The theme of friendship is prevalent in Shakespeare's works, from his comedies and romances to his histories and tragedies, and is personified in such pairs as Hamlet and Horatio of Hamlet, Rosalind and Celia in As You Like It, and Hal and Falstaff in the Henry IV plays. Much scholarly interest in the theme of Shakespearean friendship has been devoted to the dramatist's treatment of the friendship-versus-love topos. A relatively common scheme in Renaissance literature, this pattern pits steadfast friends (usually males) against the threat of heterosexual union in marriage. As commentators have observed, marriage tends to win out in the end, but Shakespeare remains characteristically ambivalent as to whether love or friendship truly triumphs. This love-versus-friendship theme describes the central plot of one of Shakespeare's early comedies, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, as well as his late collaborative romance The Two Noble Kinsmen, both of which feature a love triangle. Regarding the playwright's tragic dramatization of friendship, most critics have focused on Hamlet, particularly the Danish prince's friendship with the loyal Horatio as well as his perilous relationship with university companions Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Additionally, Shakespeare's detailed portrayals of false friendships have attracted the attention of scholars, most notably the fascinating relationship between Prince Hal and Falstaff and the dramatist's iconographic representation of false friendship in his late tragedy Timon of Athens.
Critics are interested in Shakespeare's handling of the Renaissance convention that depicts friendship and love as bitter rivals, usually represented in the sundering of a close bond between two men due to their romantic interest in the same woman. In her 1983 study, Ruth Morse explores the antipathy between male friendship and romantic love dramatized in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Morse maintains that in the play Shakespeare made liberal use of the existing conventions of romantic comedy in order to reflect the social and psychological difficulties of sacrificing an affectionate bond between two men, in this case Proteus and Valentine, in order that they might pursue their love of the same woman. Zvi Jagendorf (1991) examines the depiction of male friendship (Antonio and Bassanio) and heterosexual love (Bassanio and Portia) in The Merchant of Venice, arguing that Shakespeare's play features a strong contrast between the two: marriage promises profit and increase while friendship portends only debt and continued sacrifice. The late romance The Two Noble Kinsmen, which most critics view as Shakespeare's collaborative work with dramatist John Fletcher, has elicited much critical commentary on the play's principal theme: the conflict between friendship and heterosexual love. Barry Weller (1989) examines the fundamental struggle between friendship and marriage in the play, and claims that The Two Noble Kinsmen ultimately depicts the friendship of Palamon and Arcite as a “destructive compact.” Richard Mallette (1995) presents an equally cynical reading of the play as a work concerned with destroyed friendship. Its ending, he observes, presents a superficially happy marriage characterized by emotional emptiness and suppressed desire without hope of redemption. Alan Stewart (1999) examines the idealized friendship of Palamon and Arcite in The Two Noble Kinsmen. The critic notes that their friendship, which is defined by medieval codes of chivalric honor and kinship, exists uncomfortably among the social realities of Jacobean England.
Critics generally agree that Shakespeare's most compelling and sustained depiction of friendship appears in the drama Hamlet. Having returned from Wittenberg to find his father dead and mother remarried to his uncle Claudius, Hamlet relies on the devoted friendship of Horatio and survives the poor advice of his dubious university companions Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Critics have frequently contrasted the true and false friendships portrayed in the drama, and have endeavored to come to some final conclusion regarding Shakespeare's musings on the subject of friendship in this tragic context. James I. Wimsatt (1970) centers on the speech of the Player King in Act III, scene ii of Hamlet, which mentions the mutability of friendship, and contends that Shakespeare portrayed the motifs of fortune and friendship in the play as fickle, unstable, and inscrutable forces. Keith Doubt (see Further Reading) notes that there are three types of friendship in the play: the loyal friendship that Horatio sustains with the Prince; the ultimately self-serving friendship extended by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; and the friendship that the dying Laertes offers. In Doubt's view, Laertes's friendship is the most meaningful because it is the most charitable. Robert C. Evans (1999) maintains that friendship constitutes a fundamental theme in the tragedy of Hamlet, one that is first articulated in the drama's opening scene and is sustained throughout. Evans studies the relationships between Hamlet and Horatio, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Laertes, Claudius, and Ophelia, as well as his friendships with other minor characters in the play. According to the critic, Horatio shows himself to be a true friend, while Claudius's actions demonstrate that he is an isolated and self-serving figure, as are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Evans concludes by remarking on the tragic near-friendship of Hamlet and Laertes, observing that they wrongly battle one another not because they are enemies, but to prove whose love for Ophelia is greater.
As suggested in Hamlet, Shakespeare's works often focus on the theme of false friendship. Clifford Davidson, in his 1980 essay on Timon of Athens, interprets the title figure of the play as a Renaissance emblem of failed friendship. Shakespeare's Timon is a magnanimous man whose extravagant gifts to parasitic individuals disguised as comrades and well-wishers precipitates his collapse into misanthropy once his wealth is exhausted and his supposed friends abandon him. In Davidson's view, this story can be interpreted as an emblematic Renaissance tableau of the responsibilities and potential perils of friendship. Jan H. Blits (1981) contends that the antique virtue of manliness is the basis of true friendship in Julius Caesar. Great men like Brutus and Cassius are possessed of this virtue, Blits maintains, but are often unable to temper or moderate its potential excesses. Others, like Antony in the play, fail the test of manliness and therefore are incapable of true friendship in Shakespeare's Roman world. Finally, Allan Bloom (see Further Reading) muses on the unusual relationship between Prince Hal of the Henry IV plays and the companion of his dissolute youth, Sir John Falstaff. This temporary friendship between the young man who will one day be ruler of England and the dissipated tavern knight has struck many critics as one of the more odd couplings in Shakespearean literature. According to Bloom, the Hal-Falstaff pairing offers a parody of Aristotelian friendship, which should take the form of an almost spiritual union of two souls, born of mutual appreciation and unsullied by material wants. Hal and Falstaff, in contrast, indulge themselves together while symbolically breaking the political rules that Hal will one day come to personify as King Henry V. For Bloom, their friendship, based on little more than selfishness and sensuality, is a false and manipulative one that is doomed from the start.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Adelman, Janet. “Male Bonding in Shakespeare's Comedies.” In Shakespeare's “Rough Magic”: Renaissance Essays in Honor of C. L. Barber, edited by Peter Erickson and Coppélia Kahn, pp. 73-103. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1985.
[In the following essay, Adelman traces developments in Shakespeare's treatment of male friendship from the early to middle comedies through the tragedies and late romances.]
In this essay, I want to examine a concern articulated in Shakespeare's earliest comedies and then apparently abandoned, returning with new force not in comedy but in tragedy and romance. The concern is with a male identity that locates itself via bonding with another man and recognizes in women a disturbance to the bond and to the identity so constituted.1 The apparent disappearance and reappearance of the same material in greatly intensified form may suggestively be seen as analogous to the process of repression and the return of the repressed, but I want to argue for more conscious control than this model implies. For Shakespeare, I think, initially proposed magical solutions, in The Comedy of Errors and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, to a problem that refused to go away, then recognized the inadequacy of his own solutions and did not again attempt to deal directly with the problem until both his psychological development and his artistic development...
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Criticism: Friendship In The Comedies
SOURCE: Morse, Ruth. “Two Gentlemen and the Cult of Friendship.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 84, no. 2 (1983): 214-24.
[In the following essay, Morse explores the antipathy between male friendship and romantic love dramatized in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.]
The Two Gentlemen of Verona is widely agreed to be the least satisfying of Shakespeare's early comedies.1 It abounds in inconsistencies to the point where scholars have wondered (with more than usually convincing evidence) if the surviving text represents a revision of an earlier play or a play composed in two stages.2 In addition to the problems with which critics have dealt, there is one which has received no attention: Shakespeare's combination of two traditional plots. Surely some explanation is necessary for the innovation whereby Proteus falls in love with his friend's mistress although he is quite satisfactorily provided for already. In the only possible parallel case, Romeo's passion for Rosaline is clearly understood to be mistaken, but Proteus's for Julia is shown to be true love. Whether or not the confusions about location or the relations of the two servants with their masters distracts an audience is seldom tested, since Two Gentlemen is seldom performed. Modern theatre-goers have become used to absorbing—or ignoring—a variety of inconsistencies (which are almost Comedy's right), and...
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SOURCE: Weller, Barry. “The Two Noble Kinsmen, the Friendship Tradition, and the Flight from Eros.” In Shakespeare, Fletcher and The Two Noble Kinsmen, edited by Charles H. Frey, pp. 93-108. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989.
[In the following essay, Weller evaluates The Two Noble Kinsmen as a play that examines a fundamental conflict between friendship and marriage.]
Like most Elizabethan depictions of symmetrical friendship, whether broken or preserved, The Two Noble Kinsmen owes something not only to its Chaucerian source but also to the Boccaccian tale of Tito and Gesippo from the tenth day of the Decameron (a tale that has, in turn, its own more ancient sources).1 The question this tale confronts, as in a philosophical parable, is: if friendship is grounded on a similarity of character and tastes, strong enough to allow each friend to regard the other as an “other self,” wouldn't it be logical for the desires of such friends to converge on a single erotic object, and what happens when they do? In the Boccaccian tale and its prototypes one friend surrenders his bride to the other, but this gift creates an asymmetry that, in the second movement of the tale, is presumably rectified when the recipient of the bride offers to die for the donor. The crises of death and sexual desire test the proposition that a friend is an “other self” under...
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SOURCE: Jagendorf, Zvi. “Innocent Arrows and Sexy Sticks: The Rival Economies of Male Friendship and Heterosexual Love in The Merchant of Venice.” Hebrew University Studies in Literature and the Arts 19 (1991): 23-47.
[In the following essay, Jagendorf examines the depiction of male friendship and heterosexual love in The Merchant of Venice, arguing that Shakespeare's play features a strong contrast between the two: marriage promises profit and increase while friendship portends only debt and continued sacrifice.]
One of the oddest things about The Merchant of Venice is the mixture of dry legalism and bawdry in its closing lines. Although it is common knowledge that the lovers in Shakespeare's comedies do not usually end up in the marriage bed but somewhere nearby with business to despatch, still the ending of The Merchant of Venice is remarkable for its lack of romantic glow and anticipation. Portia's last words are more appropriate to legal than nuptial chambers:
Let us go in, And charge us there upon inter'gatories And we will answer all things faithfully.
It is almost morning, we are told. So the last scene of the play, instead of being the prelude to the night's consummation, becomes the start of a day's debriefing led by Portia. It takes Gratiano, in the role of buffoon, to raise the priapic...
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SOURCE: Mallette, Richard. “Same-Sex Erotic Friendship in The Two Noble Kinsmen.” Renaissance Drama n.s. 26 (1995): 29-52.
[In the following essay, Mallette claims that The Two Noble Kinsmen contains two sets of homosocial friendship bonds—those of Arcite/Palamon and Emilia/Flavina. The critic contends that these bonds are destroyed over the course of the drama without being satisfactorily redeemed by the “superficially happy marriage” that closes the play.]
At the end of The Two Noble Kinsmen, having vanquished his cousin and friend Arcite in chivalric contest for the hand of Emilia, Palamon belatedly grasps the irony of his triumph:
O cousin, That we should things desire which do cost us The loss of our desire! that nought could buy Dear love but loss of dear love!
Palamon's bitter sense of the price of victory goes to the heart of the play's dilemma. The Two Noble Kinsmen makes strenuous efforts to balance competing sets of desires—in the cousins' case, between friendship and romantic love. But, as Palamon notes, the achievement of one “dear love” entails the loss of another. On the one hand, the play insists on the ascendancy of marriage over friendship:...
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SOURCE: Stewart, Alan. “‘Near Akin’: The Trials of Friendship in The Two Noble Kinsmen.” In Shakespeare's Late Plays: New Readings, edited by Jennifer Richards and James Knowles, pp. 57-71. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, Stewart examines the idealized friendship of Palamon and Arcite in The Two Noble Kinsmen and notes that their friendship, which is defined by medieval codes of chivalric honor and kinship, exists uncomfortably among the social realities of Jacobean England.]
Critics have never been happy with The Two Noble Kinsmen.1 It has traditionally been regarded as an unsatisfactory play, compromised, in Ann Thompson's words, by ‘many tensions and inconsistencies’;2 to at least one critic, it remains ‘that most distressing of plays’.3 Despite its use of an archetypal story of two male friends brought into conflict over a woman, already tried and tested by Boccaccio (in the Teseida) and Chaucer (Knight's Tale), its telling here has seemed less than successful. Theodore Spencer went so far as to complain that the story of Palamon and Arcite ‘is intrinsically feeble, superficial, and undramatic’.4 The characters themselves have been ‘dismissed as virtually interchangeable emblems of Platonic love and chivalric courtesy—Tweedledum and Tweedledee as Kenneth Muir...
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Criticism: Friendship In The Tragedies
SOURCE: Wimsatt, James I. “The Player King on Friendship.” Modern Language Review 65, no. 1 (January 1970): 1-6.
[In the following essay, Wimsatt centers on the speech of the Player King in Act III, scene ii of Hamlet, which mentions the mutability of friendship, and contends that Shakespeare portrayed the motifs of fortune and friendship in the play as fickle, unstable, and inscrutable forces.]
Shakespeare and his fellow dramatists, to the displeasure of neoclassic critics, loaded their plays with material apparently tangential to the main business of the works. It has been the occupation and pastime of later critics to discover the integral roles of this material. In Hamlet, notable for its diversity, nearly every scene and passage has proved susceptible to such discovery. Reynaldo's investigation into Laertes's activities, for example, seems without bearing on the main plot. Yet inspection of Acts II and III shows that Reynaldo's mission is related to an extensive series of investigations which culminates in Hamlet's ‘Mousetrap’ and is farcically concluded with the search for Polonius's body. Again, the impromptu depiction of the ‘rugged Pyrrhus’ in a fragment from an actor's repertoire is not excrescent, but rather provides both an analogue to Claudius and a foil to Hamlet. Comparable instances abound. My interest in this essay is to demonstrate how the Player King's lines...
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SOURCE: Davidson, Clifford. “Timon of Athens: The Iconography of False Friendship.” Huntington Library Quarterly 43, no. 3 (summer 1980): 181-200.
[In the following essay, Davidson interprets the title figure in Timon of Athens as a Renaissance emblem of failed friendship.]
The realization that iconographic tableaux appear at central points in the drama of Shakespeare no longer seems to involve a radical critical perspective. Thus a recent study is able to show convincingly that the playwright presented audiences with a Hamlet who upon his first appearance on stage illustrated what the Renaissance would certainly have recognized as the melancholic contemplative personality.1 As I have noted in a previous article, the hero of Macbeth when he sees the bloody dagger before him is in fact perceiving the image which most clearly denotes tragedy itself; in the emblem books, the dagger is indeed the symbol of tragedy,2 which will be Macbeth's fate if he pursues his bloody course of action. Such tableaux, it must be admitted, are often central to the meaning and the action of the plays. In what Glynne Wickham has called “emblematic” theater, therefore, the spectacle itself has become of prime importance in the structure of each play.3 The visual is not something tacked loosely to the text, but is an integral part of the whole. My argument in this...
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SOURCE: Blits, Jan H. “Manliness and Friendship in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.” Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy 9, nos. 2-3 (September 1981): 155-67.
[In the following essay, Blits contends that the antique virtue of manliness is the basis of true friendship in Julius Caesar.]
The city of Rome had besides its proper name another secret one, known only to a few. It is believed by some to have been “Valentia,” the Latin translation of “Roma” [“strength” in Greek]; others think it was “Amor” (“Roma” read backwards).
—G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, Part III, Section 1
Shakespeare's Julius Caesar examines the lives and souls of the sort of men who made republican Rome the foremost model of political greatness and glory. The men we see in the play have the strongest desire for worldly glory and, regarding honor as the highest good, relentlessly strive to win it. They look up to the things that make men strong and, having tremendous pride and trust in their own “strength of spirit” (I.iii.95),1 jealously contend with one another for outstanding distinctions. Their hearts are, as Cassius says, “hearts of controversy” (I.ii.108). Loving victory, dominance, and honor, they characteristically equate manliness and human excellence. Cassius sums up...
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SOURCE: Evans, Robert C. “Friendship in Hamlet.” Comparative Drama 33, no. 1 (spring 1999): 88-124.
[In the following essay, Evans suggests that friendship is a fundamental theme in Hamlet and analyzes Hamlet's relationships in the drama, particularly his strong bond with Horatio.]
In 1958, Harry Levin reported that in the previous sixty years a new item of Hamlet commentary had been issued every twelve days.1 By now the rate must be something closer to a new item every twelve hours or minutes. My chief justification for adding one more straw to the camel's back rests on the surprising fact that friendship—a crucial concern of classical and Renaissance thinkers—has not received much explicit or systematic attention as an important and pervasive theme in Shakespeare's great tragedy. Inevitably the topic is raised—usually in passing—in discussions of Horatio and of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but it has not received much sustained exploration.2 My immediate purpose is merely to show that the theme of friendship does run throughout the entire play—that it appears even where it might seem present only slightly. While trying to establish its general importance, I also hope to focus on a few scenes and characters in some detail, as well as to discuss in broader terms how Shakespeare's concerns with friendship help enrich his...
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Bloom, Allan. “Interlude on Two Strange Couples: Hal and Falstaff, Montaigne and La Boétie.” In Love and Friendship, pp. 401-28. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.
Discusses the friendship of Prince Hal and Sir John Falstaff in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, noting that their relationship is a parody of the ideal, Aristotelian friendship of like souls.
Carlson, Susan. “Women in As You Like It: Community, Change, and Choice.” Essays in Literature 14, no. 2 (fall 1987): 151-69.
Focuses on the friendship between Rosalind and Celia in As You Like It.
Carney, Jo Eldridge. “The Ambiguities of Love and War in The Two Noble Kinsmen.” In Sexuality and Politics in Renaissance Drama, edited by Carole Levin and Karen Robertston, pp. 95-111. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1991.
Considers the rivalry between love and friendship depicted in The Two Noble Kinsmen.
Doubt, Keith. “Hamlet and Friendship.” Hamlet Studies 17, nos. 1-2 (summer/winter 1995): 54-62.
Contrasts differing forms of friendship dramatized in Hamlet, including Horatio's virtuous relationship with Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's false friendship, and the tragic near-friendship of Hamlet and Laertes.
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