Shakespeare in Company

shakespeare-in-companyMuch of literary history leaves me with an overwhelming sense of “Who cares?” The minutiae of specific dates, lists of first publications and endless variants, it’s generally very tedious. Throughout the non-fiction Shakespeare in Company, however, Bart Van Es employs that scholarship to develop a compelling study of the bard and his working life. The basic idea is that Shakespeare was brilliant, but what enabled him to realize his potential and become a revolutionary literary figure were his working conditions and the company of people he kept around him. This thesis is well supported and fascinating, and the book is a great look at a genius and the context that supported and shaped him in his artistry.

Starting Out

Van Es divides Shakespeare’s career into four phases: An early phase before 1594, a company phase before 1599, a playhouse phase before 1608, and a late phase before his retirement in 1614. Each is addressed by a section of this book.

Shakespeare appears in the literary record in 1592 an already apparently well known and well regarded poet and playwright. His education and career up to that point are murky, but Van Es makes a solid case that they weren’t particularly unique among the poets and playwrights of the time. Shakespeare was actually solidly part of a whole class of writers engendered by recent changes and improvements in the English education system, particularly the grammar schools. His early known writings also echo those of many other authors in style and content.

Importantly, at this point the trajectory of Shakespeare’s career follows those of many others. Examples include his search for literary patronage and carefully stewarded publication of his poems, neither of which he would pursue after this phase. As a playwright he also wrote under common conditions and constraints, very similar to modern day Hollywood scriptwriters: Authors retained no control of their works, received no ongoing recompense from them once purchased, weren’t particularly involved in their production, and had little or no a priori idea of the casting. Scripts were also often the product of many people, both working collaboratively and in successive edits and rewrites. Among all this Shakespeare stood out in quality but not in kind, he fit very well into a mold and trajectory common to poet-playwrights of the time.

Company Man

In 1594 though Shakespeare bought in as a founding co-owner of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the acting company with which he would come to be inextricably associated. From that point, Van Es argues believably, he became literally unique in his position and that in turn enabled his output to be unique. Essentially no other playwright of the period was a sustained part owner in such a company. That afforded Shakespeare many things, notably authorial control over his works, continuing income from their production, and less time pressure. As one example, that control and security seemingly enabled a less misogynistic tone in his plays of this period compared to those of his peers and the works Shakespeare himself had produced earlier while writing enmeshed in that culture.

The First Folio, one of the first legitimate collections of Shakespeare's works.

The First Folio, one of the first legitimate collections of Shakespeare’s works.

More dramatically, the company meant Shakespeare was working with and writing for the same group of players, his co-owners, over time. To an unprecedented degree he had specific ideas about players to fill certain roles, and the ability to execute that in production. That group was also tight knit and developed a long history and complex personal relationships. All of that showed up in Shakespeare’s plays of this period. Previously he and all other playwrights had produced essentially flat characters. Even the lead would have good speeches but not much depth, with binary transitions between emotions and motivations, few interpersonal connections to other characters, and random inconsistencies throughout a play. Those traits all came about due to the necessarily plug and play nature of the plays, required by a creation process involving many different authors and no real linkage between writing and production. Secure within the Lord Chamberlain’s Men though, Shakespeare had the control, resources, and examples to focus on interpersonal relationships among a relatively small group, and his great plays from this period demonstrate that amply.

The Globe

Shakespeare’s material situation again evolved and improved in 1599, with again a consequent change in his work. At that point he and others of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men founded The Globe Theater. This was another unprecedented move, the players owning the playhouse, and gave Shakespeare even more security and control. Notably, that commitment to the Globe theater also committed Shakespeare to a particular audience segment and worldview, which shaped how he incorporated and responded to changing tastes and rival companies, emerging for the first time after a period of relatively limited competition.

The Globe also changed the nature of the company. The group of more or less equal partners became smaller and closer. This shows up qualitatively and even quantitatively in Shakespeare’s writing. Whereas major parts previously had a fairly even distribution of lines, the plays from this period lavish much more speaking time on specific lead roles. In particular, Shakespeare came to work closely with and write his great dramatic pieces from this era specifically for Richard Burbage, the leading dramatic actor of that era. The latter’s unique talents on the stage enabled Shakespeare to develop an interior world and gradually changing characters unsupportable by other actors of the time. In particular, without that unique partnership of great actor and great writer working closely over years, Van Es essentially argues that a work such as Hamlet, especially designed for Burbage and his opus as well as Shakespeare’s, would have been unimaginable to conceive, let alone impossible to achieve.

Richard Burbage, the great early-modern dramatic actor.

Richard Burbage, the great early-modern dramatic actor.


Finally, Shakespeare’s working circumstances again changed as The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, now the King’s Men, grew and moved on. Van Es argues well that the shift in writing style and thematic matter in Shakespeare’s later plays was not primarily driven by the company’s patronage by the King, nor the physical architecture of their new, indoor winter venue of the Blackfriars theater, as many theories hold. Similarly, Van Es argues that it was not because Shakespeare had begun retirement and become more reclusive. Indeed, Van Es shows that in some ways the opposite was true: Shakespeare was more financially invested in theatrical efforts than ever before, and he was actually much more collaborative and social in a literary sense than he had been since the start of his career.

However, what had changed was that the group was no longer small and close. The company had increasing numbers of hired non-owner players, and the partnership less equal. Van Es homes this change in 1608, with the company beginning operation of the Blackfriars and making a dramatic shift in the partnership structure of the group. Similarly, by then many members of the group had themselves ceased playing, likely including Shakespeare himself.

With Shakespeare less involved in the daily production of plays, and the players’ group less intimate, that social space was filled by other poets. Their renewed presence in Shakespeare’s life in turn engaged him in the literary scene in a way he had not been for fifteen years. The staunch individuality in style, content, and form that he had maintained since the forming of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men shifted back again toward the more literary and classical approach of his poet peers. This in turn lead to a minimization of interpersonal relationships, and increased focus on spectacle and introspective examinations on art itself.


In addition to that main thread, Van Es’ text provides a lot of insight into theater of the time, both its operations and its deeper meanings and connotations. For example, the book has a great sidenote discussion about the presentation of Robert Armin as the fool in King Lear. The fool is referenced several times well before actually appearing on stage, and Van Es notes the extra dramatic tension the audience would have experienced, knowing that he was lurking just backstage, particularly as the audience would know full well it would be the great, well established fool Armin. That kind of tension just isn’t the same in a film.


As a minor nitpick, Shakespeare in Company is a bit annoying to read at times as it can’t really settle on whether or not footnotes are just for references or also include meaningful tangential information. The early chapters in particular with much historical referencing suffer from this. However, it is worth soldiering through as it becomes more readable, particularly if you start largely ignoring the footnotes, and insights and arguments of the main thesis are well worthwhile.

This is perhaps obvious, but the book is also almost certainly not worth reading without some knowledge of at least Shakespeare’s major plays. In particular, the text focuses on Titus Andronicus, The Taming of the Shrew, the second tetralogy, Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear. There’s too much analysis and discussion reliant on referencing the characters and plot arcs of those to make it readily decipherable without basic familiarity. With that background though you can gain a fair bit of insight into not just Shakespeare, but those plays themselves.

The Globe Theater.

The Globe Theater.


All in all, Van Es’ thesis is very believable and argued in depth. I found it a fascinating study of how a team of remarkable individuals shape and enable each other, in this case producing one of the truly singularly accomplished people of all time and some of the greatest works of art. Shakespeare in Company is well worth reading for anyone remotely interested in these plays and more generally in the intermingling of genius and context. A good taste of the book can be found in the Times Literary Supplement’s review, which summarizes at length how some of the various actors and writers shaped Shakespeare’s works, particularly discussing the shift in company membership from the clown William Kempe to the fool Robert Armin.

Beevor’s ‘The Second World War’

beevorEarly this year I picked up Antony Beevor’s 2012 history book The Second World War on the recommendation of Ta-Nahesi Coates (here and here), and recently I finally read it.  The book is actually somewhat complex to evaluate.  Most reviews (NY Times, Guardian, etc.) seem to have been positive but not super excited about the effort.  At first I agreed but now feel it to be an excellent book within its audience, goals, and necessary limitations.  It is certainly by far the best single-volume history of the entire war that I have encountered.


The first tough question to evaluate is who exactly is the audience for this book?  I found it to be a fast read but at almost 800 pages (excluding bibliography) it is probably a significant commitment for many people.  Beyond that, it is mired in details of dates, titles, numbers, troop dispositions, and so on.  Not getting bogged down in these while also not missing important notes or losing track of the overall thread and continuity could be challenging for younger or less experienced readers.  Similarly, those only marginally interested in the topic could potentially be turned off by its sheer length and the volume of nuts & bolts minutia.

From a different angle, those who are very interested and have read a lot about the second world war may at times be a bit confused about what they’re supposed to get out of the text.  Surprisingly given the many decades between the event and now, Beevor does actually present a number of new revelations that have only recently entered public knowledge.  But the overall text is very light on analysis and motivations, and the basic detailed history already well covered in innumerable texts and documentaries, so for those well versed in the topic it’s not always immediately clear for what or whom the book is intended.

Ground History

Eventually though I came to understand the book as a detailed ground history across the entire scope of WW2.  At that it is impressively detailed yet readable.  If you want to get or ensure you have a comprehensive feel for the military movements across all of the half dozen or so major fronts in the war, this is the text you want.  In this way it’s useful for both those unfamiliar with the topic, and those who want to cement their knowledge.  Beevor himself notes that he wrote the book because, having written several other books about particular battles and topics, he thought his own knowledge was patchy.  As one example for me, though broadly familiar with the fighting and politics in China, the overall picture and the specifics of the intense jockeying for post war positioning between the Nationalists and the Communists is much more clear now.

That leads directly to the first place the book really excels.  It covers the whole war.  From an American perspective this makes it a particularly useful text.  All of the early movements in Czechoslovakia and Poland, the critical nature and immense scope of the Eastern Front, to the Italian and African campaigns, to the overlooked but long-term incredibly important China and Southeast Asian theaters, everything’s covered.  This isn’t a typical American history in which the war is largely fought and won over 4 days (e.g., Pearl Harbor, D-Day, Iwo Jima, Hiroshima).  The Battle of Britain, for example, gets a reasonable but notably succinct summary, which makes much sense upon reflection:  That conflict’s extremely well covered elsewhere and, though immensely important, actually very simple and straightforward in the basics.  In contrast, a tremendous number of pages is spent on the sprawling, complex, and ultimately world defining Eastern Front, a theater that has little detailed recognition and understanding among western audiences.  As another personal example, though relatively very aware of the scope of Soviet and German losses, and the sheer brutality of that conflict in particular, the book adds a layer of general understanding to the overall sweep and movement of the war.  It also clarifies a number of details, e.g., the final Soviet and US run-in to Berlin, a relatively small but ultimately very consequential period of time of which it turns out I did not understand the basic mechanics well at all.

Map from the text of a late war overarching Soviet push.

Map from the text of a late war overarching Soviet push.

To the point about brutality, that’s where the book really excels.  It’s important to recognize and understand that the text comes from classical, traditional military histories of major conflicts.  Though the coverage is reasonable for the book’s purposes, Beevor only tangentially discusses the politics, economics, and scientific enterprises that are the real heart of the issue in the war.  If you’re looking directly for analysis, contextual understanding, and long term consequences, as I was going in, this is not that text.  It starts from a focus on armies and generals and combat and stays focused on that kind of ground level details of the war.

But Second World War goes well beyond that class of ultimately unenlightening typical military narrative in being very comprehensive about what it means to be a “detailed ground history across the entire scope of WW2.”  There is extensive discussion about the suffering of individual soldiers and the conditions they fought under.  More importantly, despite the book’s military history origins, Beevor places equal focus on the devastating, incomprehensible levels of civilian suffering, elevating the text well above most generic WW2 histories.  Both abstract issues and numbers as well as a wide array of personal letters and diaries are used to document that aspect of the war as extensively as the military maneuvers.  It documents well topics like the courses of both Nazi and Soviet genocide; unbelievable losses of life to famine in China and Southeast Asia; and the awful, unrelenting destruction and poverty of the churned middle ground between Russia and Germany.

The book also puts special attention to the near universal suffering and persecution of women on all fronts.  To a large extent this is not a revelation to any who have read about or are otherwise familiar with events like the Rape of Nanking, or, indeed, has thought at all about the likely consequences of an extended, to-the-death, wide scale war, particularly one with heavy racial and nationalist undertones.  But this is a topic still under-discussed and poorly recognized, e.g., among all the pop fans of WW2 enabling the thriving history-entertainment industry.  Beevor also pushes that understanding into all theaters and forces the unavoidable conclusion that this is not an issue of ad hoc atrocities or confined to just one region.  The text makes clear both the overwhelming extent and horrifying nature of female suffering across the entire worldwide conflict, as well as its execution as a systematic, condoned, even organized undertaking.

Chinese refugees in Chungking, wrecked capital of the Nationalists.

Chinese refugees in Chungking, wrecked capital of the Nationalists.

Details and Revelations

As has been widely publicized in other reviews, the book does work to raise popular awareness of a number of relatively new revelations.  Some of these include:

  • A somewhat notable assassination of a Vichy French official, not previously understood to be organized by the British and US intelligence services.
  • The treatment of Soviet women by the Soviet army itself, the uncovering of which I believe comes largely came from Beevor’s own work for his more focused book Stalingrad.
  • Most talked about, the overwhelming effect of starvation on Japanese forces—60% of all casualties—and the consequent systematized, rampant cannibalism among its armies.  This has only recently been captured by Japanese historians after being suppressed by the Allies in order to not traumatize families of POWs at home.

Just given the breadth of the material, the book necessarily has to make concessions to brevity.  Many reviews have noted that compared to Beevor’s previous books there is less emphasis on personal accoutings.  Still though, I think there is a good amount of that, with many of the scenes, particularly of refugee and other civilian suffering, told through diaries and letters.

Similarly, in many ways the book relies a fair bit on extensive knowledge of the war.  For example, there’s a line in a meeting with Churchill about Stalin’s blue pencil that has no resonance without knowing his original role as an editor.  As a more important example, I’m not sure the book adequately relates the technical limitations forcing the Allies’ unescorted bomber tactics in Europe until the development of the Mustang fighter with its combination of range and capability.

One of the most important engineering efforts ever...  Still not as powerful as Stalin's blue pencil.

One of the most important engineering efforts ever… Still not as powerful as Stalin’s blue pencil.

Some of these choices though come directly on the book’s focus on the ground, and are reasonable once you’re in line with that approach.  For example, there’s an interesting paragraph or so about driving in the London blackout, and the thousands of pedestrians killed by vehicular accidents in its early months.  In contrast, the massive, world-changing Manhattan Project appears almost out of nowhere only when the Enola Gay finally takes off on its fateful mission, with just a few references beforehand as it came up in conferences among the Allied leaders.

To me, among the more notable non-ground details Second World War does make within its comparatively limited focus on the leadership and behind-the-scenes politics, are those about Roosevelt.  Beevor paints a clear picture of his anti-Imperialist leanings, capturing how that defined US priorities, frustrated Churchill, and would have resulted in an immensely different world view had he lived longer.  For example, it discusses in passing references how he was staunchly against the French resuming occupation of Indochina (Vietnam) after the war.  Though it’s hard to predict how that would change history, clearly it would do some immensely.  In a related vein, it is also made clear just how poorly Roosevelt understood or cared about post-war implications, how fixated on them Churchill was—often in strongly Imperialist tones—and how masterfully Stalin and Mao Zedong out-maneuvered both of them at that shadow conflict.

"We're getting played, arent't we?  Hilarious!"

“We’re getting played, arent’t we? Hilarious!”

Maps & Endnotes

As a minor note, the first half or so could use a few more maps and diagrams, but I attribute that to Beevor being English and assuming more familiarity with European geography than I, and presumably most Americans, possess.  By the time things get really hairy and entangled in the second half of the war, much of it in the less familiar eastern Europe and Pacific, there are notably more diagrams complementing the text.

On another minor note, the book employs extensive endnotes rather than footnotes.  I assume this was done to make the book seem more pop history and accessible to people flipping through in a bookstore.  It’s very unfortunate however as it leaves you constantly wondering “Who said that?” and “Where is he getting that from?” for both quotes and newer revelations, giving the book just a slight feel of unscholarlyness and speculation that it doesn’t deserve.


All in all, I highly recommend Beevor’s The Second World War, contingent on being clear or what the book is trying to do and who it’s for.  It’s not a light history, and probably requires either a fair amount of motivation or an experienced reader; e.g., I have mixed feelings about recommended it for typical high schoolers.  Little time is spent on politics, economics, context, or consequences.  Similarly, there is little analysis or direct relation to modern events.  Beevor himself is careful in interviews to proscribe against the popular inclination of politicians and pundits to draw untrue and misleading parallels to WW2.  But the book is very good for those with a limited understanding of the basic mechanics and movement of the war, or those who want to ensure their understanding.

Beyond that, the book is excellent at is portraying the “truth” on the ground.  Most notably, it is faithful to and evenly balanced across the entire scope of the war—from the Pacific to the Eastern to the Western fronts—as well as both the military and civilian effects, particularly for women.  The scope and abstract numbers almost prevent a felt understanding, but there is enough detail and personal accounts to ensure a tangible picture of the colossal scale of human suffering entailed.

Ultimately that presentation is worthwhile in its own right, and enables the kind of thought and analysis from which the book largely shies away.  For example, through much of the text the US and English come off fairly well in ethical terms, with most of the atrocities, particularly mass rapes,  enacted by the Japanese, Germans, Soviets, and French.  Especially at the end though there are disappointing lapses by US forces in the occupation of Japan.  Combined with the deep picture from the rest of the text of the relatively limited contact up to that point between US forces and civilians, particularly non-Europeans, it is difficult to not then take that behavior as near-universal and those two Allies’ comparatively clean records coincidental rather than actually exceptional.

That is exactly the sort of observation a good raw history should support.  Second World War largely refrains from imposing its own conclusions, but does enable that kind of thinking across a number of topics: Civilian suffering, modern total war, justification for the atomic bombings, post-war geopolitical consequences, and so on.  For that I highly recommend it.