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Reviewed by:
  • Work and Play on the Shakespearean Stage
  • Michelle M. Dowd (bio)
Work and Play on the Shakespearean Stage. By Tom Rutter. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. x + 206. $93.00 cloth.

On the opening page of his introduction, Tom Rutter acknowledges that the treatment of work in Shakespearean drama might seem to be an "unpromising subject for a book" (1). Work is an extended, rather than a discrete, process that is difficult to define and therefore hard to represent onstage, and its centrality to daily living tends to disassociate it from the aesthetic interests of imaginative literature, especially popular drama. However, Rutter's study reveals quite strikingly that rather than being mundane or peripheral, work was instead vital to the English Renaissance stage; not only did the theater dramatize many kinds of labor, but as a cultural venue it was itself problematically implicated in contemporary debates about work and leisure. Examining a variety of Shakespeare's plays alongside those by Thomas Dekker, Thomas Heywood, Ben Jonson, and others, and emphasizing the repertory system in which these plays were performed, Rutter traces the productive tension between the Elizabethan theater as "both a place of work and a place for escape from work" (157).

Rutter begins by considering shifts from medieval to early modern ideologies of work. He traces many of the now-familiar historical transformations of the period, including the dramatic rise in England's population, the increasing emphasis on productivity in economic theory, and the "perceived link between idleness and social unrest" (19) and argues persuasively that such changes helped to produce a society in which work was no longer viewed as "the business only of one class of people" (15) but as "an obligation incumbent upon all" (16). Rutter is careful here and in subsequent chapters, however, not to overstate these historical shifts or to impose an artificial teleology onto his evidence. He traces concurrent and conflicting ideas about work in the late Elizabethan period, for instance, noting that the medieval division of society into those who worked and those who did not was retained and revised in important ways in the late sixteenth century to accommodate changes in the social roles of the gentry and aristocracy.

In chapter 2, Rutter argues that the status of actors in Shakespeare's England underwent "a gradual reorientation in relation to the idea of work" (29), brought about by the increasing regularity of theatrical performance in London, among other factors. One of the notable strengths of this chapter is how it usefully resituates the critical discussion of antitheatrical literature in terms of work. Marshaling an eclectic range of plays from the 1590s, including Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew and Anthony Munday's John a Kent and John a Cumber, Rutter suggests [End Page 598] how these texts intervene in debates about the legitimacy of professional playing by representing acting as work. Building on the research of Tiffany Stern, for example (Rehearsal from Shakespeare to Sheridan [2000]), Rutter nicely argues that A Midsummer Night's Dream showcases the labor that goes into performance by staging the mental and physical work of rehearsal in which Bottom and the other mechanicals engage throughout the play.

Rutter's third chapter focuses on Shakespeare's history plays and draws a connection between the English aristocracy and the actors discussed in the previous chapter by suggesting that both groups share "a vulnerability to the accusation that they lived without labour" (57). This chapter, one of the book's strongest, offers cogent discussions of Shakespeare's histories that highlight the creative tension between conceptions of nobility and labor that animates these plays. Examining the first and second tetralogies, Rutter demonstrates that Shakespeare often represents noblemen as public servants performing useful mental and physical work, in effect, articulating an ethos of public service that deflects concerns about idleness. The reexamination of Hal's famous soliloquy in 1 Henry IV, 1.2, is particularly illuminating, as is Rutter's thoughtful exploration of how the histories destabilize the very ideologies of work and idleness on which they depend.

The final two chapters shift attention to attitudes toward work adopted by different playing companies at the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-3555
Print ISSN
0037-3222
Pages
pp. 598-600
Launched on MUSE
2010-12-30
Open Access
No
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