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

William Shakespeare, John Fletcher


(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 contrasts interestingly with Jonathan Goldberg's investigation of the word "sodometries." Noting its "nonce-word suggestiveness," Goldberg expands on an idea of logics or metrics, citing the term's use "to impugn . . . customs . . . and arguments."13 Goldberg's assessment of "sodometry" as a period allegation of false logic is neatly reversed in this case of a female homoerotics advocated by a reasoning Amazon. For rather than representing a negativized position or a sedition without limits as "sodomy" seems to have done, female association here reprehends a tyranny without limits, admonishing the abuse of absolute power from the established viewpoint of reason.14 The phenomenon of female friendship, so elusive in the texts of the Renaissance, appears to extraordinary dramatic effect, linking marriage and tyranny and enhancing the otherwise familiar disapprobation the play registers toward absolute (or unreasoning, unbounded, "tyrannical") power.

The non-subordinating relation of friendly equals represented a Utopian alternative to the subordination without limits inflicted by the tyrannical ruler. More generally, friendship's "twinned soul" vision of parity represented the sharpest contrast to the politics of vertical difference, authority, or "degree." Gendering friendship female makes available metaphors of chastity to express an urgent rationale for opposition to external powers of incursion—and suggests how the ideal of manly self-possession might profitably be considered a kind of masculine political chastity. This cross-gender identification, in turn, emphasizes the flexibility of gender representations, even to the point of their submission to moral and political categories. Emilia (and all she represents) advocates a position not only on the content of friendship's meanings, but also in the contest over who shall determine them, as she attempts to defend the threatened terrain of the subject's prerogative.

I. Chastity and the Space Of Female Friendship

(Shakespearean Criticism)

What are the possible meanings of "chastity" in Shakespeare and Fletcher's historical context? Beyond both a modern conflation of chastity with celibacy and the familiar Renaissance innovation of marital chastity, a third, less regulatory interpretation involves a morally ambitious chastity, a pursuit of integrity and autonomy, which operates like masculine "virtue" and embodies a similar power.15 Exploring this aspect of chastity, Philippa Berry considers the use of Petrarchan models in poet-courtiers' representations of Elizabeth I, whose own grand improvisation on her choice "to lyve out of the state of manage" provides the most (in)famous contemporary reference for chastity as a "determynacion."16 Berry examines the role of Elizabeth as chaste beloved in the development of masculinity through Petrarchan forms, suggesting that

the most vital aspect of the beloved's role as mediator of a new masculinity, her chastity, had a disturbing habit of eluding or contradicting the significance accorded to it by the male lover as poet or philosopher. It often seemed to connote . . . the survival of a quality of feminine autonomy and self-sufficiency.17

Berry's analysis occasionally notes that imaginings of female chastity in Elizabethan literary representation can suggest a female community, allowing that the "quality of feminine autonomy and self-sufficiency" could be troped in the plural. She proposes, for example, that male fear of an active female sexuality presented "the disturbing possibility of woman taking narcissistic, and possibly even homosexual, pleasure in the female body," and that this latter "possible possibility" is suggested by "the recurrence of the figure of the goddess Diana ... whose association with close-knit communities of women ... is stressed." Despite this indication, the associative aspects of a chastity figured by Diana's circle are never explored. Berry reads such plural instances in terms of female narcissism, or in terms of Elizabeth's female "community" with her mother, Anne Boleyn, or in terms of a unified feminine sphere, by which the masculine is excluded or civilized.18 Where...

(The entire section is 912 words.)

II. Improvisations On the Friendship Form

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Much critical consideration of The Two Noble Kinsmen has concerned itself with allocating authorship between Shakespeare and Fletcher.29 Treatments undertaking more thematic interpretation have often utilized an idea of the "naturalness" of marriage to interpret this drama, which, as I will show, could hardly go further than it does to argue that marriage is a (brutally) political institution. As one editor of The Two Noble Kinsmen suggests, "perhaps the chief difficulty is that the play seems to compel us to attribute to Shakespeare at the end of his career an apparently partial and distorted attitude to love."30 Other critics read the play as a representation of the inevitability of such a "distorted" attitude's ultimate defeat. Mary Beth Rose argues that "the best studies of the play have relied on the psychoanalytic conception of individual development to argue . . . that The Two Noble Kinsmen concerns . . . the unavoidable process of growth."31 Barry Weiler characterizes marriage, though soberly, in terms of "the inevitability of this institution as both the building block of the social order and the seal of adult sexuality."32 Rose sees The Two Noble Kinsmen as a "representation of neurotic suffering"; in her reading the play equates any resistance to marriage as a celebratory zone for self-fulfillment with "perversity" and an "unnatural recoil from experience and, specifically, from sexual love."33

Critical approaches that blend nature, growth, and love with marriage underestimate the power of the theories of friendship in the play, especially since marriage was only just becoming normative as a locus of affectivity.34 They fail to grapple with the astonishingly negative conception of marriage the drama involves. They also diminish the force and interest of the character Emilia, who walks on stage to dramatize the most explicit case for same-sex association in the period except for what Janel Mueller terms John Donne's "brief for lesbianism" in "Sapho to Philenis." Describing this unprecedented poem as a "what if? imagining," Mueller proposes that Donne fully envisions lesbianism, in both erotic and economic terms, as a Utopian resolution of the sexual dilemma in Montaigne's friendship theory.35The Two Noble Kinsmen 's Emilia, by comparison, appears as an advocate of female homoerotics in a contest situation, as a representative of individual, volitional association against the sovereign's power to reorganize one's affective arrangements. In a sense, the play moves female homoerotics from utopia into the realm of political contest, where it remains positively coded as Utopian; its apparent defeat by marriage is marked by funerals rather than celebration. Since the power of the sovereign and the imposition of marriage are so morally tainted in The Two Noble Kinsmen, Emilia's advocacy is not simply an example of what James Holstun usefully terms "lesbian elegy."36 For the "inevitability" of a female homoerotics pressed into the past tense is just what Shakespeare and Fletcher qualify and recast as political injustice.

The literary rarity of Emilia's position, its specific political role in the drama, and its connection to female proprietary spaces make The Two Noble Kinsmen an extraordinary text. For Emilia's combined dedication to women and to chastity makes the case for chastity as an associative form. This chastity opposes not only tyrannical or coercive marriage, but also tyranny in its plain political sense. While Rose locates the play's conflict between "erotic love and friendship" and Weiler instead considers the play to "dramatize the conflict between friendship and marriage," friendship and marriage arguably trope another conflict.37 This third conflict places non-subordinated affective bonds in opposition to compulsory and hierarchical ones, where relations preferred or chosen counter those compelled by tyrannical compulsion. Thus the primary conflict of the play pits Emilia as a spokesperson for volitional association against...

(The entire section is 1690 words.)

III. Theseus's Power

(Shakespearean Criticism)

In act 1, we find the kinsmen discussing the nature of Creon's power in Thebes. They call him "a most unbounded tyrant" and prepare to exile themselves, when the approach of warring Theseus revives their political loyalty to Creon: "we must / With him stand to the mercy of our fates / Who hath bounded our last minute" (1.2.63, 101-3). Such is the tyrant's character. He has a boundary problem, exceeding his own and contracting or violating the boundedness of others. Theseus displays exactly this fault, insisting upon a relationship of intimacy with persons over whom he has absolute power.45 Both the kinsmen and both the Amazons are less than subjects in Theseus's dukedom. They are captives,...

(The entire section is 1327 words.)

IV. Emilia's Choice

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Emilia is the dramatic counterweight to Theseus as well as his political victim. While Emilia is the only figure in the drama capable of what Weiler describes as a "conscious articulation" of desire (for chastity and the company of women), criticism has neglected and misread her to an astonishing degree.49 Roberts argues that "the Amazonian Emilia comes closer to being a simple allegorical figure than any of the men. Like Hippolyta, she remains curiously static, seeming more a projection of a male problem than an interesting dramatic character."50 But Emilia's unwavering consistency is a sign of valued self-knowledge in a play (and a period) where inconstant desires and shifting appetites are...

(The entire section is 2901 words.)

V. Conclusion

(Shakespearean Criticism)

The Two Noble Kinsmen 's Emilia, then, offers a rebuttal to Renaissance commonplaces about female friendship's impossibility. She appears on stage with a marked preference for her own sex, a preference that places homoerotics squarely within the scope of female friendship. The status of "Emilia's choice" with respect to her impending forced marriage is unknowable, but its location in a proprietary female space suggests that it is likely to be unaffected.66 While Emilia's probable sexual transaction with her Woman diverges from Montaigne's model—in admitting sexuality, in traversing class lines, and in the element of "bargaining" it contains—it nevertheless suggests a form of female association...

(The entire section is 3256 words.)