‘For some extraordinary reason, the men won’t drink this – but you might like it.’ Holding out a jug of cloudy bitter, still sludgy with hops, our employer stood framed indignantly in the doorway that separated her kitchen from the servants’ quarters. The ‘men’ were the other ranks among the annual tranche of recruits preparing to serve her husband in the British Antarctic Survey: they were expected to drink beer in the hall, while the officer class took cocktails in the drawing-room. The men preferred beer, we were told, and, given the choice, they might well have chosen ‘cloudy’, the connoisseur’s drop, before the filtered blandness of the more expensive ‘bright’ ale; a cask of cloudy bitter, though, needed to rest for 24 hours before it was broached – something her ladyship could hardly be expected to understand. But if the muddy brown liquid that hiccuped from the spigot would not serve the recalcitrant denizens of the hall, it might do for the help.
Early in 1966, when I was 23 years old – married, with a baby, and a graduate student at Cambridge – my wife and I, tired of poverty, entered domestic service. In exchange for lodging and a tiny allowance, we were to act as boilerman and char in a damp Victorian mansion whose châtelaine could no longer afford the retinue of servants for which such buildings were designed. The episode of the cloudy bitter was symptomatic of the style of patronage that governed her relationship with us, occasional gifts of discarded food serving as delicate reminders of our subordinate status. Once or twice, some conversational intimacy might appear to gesture in the direction of our other, academic life; but its absolute unimportance was made clear 11 months later when – under pressure from the conflicting demands of parenthood, cleaning, the University Library and the grumbling coal-fed behemoth in the cellar – I handed in our notice. We chose to see this as the straightforward termination of a commercial arrangement. But for our employer it was something else entirely: the wanton abrogation of an intimate bond, an act of unpardonable disloyalty that brought tears of justified resentment to her eyes.
Since I had spent my early years in a world where the presence of servants – even in modest middle-class homes – was still quite usual, I should perhaps have understood the personal character of this outrage rather better. For a good part of my childhood, we lived in a house with a coal range, paraffin lamps, and water that had to be pumped from a well; this was a world without labour-saving gadgets – without refrigerators, washing machines, electric stoves or vacuum cleaners. Instead there were servants. Although my father was a relatively impecunious army officer, a succession of batmen took care of his personal needs, while my mother was normally assisted in her chores by a maid or housekeeper; for a period, after my brother and sister were born, there was even a Swiss nanny; and then there was the kennelman, retired Fusilier Mulligan, who looked after my father’s pack of regimental beagles, and fed me surreptitiously with dog biscuits during the hunt.
Most of these people, whose faces I still remember with affection, were Catholics, separated from us not only by class but by religion; for this was Protestant-ruled Northern Ireland in the 1950s, a place not altogether unlike the white-ruled South Africa evoked in the frank confessional of David Schalkwyk’s opening chapter. In the apartheid world, the young Schalkwyk ‘was defined legally, socially and … psychologically as a “master”’, even as the material realities of bondage were masked (and painfully complicated) by the emotional bonds built up through years of familiarity and ‘surrogate parenting’. Thus when a white madam said of her black maid, ‘she’s one of the family,’ it was not entirely (or not only) a ‘sentimental obfuscation’.
My parents too, like most people of their class, habitually spoke of their servants as ‘part of the family’; and for us children, wrapped in the warmth of relationships that we took for granted, this was what they seemed to be. So it was strange, when my father returned us to his native New Zealand in 1955, to find ourselves in a country where servants were virtually unheard of. Moulded by the patriarchal certainties of Harrow and Sandhurst, he found himself infuriated by the egalitarian ethos of people who, as he complained, confused service with servility: what disturbed me was the odd sense of emotional depletion in our servantless household – as if in some important sense we had indeed left ‘family’ behind. There was no going back to it, however. When my mother paid a return visit to Northern Ireland in 1981, and went searching for her old housekeeper in Omagh, she was to be met with unexpected coldness, and then to find herself gazing at a shrine to a dead son, bearing the accusatory legend ‘Murdered by the Brits’. As surely as the township risings had done in South Africa, the Troubles had exposed as a nostalgic fiction the comforting belief that master-servant relations belonged inside the affective nexus of ‘family’.
Three and a half centuries earlier, however, when domestic boundaries were differently drawn and ‘family’ was often synonymous with ‘household’, the same language would have expressed a more literal truth. In that world the relationship between masters and servants in many respects resembled that between parents and children – even if ‘a seruants place and dutie’ was acknowledged to be ‘of more abiect and inferiour kinde’, as William Gouge put it in Of Domesticall Duties (1622). By the mid-20th century, the material conditions of service had changed beyond recognition, yet the ideological assumptions that had governed the early modern household continued to colour the language and emotions of master-servant relations into the last twilight of domestic service; only something akin to a parent’s uncomprehending distress at the behaviour of ungrateful children, I now recognise, could have lain behind my Cambridge employer’s wounded response to our desertion.
Now, however, 40 years on, that house on the outskirts of Cambridge seems to belong to a remote past; not only are there no longer servants of the kind our employer expected to retain, ‘service’ itself has become a word largely evacuated of meaning: the ideal of ‘national service’ vanished with conscription, and ‘military service’ is more and more difficult to distinguish from mercenary hire; government bureaucracies have been so extensively corporatised that the idea of a ‘civil service’ seems increasingly quaint; we speak of ‘service industries’ only to distinguish them from the makers of real wealth; and ‘customer service’ has become a risible euphemism for automated answering machines and call centres in Bangalore or St Lucia. Like those still current subscriptions, ‘yours faithfully/truly/ sincerely’ – not to mention the more archaic ‘your humble/devoted/faithful servant’ – these terms are fossils of what the historian Peter Laslett called ‘the world we have lost’, a world in which virtually all social relations, no matter how intimate, were defined by the language and ideology of service.
To sense how this was so, we have only to look at the literature of the early modern period, especially at the drama, where not only the conspicuous physical presence of household servants but a pervasive rhetoric of duty and obedience function as reminders of a society structured on service relations. Yet oddly enough the very pervasiveness of service has, until lately, made its fundamental importance difficult to recognise. Not until the appearance of Mark Thornton Burnett’s study, Masters and Servants in English Renaissance Drama, barely a decade ago, did its place in early modern culture seem worth exploring. Even Burnett’s study was limited by its concentration on the humbler categories of servant, on ordinary domestics and the apprentices whose labours supported the institutions of commerce and manufacture: his emphasis was necessarily on the material conditions of exploitation that governed such employment. But more recent work, culminating in Schalkwyk’s new book, has enabled a more comprehensive understanding of what it meant to ‘serve’ another in Shakespeare’s world.
It was not simply that most people in early modern England spent at least a portion of their lives in some kind of domestic service, whether in the menial positions assigned to the lower orders, or among the ranks of upper servants – pages, waiting-women, ushers, stewards and so forth – where members of the gentry were to be found. It was rather that each individual’s role in what historians have called the ‘society of orders’ was governed by the duties of ‘office’ and by careful gradations of ‘place’ whose origins lay in the hierarchy of feudal allegiance. So the relation between master and servant provided a template for almost every kind of affiliation: between king and courtier, ruler and subject, patron and client, commander and soldier, employer and apprentice, or even between husband and wife, parent and child, mistress and lover. ‘Trust and service’, a character in Middleton’s The Witch (c.1616) declares, are essential ‘parts of manhood’. Thus, far from being confined to the world of household drudgery, the term ‘servant’ was (in the words of William Gouge) ‘a general title’; since even the greatest nobleman was obliged to serve his king, while the monarch was committed to the service of God. ‘Bound to obey and serve’ was the motto chosen by Jane Seymour when she became Henry VIII’s queen, echoing the glad subservience still proclaimed by the Prince of Wales’s heraldic emblem: Ich dien.
The language of heraldry served as a constant reminder that to engage in service was not simply to undertake a prescribed form of labour, but to participate in a mutually reinforcing theatre of identity – visible in the badged livery masters awarded their servants. Livery was not simply the uniform of a household drudge, but a sign of allegiance, worn (in ceremonial contexts at least) by servants of every kind, among them surprisingly exalted personages. Harking back to the deferential proprieties of pre-Civil War England, the Duke of Newcastle recalled that a wealthy Cheshire knight like Sir George Booth had been proud to appear on St George’s Day clad in the livery of the Earl of Shrewsbury; and, on state occasions, the proudest courtier might, like the humblest of grooms, be clad in a costume that signalled the absorption of his identity into the ‘countenance’ or ‘port’ of his royal master. At James I’s coronation, Shakespeare, who had only recently gone to such trouble and expense to secure a coat of arms for his family, would have had to submerge that hard-won status in the livery that announced his subservient position as one of the ‘King’s Men’.
In this world, where every master must in his turn serve as somebody else’s ‘man’, to be made ‘masterless’, like the ‘houseless’ denizens of King Lear’s heath, was to suffer social annihilation: it was almost impossible to conceive of a fully human existence outside the ranks of service. A well-trained servant became, as Stefano Guazzo explained in his Ciuile Conuersation (1586), simply part of his master; and ‘to be no part of any body’, John Donne wanly observed – having failed to secure a place to which he had ‘submitted himself’ – was ‘to be nothing’. By the same token, the public identity of a lord was dependent on his retinue of servants, whose principal function was to display his power and magnificence. For Lear to be stripped of his train of a hundred knights was for his royal self to be publicly undone: the servantless master, like the masterless man, became, in a profound sense, ‘nothing’.
The idea of the servant’s personality being absorbed by the persona of his master helps to explain how the vocabulary of service was so easily extended to more purely affective relationships – to friendship, love and religious devotion. The pervasive ideological entanglement of service with religious doctrine is especially striking: even the ageing Milton, for all his republican convictions, seems able to imagine his relationship to God only as a form of royal service: made ‘useless’ by the loss of his eyesight, unable to join the ‘thousands’ who at the Lord’s ‘bidding … post o’er land and ocean without rest’, the poet is reduced to the very humblest kind of attendant, whose only way of waiting on his master is simply to await his return: ‘They also serve who only stand and wait.’ At the same time, in a kind of feedback loop, the ideal of Christian duty as a life given over to the service of God contributed to a pervasive sacralisation of profane service. ‘Masters by vertue of their office and place beare Christs image,’ Gouge declares in Of Domesticall Duties. ‘Hence it followeth that seruants in performing duty to their master performe duty to Christ.’ If this amounts to an argument for absolute obedience, servants have nevertheless to recognise that, properly understood, the performance of their duty constitutes not a surrender but an embrace of liberty, since (as Cranmer’s Collect for Peace declared) to submit oneself to the service of God is to enjoy ‘perfect freedom’. ‘Let there be cheerefulnesse in a seruants minde,’ Gouge writes, ‘and he is as free as his master: for such a seruant is the Lords freeman … he doth after a manner make his seruice free.’ This is what David Evett in Discourses of Service called ‘volitional primacy’ – a paradoxical variant of Stephen Greenblatt’s celebrated ‘Renaissance self-fashioning’, in which a servant’s selfhood is asserted through the deliberate performance of subordination. Its archetypal expression is to be found in King Lear: for the banished Earl of Kent in his reincarnation as the devoted attendant Caius, the single word ‘service’ is sufficient to define his identity as ‘a man’: ‘I do profess to be no less than I seem; to serve him truly that will put me in trust.’
For the loyal servant, voluntary subordination was made more acceptable by an ideological insistence on the reciprocal character of master-servant relations: ‘Masters,’ Gouge writes, ‘are as well bound to duties as seruants. Gods law requireth as much … So doth also the law of nature which hath tied master and seruant together by mutuall and reciprocall bond, of doing good, as well as of receiuing good.’ It was in this spirit that one prominent advocate for the dignity of serving-men could speak of an ‘undissoluble bond of assured friendship’ between master and servant. As Schalkwyk insists, if all social relationships were in some sense service relationships, then it was equally the case that (in Laslett’s words) ‘every relationship could be seen as a love-relationship.’ So it is that in The Tempest – a play that dramatises an elaborate set of variations on the forms of good and bad service – the spirit-servant Ariel craves an acknowledgment of Prospero’s ‘love’ as recompense for his labours. Prospero, on the other hand, justifies his enslavement of Caliban as fitting retribution for the servant-monster’s failure to honour the affection with which he was at first treated. Similarly in King Lear, the king’s first hesitant steps towards moral redemption are marked by the sudden tenderness he feels for the suffering of his loyal follower, the Fool: ‘Poor fool and knave, I have one part in my heart/That’s sorry yet for thee.’
Yet the very frequency with which manuals of household government insist on the ‘assured friendship’ between master and servant suggests a certain anxiety about the real basis of the relationship; and service could also be imagined, even by its most devoted propagandists, in much more oppressive terms. For all his stress on the reciprocal bond of duty and affection between master and man, Gouge spells out the legal foundations of their relationship in terms that make it sound little different from slavery: ‘while the terme of their seruice lasteth,’ he writes, servants are not
their owne … both their persons and their actions are all their masters: and the will of their master must be their rule and guide … so properly [do they] belong to a master for the time of their seruice, as he may not only keepe them himselfe for his owne seruice, but also passe them ouer, and giue, or sell them to another … The customes and statutes of our land doe also permit masters to make ouer their seruants from one to one: and on their death-beds to bequeath them to whom they will, euen as their goods and possessions.
Elsewhere the manuals are surprisingly frank about the tensions undermining the idyll of willing service, ‘assured friendship’ and paternal care. There are repeated warnings about harsh and ungrateful masters on the one hand, and disobedient, insolent and refractory servants on the other. Reflecting on the decay of the ‘hospitality’ and ‘liberality’ that were supposed to govern relations in traditional households, the author of a tract entitled A Health to the Gentlemanly Profession of Seruingmen: or, The Seruingmans Comfort deplores the indifference with which even the most faithful old retainers are treated:
What doth a gentleman nowadayes care more for his man than to serue his present turn? No, no more for him than he doth for his dogge or his horse, who, while they can do him seruice, he is content to allow them meate and other necessaries. But when the horse falls blynde or lame, knocke him in the head; when the dogge grows so old as he can do nothing but lie by the fyre, cut his throat; and the seruingman, when the sommer of his yeeres are spent, and that crooked olde age hath summoned him to make her many low curtesies, with bended knees … then off goes his shooes and he is turned to the common.
His words exactly anticipate the plight of old Adam, the discarded serving-man of As You Like It; and it is the same prospect of cynically ordained redundancy that Iago uses to justify his tirade against ‘the curse of service’ in the opening scene of Othello:
You shall mark
Many a duteous and knee-crooking knave
That, doting on his own obsequious bondage,
Wears out his time much like his master’s ass,
For naught but provender, and, when he’s old, cashiered.
As the action of Shakespeare’s tragedy reveals, the danger of such ingratitude lay in its threat to expose the ideology of service as an empty fiction, and indeed part of Iago’s sinister persuasiveness must have lain in his ability to articulate resentments that were only too familiar to his audience. Particularly telling is the sarcastic twist that he gives to ‘obsequious’, which here, for the first time in Shakespeare, gathers its uniquely modern connotations of sycophantic servility. Iago is one of those malcontents who, according to Gouge, ‘thinke their masters house a prison to them, muttering, murmuring against their strait keeping in, as they deeme it’. Some, by the mere neglect of their duties, are identified as ‘enemeies to their masters, to themselues, to the city and country where they liue, and to their friends and parents’, while ‘others are so possessed with a deuill, as they will seeke all the reuenge they can, if they be corrected’; and even those ‘that haue not the opportunity to practise such villanies, doe nothwithstanding in their hearts wish their masters destruction, and make most fearefull impreccations against them; whereby they make themselues guilty of blood before God’. This is what it means for Malvolio, faced with the humiliating reality of being no more ‘than a steward’, to vow revenge ‘on the whole pack’ of his superiors.
Gouge’s description of refractory servants as ‘possessed with a deuill’ is far from casually made, since his determination to prove ‘the lawfulnesse of a masters place and power’ was specifically designed to counter the arguments of radical sectaries like the Anabaptists, who brought their own reading of scripture to argue that the subjugation of one man to another was not only contrary to nature, but ‘expressly forbidden’ by the dispensation of Christ. For Gouge, by contrast, since ‘the place of a master … is to be in Christs stead,’ and since a servant’s obedience is an expression of his Christian duty, it follows that ‘in rebelling against their master’, servants ‘rebell against Christ’. Lucifer himself, after all, had voiced his rebellion as a refusal of service; and his non serviam is exquisitely paraphrased by Shakespeare’s dissident servants – by the ‘born devil’ Caliban in his defiance of ‘the tyrant that I serve’, and above all by the ‘demi-devil’ Iago, whose repudiation of proper obedience is a prime expression of the ‘divinity of hell’ that guides his every action.
If Caliban, in Schalkwyk’s words, exposes ‘the monstrous face of insubordination and rebellion that simmers beneath all accounts of traditional service’, Iago constitutes a more insidious version of that threat: instead of open revolt, he chooses the form of hypocritical deceit that Gouge (borrowing a phrase from St Paul) calls ‘eieservice’: its practitioners, he says,
are they who will be very diligent and faithfull in doing such things as their masters see … but otherwise behinde their masters backe, and in things which they hope shall neuer come to his knowledge, they will be as negligent, and vnfaithfull as if they were no seruants. Yet to satisfie their masters, and to sooth them, they will doe any thing though neuer so vnlawfull.
Beginning with Marlowe’s Mephistophilis, the demon whose parade of servile obedience is designed only to encompass his master’s downfall, exemplars of such treacherous pretence abound in the drama of the period, from Jonson’s Mosca to Webster’s Bosola and Middleton and Rowley’s De Flores; but Othello’s ensign, with his eloquent disdain for the exponents of true service, is its most perfect exponent:
Others there are
Who, trimmed in forms and visages of duty,
Keep yet their hearts attending on themselves
And, throwing but shows of service on their lords,
Do well thrive by them …
In following him, I follow but myself.
For Iago, resentful that ‘we cannot all be masters,’ there is something fundamentally humiliating about service to another; and the same is true for Shakespeare’s contemporary, the music master Thomas Whythorne, who recalls warning a prospective employer that ‘to be a serving-creature or serving-man, it was so like the life of a water-spaniel, that must be at commandment to fetch or bring here, or carry there, with all kind of drudgery, that I could not like of that life.’ His conviction that his rank entitles him to be ‘mine own man, and therewith a master’, anticipates the bridling social resentment of De Flores in The Changeling, who, having ‘tumbled into th’ world a gentleman’, rails against the ‘hard fate’ that ‘thrust me out to servitude’. Fixated on the dignity of his birth, De Flores insists on understanding his ‘service’ to his lord’s daughter, Beatrice-Joanna, through the rhetoric of chivalric adoration, only to find himself insulted by the offer of a ‘salary’ for the murder of her betrothed. ‘Do you place me in the rank of verminous fellows/To destroy things for wages?’ he demands.
The suggestion that the tender of financial reward amounts to an act of disparagement, reducing the waiting-gentleman to the status of a menial hireling, reflects a significant shift in the material conditions of service. In the old model, based on the ‘affective lordship’ that governed feudal households, the acceptance of livery gave admission to a system of mutually acknowledged obligations in which monetary remuneration played a relatively small part; in the new, essentially contractual system, the payment of wages was in danger of becoming the primary claim on a servant’s loyalty, turning his labour into a commodity, since as even Gouge was constrained to admit, ‘wages is as due for labour, as money for wares.’ The effect, according to the conservative moralist ‘I.M.’, was to blur the essential distinction between gentlemanly ‘serving-men’ and mere ‘servants’, the drudges he disdains as mercenary ‘clusterfists’. That difference necessarily meant a good deal to a successful actor like Shakespeare, a man whose profession as one of the King’s Majesties Servants supplied the material base for his advancement into the ranks of the gentry, even as, in the eyes of officialdom, it associated him with the most degraded social outsiders.
‘To see how the bear tore out his shoulder-bone … I fear, sir, my shoulder-blade is out’: these lines, spanning the tragic and comic halves of The Winter’s Tale, point to a carefully calculated piece of doubling, by which the dutiful courtly servitor, Antigonus, torn apart by a bear, is seemingly reborn as the masterless fairground entertainer and petty thief Autolycus. The transformation of Antigonus into Autolycus nicely emblematises the vexed relationship between actors and the traditional order. As we can see from Hamlet’s easygoing familiarity with his ‘good friends’, the ‘tragedians of the city’, or from the developing relationship between the ‘vassal’ poet of the Sonnets and the ‘sovereign’ nobleman who becomes his ‘friend’ and ‘master-mistress’, actors might enjoy extraordinary intimacy with powerful and distinguished patrons; yet they belonged to a profession that the law persistently catalogued with vagrants and masterless men – ‘Roges Vacaboundes and Sturdy Beggers’.
The players’ licence to perform was dependent on their ability to present themselves as servants of some appropriately lofty master, and consequently the names of their companies advertised this nominal dependency; but for business purposes, they were organised less like members of a household than as participants in early capitalist enterprise. Shakespeare’s company, which had enjoyed its Elizabethan success under the formidable patronage of the lord chamberlain, was dignified at James’s accession with the title of the King’s Majesties Servants; and this parade of subordination afforded it invaluable privileges. The King’s Men formed a joint-stock enterprise, in which the shareholding members were defined as masters, ruling over the hired men and boy apprentices who filled the company’s ranks and took its wages. It was Shakespeare’s success as an actor-shareholder, rather than his achievements as playwright, that made it possible for him to reinvent himself as the armigerous gentleman who would retire to one of the grandest houses in Stratford.
In the light of this, and given that the actors’ official duties (occasional private performances and rare appearances in livery on public occasions) formed so small a part of their professional life, we may be inclined to think of their office as little more than a convenient fiction. It was on the favour of the play-going public, after all, that the players’ survival ultimately depended. Yet it would be a mistake to underestimate the social and psychological significance of this feudal hangover, not least because, as Schalkwyk says, the relationship between players and their audience was inflected by ideological assumptions, even if this was ‘a new kind of service, beholden less to a quasi-feudal master than to the unstable whim of a paying audience’. The epilogue to The Tempest implicitly confesses this when the actor playing Prospero is made, like an indentured servant, to beg the audience for the same manumission that he has just granted to his own spirit-servant, Ariel: ‘But release me from my bands/With the help of your good hands … Let your indulgence set me free.’ No wonder that Prospero’s speech has so often been read as the dramatist’s own testament, his ‘farewell to the stage’, since for Shakespeare to retire from the King’s Men, as he is believed to have done shortly after completing the play, was to claim discharge from what in some ways resembled a lengthy term of indenture.
The great strength of David Schalkwyk’s book, which sets it apart from other studies in the field, is its steady determination to understand the effect on Shakespeare’s poetic and dramatic imagination of his personal investment, as both humble servant and shareholding master, in the culture of service. Service, Schalkwyk sets out to show, became ‘the informing condition of everything’ Shakespeare wrote, matched in psychological importance only by the affective bond that was supposed to inform all of its operations: love. ‘Love’ is a notoriously promiscuous term, of course; and in order to explain how profoundly Shakespeare’s art ‘depends … on the conjunctive play of love and service’, Schalkwyk has to disentangle the various meanings that underpin its role in the discourse of service. Most important, perhaps, the way in which that discourse habitually sacralised all forms of authority meant that the master-servant relationship could be imagined in the same terms that defined the love between God and humankind: what a servant owed his master was nomos, denoting voluntary submission to the will of another, while the master would reciprocate with the freely endowed ‘acknowledgment’ of agape. Since this bond involved two human creatures, nomos and agape might transmute into philia, the intense mutual affection of friends; so, as if consciously echoing Montaigne’s notion of the friend as a second self, Thomas Fosset’s The Seruants Dutie (1613) insists that a trusty servant is nothing less than an ‘alter ego, another my selfe’. In more exceptional circumstances, like those explored in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, or in the Orsino-Cesario/Viola and Olivia-Malvolio plots from Twelfth Night, the ‘assured friendship’ of master and servant might itself be transformed into the more intense desire for the other which the Greeks characterised as eros.
Thus Twelfth Night can seem ‘as much a study of master-servant relations and the possibilities and travesties of friendship as … a comedy of romantic love’; and it is the idea of service that links the two, since it actually ‘makes possible’ – as well as impossible – ‘the intimacies of both friendship and erotic love’. Similarly, in the Sonnets what begins ‘as a project of pure service’ to an aristocratic patron becomes something else, as ‘the servant-poet … finds himself caught in the toils of service of a very different kind.’ As nomos struggles to redefine itself as philia, service once again reveals itself to be ‘the condition of possibility and impossibility of love’. Compromised from the outset by the poet’s uneasy sense of social inferiority, and destabilised by the latent eroticism of its homosocial intensities, philia is at last undone by eros in the Dark Lady sequence, in which the poet is degraded by the ‘perverse, self-imposed … slavery’ of heterosexual lust: ‘But my five wits, nor my five senses can/Dissuade one foolish heart from serving thee,/Who leaves unsway’d the likeness of a man,/Thy proud heart’s slave and vassal wretch to be.’ In the Sonnets, as Schalkwyk reminds us, the humiliations of rank are never wholly separable from the poet-actor’s sense of himself as one whose histrionic trade has made him ‘a motley to the view’, the fool’s costume becoming a substitute for livery and a degrading reminder of the player’s role as servant.
Ranging from early comedies like The Taming of the Shrew and The Comedy of Errors, through such tragedies as Othello, King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra, to late plays like The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, Schalkwyk is fascinated by the metatheatrical games through which Shakespeare explores the complex relationship between serving and performing. In the framing scenes of The Taming of the Shrew, for example, the company’s actor-servants are cast as both servants and actors, showing that ‘service itself is constituted by “actions that a man might play”.’ Shakespeare then doubles that ‘awareness: first by enacting the “pastime” whereby beggar is turned into lord, servant into loving wife, and presiding lord into attending servant, and then by introducing a troupe of itinerant players (real players playing at being players)’, who ‘“offer service” to the Lord’ – and do so in the form of a play that itself dramatises the comic interchangeability of master and servant. As Lucentio and Tranio exchange roles, the master briefly assumes his servant’s livery, only to replace it with another costume that allows him to serve Baptista as his daughter’s schoolmaster – a guise that in its turn will allow this professing ‘master of … art’ to claim Bianca as the ‘mistress’ of his ‘heart’. ‘The work of Shakespeare’s theatre as an institution’, Schalkwyk suggests, was to show, by means of such dizzying transformations, that the hierarchies of rank on which his whole society was founded were themselves nothing more than performative conventions.
The implications of such a position were subversive, of course – but not, Schalkwyk is careful to concede, in any simple way. At the end of The Tempest, Caliban’s contempt for the trumpery garments stolen by his ‘new master’, the rebellious servant Stephano, appears to undercut the play’s investment in the magic of attire, but then Prospero’s installation in his ducal robes reduces Caliban to the abject wonderment and awe that precipates his final submission. (‘How fine my master is! … I’ll be wise hereafter/And seek for grace.’) The result, Schalkwyk suggests, is that ‘the player has it both ways,’ so that the play can trade ‘on the continuing significance of costume as political reality’ even as the action exposes its theatrical fictionality. This Janus-faced attitude towards the trappings of authority is even more strikingly displayed at the end of Antony and Cleopatra, when the Egyptian queen stages her reinvestiture in the robe and crown that adorned her histrionic triumph at Cydnus. Antony and Cleopatra, as Evett’s book demonstrates, is a work obsessed with competing notions of service, from the idealised retainership of Eros at one extreme to the cynically commodified loyalty of Dercetus at the other; and in Enobarbus it explores the tragic plight of a man caught between the two. Schalkwyk extends this analysis to show how the contradictions of service are magicked away through the figure of Cleopatra: Shakespeare’s conception of her role makes possible a ‘dazzling display of the histrionic capacities of the player-servant’ which is ‘simultaneously a show of mastery’; and in the ‘toil of grace’ performed by the boy apprentice, ‘the combination of “sweating labour” and “idleness”, ensnarement and freedom, and the generosity of love and service alike are brought together’ revealing Cleopatra as ‘master-servant in love who invites us to see “new heaven, new earth”’.
What Schalkwyk does not adequately acknowledge is that, for all its imaginative power, this apotheosis of the actor-servant is never entirely free from the suspicion that is allowed to surface in Octavius Caesar’s sceptical reaction: ‘O noble weakness!’ Cleopatra’s mastery of ‘excellent dissembling’ may have reduced Pompey, Julius Caesar and Antony in turn to the condition of ‘soldier-servant’, but it is the marvelling chronicler of her water-borne triumph at Cydnus, Enobarbus, who finds something ‘monstrous’ in her theatrical extravagance. The word suggests an unexpected kinship not just to the ‘servant-monster’ Caliban, but to the ‘civil monster’ who brings about his master’s downfall in Othello. Iago is the consummate servant-actor, whose ‘shows of service’ mask a solipsistic determination to be his own man and ‘follow but myself’. By his very nature, as Schalkwyk reminds us, a player was always tainted by ‘metaphysical monstrosity’, as a serving-creature who, in his assumption of identities not his own, became the ‘pattern of the false servant … the exemplar of Iago’s gnomic declarations … “I am not what I am.”’ A particularly fascinating chapter of Shakespeare, Love and Service sets Othello alongside King Lear as plays ‘united by their mutual investment in the qualities, and uncertainties, of service’: just as the tragic action of Othello turns on a servant’s refusal to honour his master with anything more than the ‘forms and visages of duty’ that mask his satanic non serviam, so that of King Lear is triggered by a daughter’s reluctance to bow to her king-father’s insistence on a public ‘show of love and service’.
If dutiful obsequiousness can be the mark of the treacherous ‘eye-service’ denounced by the propagandists of household government, love and duty, by the same token, can sometimes take the form of disobedience. Thus in King Lear Shakespeare contrasts the ‘super-serviceable’ compliance of Oswald and the self-interested ‘deserving’ of Edmund with the ‘vassal’ Kent’s resistance to his royal master’s will, and the heroic refusal of Cornwall’s ‘villein’ servant to assist in the blinding of Gloucester. Kent’s reappearance in the guise of the faithful Caius, whose identity is defined by his desire to call the king ‘master’, and Cornwall’s servant’s insistence that never has he done ‘better service’ to his lord, mark them as embodiments of one of the play’s deepest emotional truths – the voluntary unconditionality of love. In the desolate wilderness of this tragedy, Schalkwyk concludes, ‘Shakespeare represents perfect service under conditions in which the normal sanctions that hold the bonds of service in place have disappeared – conditions of almost absolute negation, suffering and fraility. It is under such conditions that the sanctity of service becomes identical to the holiness of love.’
In Othello, by contrast, it is precisely the association of love and service that makes Iago so dangerous: this conniving servant decisively usurps his master’s authority when he joins his kneeling master in a shocking parody of matrimonial vows, offering to ‘give up/The execution of his wit, hands, heart/To wronged Othello’s service’. As he mimics the ecstatic surrender of a courtly servant-lover to his mistress (‘I am your own for ever’), Iago reminds us of the extent to which the tragedy, with its recurrent outbursts of social resentment, its explosions of heterosexual jealousy and its suggestions of homoerotic obsession, presents a horribly refracted version of the complicated love triangle that Shakespeare had explored in the Sonnets. To recognise that connection is to begin to understand the psychological and social contradictions that turned the figure of the treacherous servant into such a powerful bogeyman of the early modern imagination. Schalkwyk’s self-imposed limits don’t allow him to extend his investigations beyond Shakespeare; but Iago’s numerous offspring in the plays of his Jacobean, Caroline and Restoration successors help us to recognise the anxieties created by the enforced intimacies of service and the peculiar position of domestic servants as both insiders and outsiders in the family circle. The more closely a servant is embosomed in his master’s confidence, the more likely he is to prove a hidden enemy. So, in The Changeling, for example, ‘honest De Flores’ – a figure conspicuously modelled on ‘honest Iago’ – turns from ‘servant obedience’ to the ‘master sin’ of murder, destroying Vermandero’s castle from within. In his mastery of the building’s labyrinthine architecture, its winding passages and stairwells, and in his conspiracy to possess the body of his mistress, De Flores is matched only by Maskwell, the servant-friend-of-the-family in Congreve’s The Double Dealer, who so nearly succeeds in achieving the material and sexual dispossession of his patrons.
It would be a mistake, however, to interpret these narratives of domestic usurpation simply as demonstrations of conniving hypocrisy. Like Hamlet’s player, overwhelmed by grief for the imaginary Hecuba, the servant-actor in the end depends for his success on his ability thoroughly to inhabit the role he performs. If the love he professes were merely a charade, it would not do his business: so the homoerotic desire that critics have discerned as the barely concealed twin of Iago’s social resentment is mirrored by De Flores’s obsession with Vermandero’s daughter, and his desperate efforts to transform the humiliations of domestic subordination into the amorous self-abasement of a cavaliere servente. At the end of The Changeling De Flores looks down at the body of the woman who is now his mistress in a double sense, and gloatingly reflects that he has ‘drunk up all, left none behind/For any man to pledge me’. If love is the desire to merge another’s being with one’s own – and thereby, in effect, to become what one most desires – then the servant’s frustrated longing to take the place of the master is easily read as a kind of love: odi et amo. That is why, if the master insists at one moment that his servants are ‘part of the family’, at another he will proclaim, with equal conviction, that ‘they are only waiting to murder us in our beds.’ He is right on both counts – and where else should the murder happen, as Othello and The Changeling remind us, but in the bed?
Because the service of performance in the early modern world was so entangled with the performance of service, the profound ambivalence of the master-servant relationship was difficult for dramatists to imagine except as a kind of theatrical hypocrisy. But the novel made it possible to understand things differently: two centuries after Othello, in a beautifully nuanced impersonation of an old retainer’s fractured sensibility, Maria Edgeworth showed that a servant was always likely to be in two minds about his masters. In Castle Rackrent, Thady Quirk’s narrative is coloured by a tone of such genuine affection that it is difficult to dismiss his repeated protestations of love and regard for the Rackrents, or his determination to serve the honour and interest of the family; yet the plot discloses his systematic collusion with his son Jason to bring about their undoing. The name Quirk (meaning ‘a verbal trick, subtlety, shift or evasion’) is chosen to mark the servant’s doubleness; but it is a doubleness hidden even from himself; and it would be a great mistake to see his attachment to his masters as consciously fraudulent. What Edgeworth shows is that, on one level at least, it is entirely sincere – as real as his secret determination (which he can never articulate to himself) to destroy them.
A Marxist might regard Thady’s devotion as a manifestation of false consciousness; but I am not sure that is quite how we should describe it. Looking back to that house on the Barton Road, I can see that something like Thady’s doubleness was essential even to the performance of our service there. For as long as we played the part of servants, my wife and I felt attached to our employer by something not entirely unlike the ‘bond of assured friendship’ that had sustained the life of service in households of the past. It was only after abandoning that role and the benefits it conferred that we could acknowledge, even to ourselves, the occluded resentment that had always been a part of the relationship – and with that resentment a deep, unfulfilled longing to do to that house what Thady’s descendants had done to the mansions of my Anglo-Irish kin, to burn the bloody place to the ground.