Shakespeare in Company by Bart van Es

Peter J. Smith on the Bard as collaborative figure

March 14, 2013

Ben Jonson’s extravagant eulogy, included in the First Folio of 1623, praised Shakespeare as a unique talent worthy of elevation above other canonical writers: “I will not lodge thee by/Chaucer or Spenser”. Jonson’s enthusiastic praise describes Shakespeare as eclipsing Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe, and ranks him among the greatest of the ancients: Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles. Right from the outset, Shakespeare’s poetic capabilities have been lauded as transcendent, exceptional and, not infrequently, those of a genius. From the Romantics down to the idiosyncratic pronouncements of Harold Bloom, Shakespeare, like his egotistical creation Richard of Gloucester, is himself alone.

More recently, however, a good deal of work has been done on the collaborative nature of early modern drama. This does not simply encompass the writing partnerships of Shakespeare’s early and late plays, or the alterations and additions subsequently made by writers such as Thomas Middleton, but also the cooperative and occasionally competitive working relationships between individuals such as actors, patrons, playwrights and publishers, and institutions such as companies, repertories, theatre spaces or the mechanisms of censorship, not to mention audiences. Early modern theatre has been shown to be no less collaborative than that of today, and Shakespeare studies, responding to the pressures of a materialist agenda, are increasingly prepared to recognise the playwright as part of a larger theatrical industry. This was initiated and backed by prosperous businessmen such as James Burbage, Edward Alleyn and Philip Henslowe, with the Bard writing alongside George Peele, Thomas Dekker, Marlowe, Thomas Nashe and (later) John Fletcher, creating characters for specific performers such as Will Kemp, Robert Armin and Richard Burbage. Shakespeare’s creative art was circumscribed and invigorated by working among these partners and organisations.

Shakespeare’s creative art was circumscribed and invigorated by working among these partners and organisations

As the title of this book suggests, the playwright needs to be studied as a constituent of and a contributor to these creative relationships. Moreover, the economic connotations of “company” alert us to the fact that Shakespeare’s output was formed in part by financial arrangements, not least his acquiring a stake in the company and then the theatre for which he was writing. As van Es states unarguably: “There is inevitably a connection between the literary features of a work and the material conditions of its creation.”

Shakespeare in Company is a meticulous account of the institutional and economic forces that shaped the plays themselves and an acute analysis of the ways in which this shaping occurred. For instance, in 1594 Shakespeare became a sharer in the Chamberlain’s Men and, as such, an “attached” playwright. Unlike Kyd, Chapman, Jonson, Ford, Webster or Beaumont, Shakespeare wrote for a single company, an arrangement, claims van Es, that he “initiated”. This facilitated the composition of roles with particular actors in mind and “a new concern with the process of casting individual performers [which in turn] enabled the creation of psychological depth”.

In 1599, Shakespeare bought part ownership “of the most impressive performance venue in London” and the Globe became the company’s permanent residence. This financial security cemented Shakespeare’s association with Burbage, for whom he wrote the roles of Hamlet, Othello, Lear and Macbeth, among others: “The great tragedian was now Shakespeare’s primary partner and by the middle of the decade the dramatist would entirely abandon the writing of comedies.”

Van Es argues that the late plays written with Fletcher “evince a gradual loosening of [Shakespeare’s] acting-company connections” and this is manifest in the yielding of characterisation to “a more choreographic interest in visual impact and rhetorical effect”. This is a sensitive, erudite and intriguing study that demonstrates the inseparability of the rarefied perfections of Shakespeare’s art and the day-to-day business of the entertainment industry.

Shakespeare in Company

By Bart van Es
Oxford University Press, 384pp, £25.00
ISBN 9780199569311
Published 14 February 2013

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