In 1598 the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were forced to dismantle James Burbage’s Theatre in Shoreditch, which they had occupied since their foundation in 1594, so they transported it across the Thames and built their own playhouse on the Bankside. This was the building whose 20th-century replica was christened ‘Shakespeare’s Globe’. The possessive might have surprised Richard and Cuthbert Burbage, who between them owned half the Globe, whereas Shakespeare’s portion amounted to a tenth; but that stake was enough to make him a member of the ‘housekeepers’ whose investments set them apart from the mere ‘sharers’ in the company. The Globe, as James Shapiro reminded us in 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005), was ‘the first London theatre built by actors for actors’, but, by virtue of Shakespeare’s position there, it developed as ‘a playwright’s and not an actor’s theatre’. In it Shakespeare would enjoy the professional security that allowed him to develop a new kind of audience, a ‘regular, charmed clientele’, for whom he could write ‘increasingly complicated plays that dispensed with easy pleasures and made … playgoers work harder than they had ever worked before’. Citing John Aubrey’s image of a reclusive playwright who was never ‘a company keeper’, Shapiro insists that the business of biography is not to attempt to recover ‘Shakespeare in love’ but rather to discover ‘Shakespeare at work’.
As its recasting of Aubrey’s phrase suggests, Bart van Es’s Shakespeare in Company sets out to trace Shakespeare’s career through his relationships with the theatrical companies for which he wrote. Van Es’s book is a more conventionally academic study than Shapiro’s, or than Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World (2004), less sprightly in its prose and weighed down with scholarly apparatus. Yet, though they are barely cited, Shakespeare in Company is very much an extension of Greenblatt’s and Shapiro’s work, whose mode of historicism van Es might be describing when he writes that ‘scholarship at the beginning of the 21st century … does not place Shakespeare on a “glory-smitten summit” … nor does it reduce him uncritically to the “social energies” of the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatrical world.’ But Shakespeare in Company puts aside Greenblatt’s and Shapiro’s interest in the wider political and social context to focus on the immediate conditions that governed Shakespeare’s craft – those created by the professional company he kept. Even if Shakespeare wasn’t a great company keeper in the Falstaffian sense, company of several kinds shaped his way of writing: the company of non-dramatic poets with whom he competed in his early career; the company of sharers and housekeepers with whom he managed a theatrical business; the company of actors with whom he performed and for whom he wrote; the company of fellow playwrights with whom he collaborated; and the company of the playgoers whose imaginations would help to animate the performance of his scripts. Like Shapiro, van Es believes that the move by the Chamberlain’s Men to their own playhouse marked a decisive juncture in Shakespeare’s career; but rather than focusing on a single transformative year, he argues that the evolution of Shakespeare’s drama is best understood in terms of a succession of crucial changes in his professional company.
It is impossible, he suggests, to understand the kind of dramatist Shakespeare became without knowing where his career began – in ‘the meeting of a classically educated poet and a company of actors’. Shakespeare seems to have arrived in London at the beginning of the 1590s. By 1592 he was well enough known to attract the rivalrous scorn of the writer(s) responsible for a satirical tract entitled Greenes Groats-worth of Wit, which caricatures him as a common player seeking to better himself by assuming the guise of a dramatic poet: an ‘upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you’. Partly as a result of this document, we are used to thinking of Shakespeare as a player turned writer; van Es, however, observing the absence of Shakespeare’s name from performance-related documents before 1594, dismisses this as ‘highly improbable’. Acting, he argues, was a skill Shakespeare developed later as a financially useful ‘supplement to the work of composition’.
Initially at least, theatre wasn’t his main interest: the ambitious young provincial was determined to establish himself as a literary poet, for whom print and court patronage would be the key to success. Catering for the popular tastes of playhouse audiences was something he, like many of his playwright contemporaries, might well have regarded with disdain. Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, the self-consciously classical narrative poems he published in 1593 and 1594, with their dutifully obsequious dedications to Southampton, were what mattered to him, rather than Titus Andronicus, The Taming of the Shrew and the early history plays, which he made no effort to have printed. For Shakespeare – at least for as long as he followed the usual practice of offering his talents to any company willing to pay – playmaking was essentially jobbing work. This is why he was so ready to undertake it in collaboration with other playwrights, and why he was content to cultivate a derivative style that can sometimes make his writing difficult to distinguish from theirs. In Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist (2003), Lukas Erne argued that the excessive length of many of the printed texts suggests that Shakespeare produced plays that were designed to be read just as much as they were meant (after substantial cutting) to be performed. For van Es, however, the early plays are literary in that their self-conscious stylistic imitation and their ingenious play with recognisable characters, episodes and twists of plot appealed to a literate public; but it was a public literate above all in recent theatrical history, so their ‘primary “literary” reception took place in performance’.
In 1594, Shakespeare’s years as an aspiring literary poet and jobbing playwright came to an end when he became a sharer in the newly formed Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the most successful and long-lived of early modern theatrical enterprises. From this point on, van Es writes, Shakespeare ‘ceased to take a primary interest in print’, absorbed by his new role as the company’s principal dramatist. Not only did he no longer need to work collaboratively but, as a company sharer, he had an unprecedented degree of control over the casting of his own plays. He ‘could now plan an entire play by thinking of the capacities of his actors’, and it was this control over casting, van Es believes, that enabled the most strikingly novel feature of his work in this period – ‘the creation of psychological depth’ in his characters.
We tend to think of this depth as displayed in monologues and soliloquies. But van Es reminds us how often it is evident in the lively interplay between characters: in Richard II, for example, our sense of the king’s individuality derives not only from the narcissistic anguish of his reflections on royal identity, but from his alert response to the language of others and from their reactions to his. As the other characters come to recognise his complex motivation, so the audience comes to see Richard as a three-dimensional personality. This, van Es suggests, sets Shakespeare’s characters apart from the humoural caricatures in Jonson’s or Chapman’s plays whose obsessive natures render them incapable of interacting with others, so that, paradoxically, ‘the supreme achievement of characterisation’ in plays like Every Man in His Humour or even Sejanus is the ‘evisceration of individuality’.
The techniques that van Es evokes so vividly may not have been quite so exclusively Shakespearean as he would like us to believe: plays by later rivals, notably Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi and Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling, seem to have learned from Shakespeare’s example even if their authors didn’t have his privileged relationship with a company of players; but neither Webster nor the more prolific Middleton could match the range of Shakespeare’s psychological invention. In the third phase of his career, when, as a housekeeper, his position in the Chamberlain’s Men became more powerful, he was able to develop this talent in even more striking ways.
The longest and most compelling part of van Es’s study is devoted to this third phase of Shakespeare’s career, which began in 1599 when he became part-owner of the company’s new premises on the Bankside. The establishment of the Globe put the Chamberlain’s Men in a position none of their rivals would equal: in Shakespeare they commanded the services of the most celebrated playwright of the day, in Richard Burbage they had its greatest actor, and in Will Kemp its most popular clown; now, alone of all the many companies in the period, they owned their own theatre. In the Globe, the Chamberlain’s Men were able to attract an audience that included a larger proportion of the courtly and professional elite than would normally attend an arena playhouse, enabling them to compete not only with established adult companies, but with the newly fashionable troupes of boy actors – the Children of Paul’s and the Children of the Chapel Royal – who performed at the more exclusive indoor theatres on the north bank of the Thames such as Blackfriars. What emerged was a style of drama that responded to the Globe’s diverse audience by cultivating, in plays such as Henry V, a ‘language of social inclusion’, and that exploited playgoers’ awareness of competing traditions by deliberate infraction of generic boundaries. Thus Othello takes advantage of ‘the friction between the new cynical and misogynistic comedies of the boys … and the more gynocentric drama of the adults’ to create a ‘generic shock’; by choosing Venice, ‘the common hunting ground of gallants and courtesans in boys’ plays … as its centre of civic order’, Shakespeare overlays a tragedy of state with a (conventionally ridiculous) story of jealousy to create a play that ‘in its sentimental but at the same time cataclysmic dénouement refutes the conventional separation of kinds’.
As the bold generic experimentation exemplified not just in Othello but in the satirical tragedy of plays like Troilus and Cressida and Timon of Athens might suggest, the relocation of 1599 proved as momentous for the playwright as for his company. By combining the commercial power of a housekeeper with the authority of principal dramatist, Shakespeare now enjoyed a position of influence matched only by Richard Burbage, who, with his financier brother, controlled the largest share of the enterprise. The result, van Es argues, was that the company’s old partnership of equals was replaced by ‘a personal partnership between the pre-eminent actor and the pre-eminent poet of the age’; and this more hierarchical arrangement was reflected in the structure of the plays that Shakespeare devised for the new theatre. The distribution of lines among major roles had hitherto been ‘remarkably even’, but now his plots were increasingly built around star parts – Henry V, Hamlet, Othello, Lear, Macbeth, Timon, Duke Vincentio, Antony, Coriolanus – with the result that Burbage was sometimes required to deliver more than a third of all the lines in a play. It was this extraordinary investment in one outstanding talent, van Es believes, that pushed Shakespeare’s exploration of character in a new direction. There were other actors in the company for whom Shakespeare crafted striking parts, among them the clown Will Kemp’s successor, Robert Armin. Armin’s distinctive style of clowning provided the basis for a succession of melancholy fools: Touchstone, Thersites, Feste and Lavatch. But even he seems to have been expendable. In Lear’s Fool, van Es writes, Shakespeare tested ‘this character to its destruction – so much so that [he] would never write for that figure again’. For Burbage, by contrast, he would continue to invent new characters.
For van Es, as for Shapiro, it is Hamlet, which Shakespeare probably began writing late in 1599, that most clearly demonstrates what was made possible by the company’s translation to the Globe. Hamlet would be ‘a defining character’ as much for Burbage as for Shakespeare. Rebutting Margareta de Grazia’s claim that the ‘transcendental inwardness’ so often attributed to the prince is a mere anachronism, van Es shows that Hamlet’s claim to an inner reality that lies beyond the reach of ‘outward show’ is made plausible to the audience through a mastery of linguistic register: ‘In making this claim … Burbage needed to speak in a way that could be distinguished not just from the on-stage “tragedians of the city” … but also from the words of his cold mother … or the portentous ranting of Laertes.’
In the decade that followed, Shakespeare would write, for Burbage as much as for the company, a succession of plays that interrogated the tormented inner state of their protagonists – among whom van Es includes Timon, and Measure for Measure’s Duke, as well as Othello, Lear, Macbeth and Antony. However, Shakespeare’s writing took a new direction after he completed the last of his tragedies, Coriolanus, in 1608. That was the year in which – following the suppression of the Children of the Chapel Royal for their indiscreet encouragement of provocative satire – the King’s Men (as the Chamberlain’s Men were now known) gained access to the desirable Blackfriars Theatre. The Burbage family had actually owned it since 1596 but, thanks to the opposition of wealthy neighbours, had been prevented from leasing it to their own company. When the King’s Men finally acquired the lease, Shakespeare was a signatory, placing him once again in the elite group of housekeepers. It is often assumed that the emergence of his ‘late style’ was an immediate consequence of the company’s transfer to a ‘private’ playhouse – a conscious attempt to address the sophisticated preferences of a new audience. The group of tragicomic romances – The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline and The Tempest – that he wrote between 1609 and 1611 is marked by a move away from complexity of character towards ingenuity of plot, and by a stylistic shift away from the language of individuated experience towards a more incantatory style in which, as van Es puts it, ‘tone and the phenomenon of enchantment take priority over, indeed at times overwhelm, the articulation of specific ideas.’ But Shakespeare had begun his experimentation in this mode as early as 1607 with Pericles; moreover, both The Winter’s Tale and Cymbeline seem to have been written for the Globe, and the evidence that The Tempest was first performed at Blackfriars is only circumstantial.
Van Es argues that the critical factor was not so much the change of theatre as another change in the company Shakespeare kept. The weakening of the link between speech and speaker observed by Russ McDonald in Shakespeare’s Late Style (2006) reflects, van Es writes, ‘a weakening of the link between the players and Shakespeare himself’. There are no records of Shakespeare performing after 1603, when he appeared in Jonson’s Sejanus; after the leasing of Blackfriars, the controlling syndicate was dominated by men with business interests in the enterprise rather than those involved in performance, which further distanced the playwright-housekeeper from his players. At the same time there was a prolonged hiatus in the company’s need for Shakespeare’s dramaturgical skills. For the King’s Men, one advantage of an indoor theatre was that, unlike the Globe, it would be available for use all year, but a particularly severe outbreak of plague meant that all playing in London ceased from August 1608 until February 1610. Shakespeare seems to have spent most of this period of closure – the longest in his career – away from London, attending to family affairs in Stratford. After this, van Es suggests, ‘the earlier tight connection between the playwright and a small core of well-known actors would have been impossible to restore.’ The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline and perhaps even The Tempest were probably written while Shakespeare was in rural retreat; they were certainly written, van Es believes, at an institutional – and therefore an emotional – distance from the theatre world in which he had been so full and busy a participant.
If this seems like a revamped version of the hallowed narrative in which these last works reflect the peace of retirement and the wisdom of advancing years, the historicist in van Es looks for a different explanation. He finds it in the notion that Shakespeare was, in some sense, reverting to the practice of his first phase, writing once again ‘more as a poet than as a director of actors’: the plays of Shakespeare’s maturity exhibit a peculiar fascination with the individual actor but in his last period it is literary agency – whether through choric figures like Gower in Pericles, Time in The Winter’s Tale, or through the carefully advertised presence of Chaucer behind The Two Noble Kinsmen, or through a playwright surrogate like Prospero in The Tempest – that is ‘pressed consistently to the fore’. Oddly, given this celebration of authorial power, Shakespeare was also about to revert to collaboration. The Tempest ends with an epilogue that has been imagined as its author’s farewell to the stage, but the romances were not his last plays, merely the last he wrote independently. After them came a trio of works written with the man who was to be his successor as principal dramatist for the King’s Men, John Fletcher.
A striking feature of Henry VIII (1613) and The Two Noble Kinsmen (1613-14) – and of what can be recovered of the now lost Cardenio (1612-13) – is how much the voice of Shakespeare’s contributions resembles Fletcher’s. For van Es, however, Fletcher’s ‘shaping influence’ can be felt even before the collaboration begins: the pastoral elements in the romances resemble those in the play that made Fletcher’s reputation, The Faithful Shepherdess, and Shakespeare repeatedly employs the ‘language of sexual obsession, switching rapidly from purity to corruption’, which ‘was a core constituent of the younger playwright’s drama’. The Shakespeare of this final work was ‘in many ways more modish and intellectually sociable’ than the Shakespeare of the mature years, but what had changed was less his own psychology than the company he kept: if the appearance of the Sonnets and A Lover’s Complaint in 1609 marked a renewed interest in the publication of his non-dramatic poetry, that was perhaps because ‘in the absence of daily contact with the players … the company of poets was [once again] making itself felt.’
All this makes for a plausible narrative, and one that often encourages new and helpful ways of thinking about the most familiar works. But it involves an element of conjecture. Shakespeare in Company may overstate the imitative character of the early work: while Titus Andronicus is obviously in thrall to Marlowe’s blank verse, the dramaturgical variety of the early plays, from Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Taming of the Shrew to the early histories, is more suggestive of a young writer trying to find his own theatrical voice than of van Es’s dutiful imitator. There is room for argument, too, about the notion of Shakespeare as a dramatist whose roots were in poetry not playing: a grammar school education like his, with its stress on the virtues of imitatio and its immersion in the poetry of Virgil, Horace, Seneca and Ovid, certainly encouraged literary ambition, but its attention to the declamatory arts of rhetoric also provided a useful nursery for actors. One can make too much of the absence of Shakespeare’s name from performance documents, given the general paucity of such records in the period; and it remains the case that his plays are marked from the beginning by a fascination with the experience of acting that suggests a deep engagement with the craft. It’s possible to see in Shakespeare’s work a prolonged attempt to tease out the vexed relationship between self and performance, from the exhilarated ‘counterfeiting’ of Richard and Gloucester in Richard III, through the perplexed shadow-play of Richard II’s ‘little scene’ and the transformative ‘fiction’ that possesses Hamlet’s Player, to the bafflingly ‘infinite variety’ of Cleopatra, the self-dissolution of Antony and the phobic anti-histrionicism of Coriolanus.
Burbage was celebrated by contemporaries for the remarkable verisimilitude of his performances – Richard Flecknoe remembered him as ‘so wholly transforming himself into his part … as he never assumed himself again until the play was done’ – and it was surely Shakespeare’s determination to probe the mystery of such self-transformation that gave rise to the vertiginous regressions of Hamlet’s brooding on selfhood and performance. Contemplating the Player’s utter absorption in his fictive ‘dream of passion’, Hamlet marvels at the physical intensity of the performance: ‘Tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect,/A broken voice, and his whole function suiting/With forms to his conceit?’ Citing the archaic style of the Hecuba speech, van Es sees it as a tribute to Edward Alleyn’s charismatic style of heroic impersonation, and reads into it an implied contrast with the sense of ‘conflicted interiority’ that Burbage’s more nuanced style created for Hamlet. But what Hamlet is observing here is something more than the theatrically exhibited passion at which Alleyn excelled, and which Hamlet has accused himself of displaying. The irony of the Player’s triumph is that, even though he is performing a part, he utterly succeeds, through a perfect matching of function (action, bearing, gesture) to conceit (frame of mind), in closing the gap between ‘actions that a man might play’ and ‘that within which passes show’. Even the nostalgic retrospect of Prospero’s meditations on his ‘so potent art’ seems less a celebration of the act of writing than an expression of Shakespeare’s continuing enchantment with the magic of theatre.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.