- At Work in the Early Modern Theater: Valuing Labor by Matthew Kendrick
Matthew Kendrick’s At Work in the Early Modern Theater opens with an absorbing anecdote about the author, the child of a working class family, finding himself uncomfortably cast in the role of Richard III in a middle school production: he uses this episode to narrate both the distance he felt from Shakespeare as an icon of high culture and to introduce his later discovery that the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries did in fact portray “the struggles” of laboring characters with whom he could identify (x). This is the only personal detail in an otherwise traditionally structured monograph, but it offers an early indication of the unwavering value that the author attaches to labor and to laboring bodies as they are represented in the early modern theatre. The author is adamant in his view that there is a direct line of descent from early modern laborers to Marx’s industrial-era working classes and, further, that labor in late sixteenth-century England (as today) is invested with an inherent dignity. These certainties are both a strength of the book and, at certain moments, a limitation.
At Work might be said to respond to Michelle Dowd’s call in a 2010 Literature Compass piece on “Shakespeare and Work” for research on
the relationship between work and subjectivity in Shakespeare…. To what degree might the practice of labor as an embodied act produce an understanding of subjectivity that is based as much in physicality and economics as in interiority or sexuality? While the desiring body has been pervasive in recent Shakespearean scholarship, the laboring body…remains relatively unexplored.(190)
And if this observation holds for the study of Shakespeare, how much more relevant for the larger body of early modern drama, much of which remains comparatively understudied? Like Dowd in that essay, At Work defines labor as an embodied practice that is fundamentally constitutive of subjectivity. Within the generic parameters of early modern drama, the book thoroughly explores the ramifications of that claim.
In seeking to articulate laboring subjectivities, At Work actually treads some ground that will be familiar to early modern scholars. What distinguishes Kendrick’s approach is his detailed engagement with Marxist theory. In the introduction, he argues that “anxiety over the objectification and dispossession of labor in its various forms is enacted on stage and that drama helps to formulate, by merit of the theater’s socioeconomic position, an emerging working-class identity engendered by the violent emergence of capitalism” (xii–xiii). Chapter 1, “The Theater between Craft and Commodity,” fills in the outlines, taking [End Page 372] issue with the periodization established by E. P. Thompson, which dated the development of the working classes as a discrete and self-conscious entity to the rise of mass industrialization in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Kendrick sees an opening for an earlier date in Thompson’s own insistence that class formation is an extended struggle playing out along a spectrum between self-determination and external agency. Following in Richard Halpern’s footsteps, Kendrick derives even more fundamental justification from Marx’s primitive accumulation, under the theory of which the early modern period was the moment when the detachment of capital and labor from feudal structures consolidated the interests of dispossessed laborers against those who owned the means of production.
To bear out this theory of labor’s rising self-consciousness, the first half of chapter 1 surveys “the emerging view of labor as a commodity, as a productive force to be tamed and harnessed in the pursuit of profit” (6). In the second half, Kendrick turns to the theatre as a workplace that exemplifies the contradictions and challenges facing early modern labor, his point being that the theatre’s defenders represented theatrical work as autonomous and skilled in the face of its detractors’ attempts to devalue and commodify it. This section is premised on the notion that previous critics have neglected the economic precarity of theatrical labor...