- Women's Work in Early Modern English Literature and Culture, and: Service and Dependency in Shakespeare's Plays
If work is an action, service is a relationship. While not everyone in early modern England worked for others, or worked all the time, most people called themselves servants at some point—a term that could be applied to a page or serving girl in a great house, a housemaid or nurse who served in a middling household, a clergyman [End Page 593] who served the church, a craft apprentice who served a master, a minor official who served the state, or a farmer who served landed gentry. Ambitious lovers, courtiers, and actors claimed to be "servants" too, a pose that required work to maintain. So many people said they were servants or in service that the category tends to lose its retentive snap, like a piece of tired elastic.
Judith Weil acknowledges as much in her introduction, while adeptly showing how many markers of identity and social standing—especially youth and age, marital status, kinship, and friendship—complicate and obscure the experience of early modern service and allusions to it onstage. Servants were "slippery people" (1), hard to pin to a stable rung in the social order. A young servant in a great house might be gentle or noble, for example, serving with those lower in rank; a servant's affective bonds with employers might rival those of kin; and any servant might leave service abruptly for her own reasons, or be turned out against her will when a master was ruined. While the hierarchical organization of society was cemented by an internalized discourse of submission and obedience, the lived strategies of servitude—chief among them instrumentality and imitation—that is, becoming a thing or tool like a slave, and imitating one's "betters" in all things like an actor—prompted fear and fascination in the real world and in stage plays as different as Hamlet, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra, The Taming of the Shrew, All's Well That Ends Well, King Lear, and Macbeth.
Weil makes a case that the freedom-loving Hamlet successfully staves off threats to his princely autonomy by using and mocking the performative vocabulary of servitude. She shows how often he "recognizes and resists servility" (16), cutting himself off from his friends' and servants' help and acting like a rebellious, saucy page whose jesterlike antics carried the risk of severe punishment. Another theory, one I wish she had developed at greater length, is that Hamlet feels "profound admiration for the travelling players who can manage to offer their service . . . while retaining their liberty" (29). Because she wants to paint Hamlet as heroic (a tough sell), she downplays his misogyny and callousness, calling him a "young Hercules. . . . To his enormous credit he has eluded capture by Claudius, his own misery or the constricting, subordinate roles he plays in order to avenge his father. Loyalty to the Ghost . . . could have turned him into a Pyrrhus but he resists such servile mechanization" (31-32). Weil pairs Hamlet with Coriolanus because they are both cast as scourges of their fratricidal societies. Hercules-like, both are tested and killed. Unlike Hamlet, Coriolanus embraces his own instrumentality, willfully reifying himself as a killing machine yet violently sensitive to the charge of acting slavish.
Weil takes her analysis in a somewhat different direction from previous studies of servants in Shakespearean drama, reading major characters (mostly nonservants, in the usual sense) as constructs shaped by discourses of servility and service, rather than ethical volition, status, erotic desire, or gender. Since service is relational, she promises to focus on webs of relationships. Considering Enobarbus and Antony, she asks perceptively, "Why does the fusion of service and friendship in Antony and Cleopatra prove to be so deadly?" (6). In a finely wrought reading, Weil argues that the implicit demands of...