<Book Review>
The Aesthetics of Service in Early Modern England
Elizabeth Rivlin
[Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2012 | 220 pages ]

Consider the following scenes from some early modern plays and texts: In Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (c.1590-91), a devoted servant swaps places with his master and outwits everybody to help his lord secure a cloistered young woman’s hand in marriage. In Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday (1599), a spendthrift aristocrat disguises himself as an apprentice while his employer ascends from shoemaker to Lord Mayor. Finally, in Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller (1594), a cunning and mercenary page swaps places with the Earl of Surrey and tricks a courtesan into an elaborate murder plot.

Elizabeth Rivlin examines these and similar scenes in The Aesthetics of Service in Early Modern England and asks: what unites them? Her answer, and the central argument of The Aesthetics, is that in these scenes servants convincingly perform their masters’ roles and, in doing so, gain financially, advance socially and express themselves creatively. These scenes therefore show that when servants are told to act for their masters, they often end up acting as their masters (3). Or, to put this point another way, although masters may initially demand imitation, servants exploit the ensuing freedoms of representation.

Rivlin not only shows that stages and pages were brimming with mimicking servants in this period, but suggests that writers themselves were negotiating new forms of service relationships. Hence she argues that fictional servants represented writers and real life servants, both of whom were finding their ways in a “burgeoning commercial economy” (16). Unlike medieval servants, Rivlin states, early modern servants “were not necessarily bound” to their masters “permanently and incontrovertibly” (17). “What mattered more”, then, “was how one enacted or performed one’s service role” (17). In a similar manner, writers trod a delicate balance, catering to their aristocratic patrons while increasingly marketing their works “towards the reading or playgoing public” (19).

As well as using theories of performance and considering authorial positions The Aesthetics of Service gives voice to a range of writers – not just Shakespeare – in a refreshing departure from previous scholarship. Shakespeare does, admittedly, open and close the study but subsequent chapters discuss Thomas Nashe, Thomas Dekker, Ben Jonson and Thomas Deloney, amongst others. Nashe’s funny, novel and complex representations of service are sadly understudied, so Rivlin’s assessment of his prose is particularly welcome.

But why do Rivlin’s insights matter? To answer this, it might be helpful to briefly contextualize her argument. Rivlin participates in a conversation about servitude which began in earnest with Mark Thornton Burnett, who – reacting against previous critics’ neglect of early modern servants – recovered the presence of these “subordinated” individuals and their “expressions of resistance”[†]. A number of critics followed, exposing the power struggles which, they argued, underpinned service relationships. What was missing from these studies, however, was a sense of the psychological, economic, social or spiritual freedoms which can stem from the performance of unequal relationships [‡]. In response, Rivlin shows that although early modern writers did often demand that servants forget about their own feelings and inclinations and become their employers’ copies, servants performing these demands disrupted the hierarchies they seemingly supported.

As stimulating and timely as Rivlin’s study is, I am left with some questions about her alignment of early modern society and ‘performativity’. Rivlin suggests that capitalism released individuals from a medieval system which had largely prized political, social and cultural stability. But medieval society – as rightfully irked medievalists continually remind us – included hugely varied economic practices including so-called ‘bastard feudalism’, a practice which historians labelled pejoratively precisely because they associated it with performativity and the disappearance of fixed loyalties. A literary depiction of bastard feudalism can be found in Fulgens and Lucres (c.1497), a medieval interlude. Here, two masters try to get their incorrigible servants ‘A’ and ‘B’ to represent them, but the servants instead use these demands as an opportunity to wreak havoc with the pre-formed plot. Characters in this interlude forge bastard feudal – not capitalist – contracts, but their relationships are arguably just as performative as the relationships Rivlin associates with early capitalist economies.

On the whole, however, Rivlin is sensitive to historical nuances and carefully stipulates that her project is about “multiplicity and fluidity, not linear replacements” (25). The Aesthetics of Service would be useful and interesting reading for, amongst others, anybody interested in early modern familial and household relationships, as well as those interested in theories of drama and performance.

     — Laurie Mckee, Northumbria University


[†] See Mark Thornton Burnett, Masters and Servants in English Renaissance Drama and Culture: Authority and Obedience (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 1997), 7.

[‡] For previous attempts to redress this balance see David Schalkwyk, Shakespeare, Love and Service (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); and David Evett, Discourses of Service in Shakespeare’s England (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

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