- Shakespeare in Company by Bart van Es
Oxford, 357 pp, £25.00, February 2013, ISBN 978 0 19 956931 1
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’.
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