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...
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