- A Place in the Story: Servants and Service in Shakespeare's Plays
In A Place in the Story Linda Anderson explores Shakespeare's representation of servants, arguing that, despite the "lack of attention paid to the role of servants" in early modern drama (9), servant-characters serve a wide variety of dramatic purposes in Shakespeare's plays. Her study offers a survey of the entire Shakespeare [End Page 643] canon that reveals the dramatist's continued fascination with the social institution of service throughout his career. Instead of approaching service in the plays from a single theoretical vantage point, Anderson chooses to present an overview of the "wide range of attitudes toward service" visible in these disparate texts (10). As such, this study provides a good introduction to the ideology of service in early modern England and, specifically, to Shakespeare's dramatic engagement with the structures of servitude that permeated his culture.
The first three chapters of the book establish Anderson's primary claims and methods. In the opening chapter Anderson makes the case that while modern critics have paid some attention to rebellious and resistant servants in Shakespeare's plays, they have been generally "oblivious" to virtuous or obedient servant-characters (27). Chapters 2 and 3 introduce the concept of service as both "ideal and indignity" in Shakespeare's England (30) and discuss the typical uses of servants in Shakespeare's plays, which range from "comic relief to innocent sufferer of violence to means of commenting on upper-class characters" (63). Anderson makes it clear that "virtually any relationship" could be understood in terms of service in the period (34), resulting in an "ambiguity in the meanings of service" that Shakespeare exploited for theatrical effect (54).
In the central chapters of the study, Anderson considers in turn the metaphoric language of service in the plays, the theme of loyalty and disloyalty, the depiction of servants who offer council to their masters, and the role of messengers. Chapters 8, 9, and 10 — arguably the book's strongest — examine how Shakespeare represents conflicts within the institution of service, including violence directed toward servants and the "duty to disobey" faced by characters, such as Paulina in The Winter's Tale, who disobey their masters in order to perform a "higher kind of service" to God or to their own consciences (200). Anderson's methodology is consistent throughout; she organizes each chapter around a major theme that she develops through short examples taken from a wide range of Shakespeare's plays. In chapter 6, for example, she discusses the role of servants as advisors by drawing on brief moments from over thirty plays ranging from The Comedy of Errors to King Lear to Timon of Athens.
Anderson's methodology unfortunately leaves little space for in-depth explorations of individual texts or characters. Because each play is broken up and discussed over several chapters, her important readings of key texts, such as Antony and Cleopatra and Othello, tend to get lost. Analyzing a few notable plays in a more sustained manner would, I think, have enabled Anderson to articulate more clearly the interpretive possibilities that emerge when we view Shakespeare's plays through the lens of early modern discourses about service. The scope of Anderson's study also leads her at times to make some vague and rather unhelpful conclusions, such as "service certainly lends itself to a great many variations" (241) or "[b]ecause service . . . was so much a part of early modern culture, it seems natural that it was part of the period's popular entertainment" (239). By emphasizing breadth rather than depth, Anderson necessarily glosses over many nuances, including important historical developments (such as the gradual shift to a wage-based service [End Page 644] economy), which she tends to relegate to footnotes rather than explore in the body of her text. The overall result is a study that is more descriptive than analytical in character.
Nevertheless, A Place in the Story is a...