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Bart van Es, Shakespeare in Company
by Jonathan Gibson

Van Es, Bart. Shakespeare in Company. Oxford UP, 2013. xiii + 357 pp. ISBN: 978-0199569311. $46.00 cloth.


In this lucid monograph, Bart van Es makes a tightly argued case for the influence of Shakespeare’s professional working practices on certain key elements in his writing. He is not alone among contemporary Shakespeareans, an increasing number of whom have sought to find solid ground for their readings of the plays in the intricate material transitions between Early Modern pages and stages.[1] Past generations of scholars sought the explanation for “the genius of Shakespeare” in personal biography, aesthetic development and political or social challenges and tensions (whether Early Modern or more recent). Many of us now seem happier with explanations rooted in the burs and briers of Shakespeare’s working-day world. It frequently feels as if theatre history is the master: the focus is on the ins and outs of playing companies’ financial arrangements, on rehearsal practice, on props and costumes, on the mechanisms whereby scripts were commissioned, on the curricula vitae of Shakespeare’s fellow players. 

Historicist critics of Shakespeare interested in broad socio-political contexts have necessarily had to depend on secondary sources (often a very limited number) as authorities for those contexts. That the case is very different in Shakespeare in Company is one of the book’s fascinations. The contexts on which Van Es’s readings are dependent—the nitty gritty of the working practices of Shakespeare and his colleagues across Shakespeare’s entire career—have had to be assembled by Van Es piece by piece, in painstaking engagement with the work of theatre historians such as Gerald Eades Bentley, S. P. Cerasano, Andrew Gurr, William Ingram and Grace Ioppolo. Most of the detail of this argument takes place in the book’s limpid footnotes—an elegant ground bass underpinning Van Es’s sprightly literary critical forays. These footnotes, rather more selective in their emphases than they at first appear, add up to an agreeably tendentious bibliographical guide to late sixteenth century and early seventeenth century theatre history. 

The “company” in which Van Es finds Shakespeare is represented on the book’s cover by images of Richard Burbage and Christopher Marlowe. These, flanking a reproduction of the Chandos portrait of Shakespeare, presumably represent the theatrical and literary poles between which Van Es sees Shakespeare as having moved. Arguing that Shakespeare was a writer who became an actor rather than the other way about,[2] Van Es glosses Shakespeare’s earliest work as fundamentally literary. It springs, he suggests, from a bright grammar school boy’s reading of Plautus, Ariosto, Seneca and their English imitators. Involving collaboration with fellow playwrights, these plays—Titus Andronicus and the earliest comedies and histories—were necessarily conceived at somewhat of a remove from the actors who took the parts of Richard III, the two Antipholuses and Aaron the Moor. The book’s central claim is that the crucial transition point in Shakespeare’s career came in 1594: the year during which Shakespeare—very unusually for a playwright—became a company “sharer,” taking on a position which involved investing in as well as benefiting from the day’s takings of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. By becoming a sharer, Shakespeare tied himself to a particular group of players—commonplace for an actor, but exceptional for a writer. Van Es is at pains to stress the uniqueness of this career move: “The phenomenon of the attached poetic playwright (writing for only one company) was initiated by Shakespeare: it did not extend elsewhere until the seventeenth century and even then was a more modest and occasional affair” (80). As an “attached playwright,” Shakespeare was absolved from the need to collaborate on plays with other writers. His intimacy with the company would also, Van Es suggests, have meant that he would have been privy to decisions about casting. (As Van Es points out, two of Shakespeare’s earliest plays for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Love’s Labour’s Lost, both contain comic set-pieces on the subject of casting [79]). 

Knowing exactly for whom he was writing, Shakespeare the sharer quickly became skilled at writing both for and against type. His inwardness with the company enabled him, Van Es says, to develop a radically new form of “relational drama” (Chapter 6) in which characters with distinctive ways of speaking interact in complex ways, developing unpredictably. Before 1594, Shakespeare’s plays in effect tell us what they are about, and the dramatis personae are freestanding mouthpieces for the author’s rhetorical skills moved about clunkily by the plot; after 1594, we are shown intricate, evolving interdependencies between vividly delineated characters. Whilst the collapse of Richard III’s reign is marked by “dazzling stichomythia and rhythmic cursing,” therefore, the deposition scene in Richard II is “structured much less by literary conventions and much more by the exigencies of power,” as we see “non-lead characters” struggle with “conflicted loyalties” (117).

1594 is not the only crunch year in the book. It is claimed that a new phase in Shakespeare’s career opened up in 1599 when Shakespeare became a “housekeeper” for the new Globe Theatre—one of a select subgroup of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men sharers. This, Van Es tells us, made Shakespeare even richer (he was already well off) and allowed him to spend more time on his writing, free to develop in more detail “the artistic ventures that attracted him most” (195). His new status also incentivized him to write disproportionately large parts for his fellow-housekeeper Richard Burbage. The final phase (from 1608)—the period of the “late plays”—Van Es sees as a withdrawal from day-to-day theatrical activity. As Shakespeare spent more time in Stratford, he turned back to poetry (with the Sonnets) and to collaborative authorship. His characters became less distinctive; the plot took center stage. 

Within this highly persuasive framework, there are many intriguing suggestions: a lovely linkage, for example, between the anti-theatrical theme of Prince Hamlet’s first speech and Richard Burbage’s undemonstrative, character-focused acting style (238-41); the identification of Thomas Heywood as a sort of “almost-Shakespeare,” prevented from full engagement with “relational drama” by the dissolution of the Queen’s Men in 1623. Not everyone will, however, agree with every detail of Van Es’s reconstruction of Shakespeare’s career. The book’s initial move—the suggestion that Shakespeare did not begin as an actor—flies in the face of a well-established tradition. Gary Taylor has recently questioned Van Es’s characterization of collaborative writing as the effect of playing arrangements rather than of deliberate aesthetic choice.[3] Van Es’s dating of Sir Thomas More to 1593-4 ignores the later dating argued for in John Jowett’s Arden 3 edition, a text which appeared two years before Shakespeare in Company.[4] 

Although Shakespeare in Company is, from one point of view, fiercely materialistic, it also feels like a very literary book. This is because, by and large, the function of the theatrical contexts Van Es puts in place is to create the conditions for particular literary choices. In the early part of Shakespeare’s career, we hear about the devices of classical rhetoric and verbal echoes of Marlowe across the works of Shakespeare’s contemporaries; the relationship between Shakespeare and the King’s Men clown Robert Armin is filtered through an analysis of the influence of Armin’s written works on King Lear; a discussion of the late plays is dominated by an analysis of the stylistic and dramaturgical links between Fletcher and Shakespeare. What is noticeably missing for most of the book is what we might call the “ideological” dimension—any suggestion that Shakespeare’s verbal and dramatic choices might have social or political ramifications. (To prove the rule, there is an important exception to this: Van Es stimulatingly argues that that Shakespeare’s middle period Globe plays, such as Othello, embody a “woman-centred and socially middling” ethos of “the public stage” that is resistant to the cynicism and “exclusive gentlemanly culture” (212) of the revived boys’ companies.) 

One thing that the existence of this ideology-shaped gap does is highlight one of Van Es’s key themes: the exceptional nature of Shakespeare’s literary practice. It also reminds the reader of what Van Es’s concise book leaves undone.  No reading of any given play is pushed very far, and much—about his contemporaries’ work as well as Shakespeare’s own—is stated without being exemplified in any detail. The clarity of Van Es’s four-phase model and the acuity of his judgments almost make one forget that the factors he elides—the political, the personal, the cultural—have not gone away and that they must work in complex ways both with and against his four-phase framework. There is scope both to flesh out and interrogate Van Es’s literary criticism and, thanks to his footnotes, to question its basis in theatre history. The power and persuasiveness of the overall thesis of Shakespeare in Company, however, should ensure that it remains a reference point in Shakespeare studies for some considerable time.


Jonathan Gibson
The Open University 

[1] Examples include Simon Palfrey and Tiffany Stern, Shakespeare in Parts, Oxford UP, 2010, and the essays in Shakespeare’s Theatres and the Effects of Performance, edited by Tiffany Stern and Farah Karim Cooper, Bloomsbury, 2014, Arden Shakespeare Library.

[2] Van Es develops this important argument further in his “Johannes Factotum: Henry Chettle and Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit,” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, vol. 87, 1993, pp. 453-86.

[3] Gary Taylor, “Why Did Shakespeare Collaborate?” Shakespeare Survey, vol. 67, 2014, pp. 1-17.

[4] Anthony Munday, Henry Chettle et al., Sir Thomas More, edited by John Jowett, Arden Shakespeare, 2011.


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Jonathan Gibson, "Bart van Es, Shakespeare in Company ," Spenser Review 46.1.14 (Spring-Summer 2016). Accessed September 26th, 2018.
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