- The Aesthetics of Service in Early Modern England by Elizabeth Rivlin, and: Intimacy and Sexuality in the Age of Shakespeare by James M. Bromley
In their new books, both Elizabeth Rivlin and James M. Bromley work out the literary implications of changes in institutional frameworks for personal relationships in early modern England. Rivlin focuses on the category of service while Bromley focuses on the pre-history of companionate marriage. These books have mirror-image strengths and weaknesses. While Rivlin’s account offers the more sociologically and historically rooted understanding of the transition to modernity, Bromley offers the more inventive and revealing textual analyses.
Although scholars have long understood the importance of service in early modern culture, Rivlin’s book offers a distinctive look at the aesthetic effects that [End Page 386] service generates in plays and prose narratives. For Rivlin, early modern service is an overdetermined site in which competing visions of work, interpersonal ties, and personal identity come together to create a category of relationship that is particularly productive for imaginative writers. In particular, Rivlin argues that service fuses the wish to imitate the master with the more aggressive wish to replace the master; she contends that centering a literary plot on service therefore creates formal pressure toward imitation and role playing and a distinctive psychological complexity. Moreover, Rivlin maintains that the concept of service provided early modern writers with a way of understanding their own status and work, whether because they literally wrote for a patron or because they understood their publics as metaphorical masters. According to Rivlin, by representing service inside literary texts writers could represent their own work and in so doing introduce a distinctive self-reflectiveness into their writing. She develops both of these arguments through readings of plays by Shakespeare, Jonson, and Dekker, and prose narratives by Nashe and Thomas Deloney. Indeed, one of the benefits of Rivlin’s approach is that focusing on the aesthetics of service creates openings between generic boundaries that are otherwise rarely crossed. This pays off in Rivlin’s successful efforts to connect prose narratives and plays throughout her study.
Ultimately, Rivlin probably overstates the centrality of service as an explanatory framework for early modern literature. No doubt, service is important both for authorial self-understanding and as a generative matrix inside the plays and prose narratives she examines. But to see service as a kind of master trope that is uniquely determinative of early modern literary culture seems to overstate the case. Nonetheless, by charting a path from the complex, sociological reality of service to a distinctive set of aesthetic effects Rivlin’s book complements important studies by Michael Neill, David Schalkwyk, Richard Strier, and the other critics with whom she engages throughout.
As the preceding summary suggests, Rivlin understands her project as a contribution to neoformalism; her concern is less with service as a historical reality and more with the distinctively aesthetic effects of service. Nevertheless, service is so obviously central to early modern society that the sociological ground of her discussion is implied throughout. The sense of sociological groundedness that Rivlin achieves by focusing her study on service is missing in Bromley’s discussion in Intimacy and Sexuality in the Age of Shakespeare because it centers on an ideal of companionate marriage that had not yet achieved institutional centrality in early modern England. Bromley’s book is structured around a sociologically absent center, an approach that accounts for both the weaknesses and strengths of his study.
Bromley’s concern is to chart a spectrum of bodily practices that he thinks constitute distinctively early modern forms of intimacy that are subsequently marginalized or even erased by the rise of companionate marriage and the particular model of intimacy associated with it. Bromley spells out his thesis on the first page of his study in a statement worth quoting at length because of...