player, Armin illustrates the effect of Shakespeare's position as a sharer and housekeeper. The two men were bound together in a close association that left its imprint on at least five plays" (193). Van Es argues that the initiation of the Blackfriars as a second performance venue in 1608 was another watershed, but he eschews a direct and simple relationship between this event and Shakespeare's late style. He goes beyond the previously advanced "personal, architectural, and political explanations for the late style" (253) to suggest that the return to intertextuality and collaboration is linked to changed relationships. He makes the excellent point that the late plays were not written for Blackfriars (254), but suggests instead that new sharer relationships and turnover of company members associated with the commissioning of the new venue led to a dilution of close-tied sharer-housekeeper roles. This led to a more "distanced" playwright, no longer as close to the performers, and Van Es suggests that the relevant "company" is now once more the company of poets: "The picture of Shakespeare sitting in the company of poets carries weight as an emblem of the final years of his literary workmanship because his late plays are alive with the presence of other writers" (263-64). In developing this persuasive overarching argument, Van Es systematically revisits a number of theatrical-historical commonplaces championed by prominent scholars (for example, the "duopoly" constituted by the Globe and the Rose/Fortune) and recasts them in a new perspective on the basis of a nuanced reading of the evidence: "To some extent, Gurr's famous account of the establishment of a duopoly is a strong theory rather than a hard fact of history" (101).

Van Es's restriction of the pertinent contextual elements to the personal (the personal and artistic relationships with Armin and Burbage, for example) is the only area in which one might suggest a limitation: if, as Van Es argues persuasively, the move from Shoreditch to a new permanent home at the Globe brought out new characteristics in Shakespeare's playwrighting, to what extent can this be ascribed also to the immediate context of their utterance, the stage and auditorium at the Globe? Do we find that the plays of this period are significantly different from the preceding plays in terms of the standard stage resources they call upon? To what extent do the generic stage resources for which we have clear evidence, either from historical or textual clues, become in the "Globe period" taken for granted by a playwright who inhabits (and is inhabited by) a particular stage and stage-auditorium configuration, with a particular combination of the standard resources? Is there evidence in the plays of the previous period that Shakespeare's role as sharer in the Lord Chamberlain's Men was already leading him to begin addressing logistical problems associated with staging, by structuring his texts in particular ways? Was any such tendency then accelerated in the Globe period?

Such explorations are the justification of the theater reconstruction industry, and it would be difficult to argue, on the basis established by Van Es, that the context of theatrical utterance would have no impact on what and how Shakespeare wrote in this period. The problem is, of course, that concrete evidence about the Globe and other playhouses is fragmentary and contradictory, but the internal evidence from the texts has not been fully and sagely mined to develop clearer ideas about performance context that might then be fed back into textual interpretation in a virtuous hermeneutic circle. That is another book, and Van Es is not to be criticized for not having written it.

But the absence of any scholarly consensus about basic movements on the stage and entrance-exit patterns through the stage doors does at times impact Van Es's argument. Stressing the classical connections of The Comedy of Errors, he uncritically accepts the commonplace view that its staging reflects a "fixed" fictional space defined by the "three houses" of classical comedy (58). Quite apart from the fact that a number of scenes are set inside as well as outside Antipholus's house, the offstage realities behind one or other of the stage doors at various points number as many as six (Antipholus's house, the Courtesan's, the Abbey, the Goldsmith's house or shop, the Duke's palace, Egeods place of imprisonment). This play, and The Taming of the Shrew, which Van Es also includes under the "houses of classical comedy" rubric (61), functions instead on a spatial schema common to a broad range of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays--a schema that uses the stage doors not as fixed fictional entities but as flexible interfaces with offstage places, to be co-opted scene-by-scene to particular fictional functions. Macbeth's "This is the door" (Macbeth, 2.3) turns the stage door (again, after its immediately preceding use as entrance-point for the Porter) into the fictional door that leads to Duncan's chamber.

Van Es also refers repeatedly to Tiffany Stern's important work on what might have constituted rehearsal in this period--a range of activities in which private "study" of lines loomed large and collaborative preparation seemed "a fairly minimal, last-minute affair" (80). Such processes have little in common with modern rehearsal practices, yet the author lapses at times into a modern lexicon that refers to Shakespeare's "presence at rehearsals" (195), his being "present" as "performers worked on their roles" (262), and his being there to "regularly coach actors" (261). Shakespeare might well have been present at some such activities, but whether they are best described by such "presentist" terms is debatable.

These are small reservations; the book is a very substantial contribution to scholarship and will undoubtedly and justifiably gain an important place in future debates.


University of Sydney
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Author:Fitzpatrick, Tim
Publication:Comparative Drama
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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