The Two Noble Kinsmen Emilia's Argument: Friendship and 'Human Title'in The Two Noble Kinsmen
by William Shakespeare, John Fletcher

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

Emilia's Argument: Friendship and 'Human Title'in The Two Noble Kinsmen

Laurie J. Shannon, Duke University

The masculinity of ideal friendship in the Renaissance is as proverbial as the "one soul in two bodies" formulation that celebrates it. Extending Cicero's disqualification of women from ideal friendship in De Amicitia, Montaigne's influential essay "De l'amitié" argued that women's minds were "not strong enough to endure the pulling of a knot so hard, so fast, so durable" as that composing a friendship based on (masculine) virtue.1 Writers throughout the Renaissance commonly employed the classical trope of a virtuous friendship between male equals as a counterpoint to the conditions of engagement with a political tyrant. In gender terms, the manly autonomy of friendship virtue and its rule by reason contrasts both with the obedient deference deemed appropriate for women and with an inference of "womanishness" or effeminacy regarding the tyrant, whose subjection to passion and appetitiveness emasculates him in the gendered register of Renaissance moral values.2 Not without reason did Montaigne describe friendship as "soveraigne Amitié."3

Why, then, given these conventions, would Shakespeare and Fletcher collaborate to construct a female voice as the advocate of both reasonable rule and a same-sex friendship principle that, doubly revising Montaigne, admits sexuality to the friendship script?4 Although The Two Noble Kinsmen (1613) has generally been read in accord with the conventional privileged place of marriage in dramatic comedy, the play provocatively casts marriage as the expression of unreasoning political power, tainting it as the favored means of a ruler's caprice and as inimical to a subject's self possession or volition. Marriage and unreasonable rule are associated and juxtaposed with the principles of friendship and choice. The play thus construes "human title"—power and authority over the disposition of the self—as a bedraggled prize in a struggle between personal affective autonomy, on the one hand, and an external prerogative understood less as state power than as a personal excess by an unreasoning "tyrannical" ruler on the other.5 Jacques Derrida describes this opposition between autonomy and heteronomy as a philosophical trademark of "the tradition of a certain concept of friendship."6 But here, against tradition, a female voice dramatizes friendship and reason, and it is the voice of an Amazon, a figure infinitely more likely in the period to serve as an absolute other beyond reason's pale.7

In the following discussion, I suggest that female friendship appears in a specifically social form of female chastity which revises the characteristic masculinity of friendship rhetoric in the period. In The Two Noble Kinsmen, Emilia, a votaress of Diana and a lady knight, articulates a commitment to such a chastity of women among themselves. Chastity, envisioned as a bond between women rather than as "single blessedness," in turn, carries political meanings analogous to the autonomy valorized in ideal male friendship.8 But Emilia's case also extends the range of this principle of self-rule, and so it complicates an already vibrant scholarship considering early-modern sexuality.9 The drama conceives same-sex associations, including those that are erotic, in a vocabulary of "persuasion" and even "faith."10 In so doing, The Two Noble Kinsmen offers an alternative to the present terms of the historical debate. It reflects neither the anti-identitarian view that same-sex eroticism transpired detached from any means to articulate it, nor the more essentialist view that such eroticism pertained to those whose "nature" prescribed it.11 Instead, same-sex associational primacy appears as something one might profess or choose, as an espousal of a "faith," or as a "way of life," echoing distantly the vital idea of conscience so resonant in the period.12

The construction of a female character's commitment to other women as an argument or position...

(The entire section is 10,969 words.)