illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


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,...

(This entire section contains 1137 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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 ofHamlet, 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.

James I. Wimsatt (essay date January 1970)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 on friendship—which possess on the surface the tediousness without the humour of a lecture by Polonius—have broad relevance to the activities of Hamlet's three schoolfriends and by extension to the behaviour of all the major characters. They form indeed the salient statement of an important theme of the whole drama.

After the Player Queen has sworn eternal devotion to her husband, his speech in response deals, among other things, with the changeableness of friends:

This world is not for aye; nor 'tis not strange
That even our loves should with our fortunes change;
For 'tis a question left us yet to prove,
Whether love lead fortune or else fortune love.
The great man down, you mark his favourite flies;
The poor advanc'd makes friends of enemies.
And hitherto doth love on fortune tend;
For who not needs shall never lack a friend,
And who in want a hollow friend doth try,
Directly seasons him his enemy.


A brief inspection of the extensive literary relationships of the lines helps to elucidate their implications for Hamlet's schoolfriends. The locus classicus for both medieval and Renaissance discussions of friendship was Cicero's De Amicitia, which sixteenth-century schoolboys would have read as a matter of course. Along with Cicero's tract, three other works are probably part of the total allusion of Shakespeare's lines: Ovid's Tristia, the Consolation of Philosophy of Boethius, and the Middle English translation of Jean de Meun's Roman de la Rose.

The subject of Cicero's discussion is male friendship, as exemplified particularly by the relationship between Laelius and Scipio; also in the three other works mentioned the reference is rather to the alliance of friends (presumably male) than to that of marriage partners. In all four the contrast between faithful and unfaithful associates is emphasized. The diction and phrasing of Shakespeare's lines may be indebted to all of them: His fourth line, for example (‘Whether love lead fortune, or else fortune love’), is very close in idea and rhetorical form to Cicero's ‘Non igitur utilitatem amicitia, sed utilitas amicitiam secuta est’ (‘Friendship does not follow advantage, but rather advantage friendship’).2 Ovid's complaint in exile is paraphrased by the last six verses in Shakespeare's passage: ‘While you are happy, you number many friends; once skies are overcast, you are alone’.3 The emphasis by the Player King on the transience of the world, however, and the image of Love in attendance on Fortune seems indebted to a later development of the tradition, expressed most notably in the Consolation of Philosophy and the Roman de la Rose.

Shakespeare could have read Boethius in any of several vernacular versions as well as in the original, and the English Romaunt of the Rose appeared (along with a translation of the Consolation) in all the sixteenth-century editions of Chaucer after Pynson's.4 In both works, as in the lines from Hamlet in question, Lady Fortune is depicted as a competitor for one's friends. Philosophy asks in the Consolation:

Dost thou esteem it a small benefit that this rough and harsh Fortune hath made known unto thee the minds of thy faithful friends? She hath severed thy assured from thy doubtful friends; prosperity [fortuna] at her departure took away with her those which were hers, and left thee thine.5

Jean de Meun uses both Cicero's tract on friendship and the Consolation for his discourse in the Rose about Fortune's influence on friendship. In representative lines from the English version of this discourse, Reason states that Froward Fortune has better effects than her happy counterpart, since the former reveals

Freend of effect and freend of chere,
And which in love weren trewe and stable,
And whiche also weren variable,
After Fortune, her goddesse.

(l. 5486)6

Misfortune is therefore beneficent in proving the mettle of one's friends.

These four works, two classical and two medieval, provide a rather full background for the Player King's expression of the idea that bad luck provides the test of friendship. In its context his statement has immediate—though certainly not striking—relevance to the behaviour of Gertrude. But its less obvious application to the actions of Horatio, the good friend, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are Fortune's friends, is of profound significance in setting up a contrast between them and indicating their intrinsic characters. The contrast is developed throughout the first three acts, particularly in the discussions and evocations of Fortune which are plentifully associated with Hamlet's three former schoolmates.

Just before the play scene Hamlet clearly identifies Horatio as the faithful friend who does not follow Fortune. Having protested initially that he has no motive for flattering Horatio,7 Hamlet proceeds to compliment him for his stoical indifference to the vicissitudes of existence:

                                                                                                    thou hast been
As one, in suff'ring all, that suffers nothing;
A man that Fortune's buffets and rewards
Hast ta'en with equal thanks; and blest are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well comeddled
That they are not a pipe for Fortune's finger
To sound what stop she please.


As viewers we must take this eulogy of Horatio mostly on trust; he does little in the play to substantiate it. At the same time, given what happens on stage, Hamlet's characterization of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as ‘adders fanged’ seems insufficiently motivated, and his peevish reaction to their questioning has appeared excessive to many critics. But the implicit opposition between the three school-friends set up by the imagery and discussions of Fortune serves to confirm his strong opinions about them and to indicate to the audience that Hamlet's is the proper evaluation, thus in a way supplying the lack of significant activity on the part of these characters.

Balancing Hamlet's praise of Horatio in the above passage is his attack on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern later in the same scene; he feels that they are trying to play upon him like a pipe—presumably the pipe of Fortune which Horatio refuses to become—and explodes: ‘You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass’ (III.2.355). That this imputed alliance of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with the forces of Fortune does not result simply from Hamlet's subjective prejudice is shown by their own words. Though they do not openly tell Hamlet that their friendship is with Fortune and not with him, they admit it to him in a riddling manner. In their first discussion with him they claim to be ‘indifferent children of the earth’, neither the button of Fortune's cap, nor the sole of her shoes (II.2.226-30). In their position in the ‘middle of her favours’, however, they are her ‘privates’, operating in her ‘secret parts’ (231-5). The bawdy humour of the repartee is darkened by ominous undertones, for they are in fact secret operatives and private detectives of Claudius, who in his first speech has clearly allied himself with Fortune, evoking strongly the traditional connexion of kingship with Fortune.

As he sits in state, before dispatching the embassy to Norway and ruling on Hamlet's and Laertes's petitions to return to their studies, Claudius speaks in justification of his marriage:

Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen,
Th'imperial jointress to this warlike state,
Have we, as 'twere with a defeated joy,
With an auspicious and a dropping eye,
With mirth in funeral, and with dirge in marriage,
In equal scale weighing delight and dole,
Taken to wife.


This brazen statement, echoing traditional descriptions of the brazen Dame Fortune, shows what kind of man Claudius is and as a consequence in what manner Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are the privates of Fortune. In the first place, the one glad, one sad eye is a commonplace in the iconography and literature of Fortune. In Chaucer's Book of the Duchess, for example, the Black Knight says in describing the fickle goddess:

She ys fals; and ever laughynge
With oon eye, and that other wepynge.

(l. 633)9

Second, the oxymorons in Claudius's self-description—‘defeated joy’, ‘mirth in funeral’, and ‘dirge in marriage’—are especially pertinent to Fortune's behaviour; the Black Knight exclaims that she is a ‘dispitouse debonaire’ and ‘Th'envyouse charite, / That is ay fals, and semeth wele’.10 Claudius's weighing of ‘delight and dole’, finally, seems to involve a reference to Fortune's scales, in which she balances happiness with sorrow. Like the wheel the scales were a familiar trademark of the goddess.11

Claudius in this scene is acting like Dame Fortune, who arbitrarily gives and takes away; he grants Laertes leave to return to his studies but denies Hamlet the same thing. References in other plays of Shakespeare also reflect the conventional association of the king's powers with those of Fortune and allude to the king's usual position, in artists' representations, on top of Fortune's wheel. The artists often give Fortune a king's crown; and the king who nearly always appears on the top of her wheel frequently has an appearance very like or identical with that of the goddess. Various aspects of the association of the king and Fortune are reflected in passages from Richard III, Richard II, and Antony and Cleopatra: Richard III, in the remarkable scene in which Buckingham urges him to accept the crown, protestingly surrenders with a graphic image of himself as the pack-horse of Fortune:

Since you will buckle Fortune on my back,
To bear her burden, whe'er I will or no,
I must have patience to endure the load.


Richard II's Queen, when she is told by the gardener of her husband's deposition, finds her own ignorance anomalous, since she as Queen is properly Fortune's (in this case, Misfortune's) ambassadress:

Nimble mischance, that art so light of foot,
Doth not thy embassage belong to me,
And am I last that knows it?


And when Antony imagines himself led through Rome, his image of a charioted Caesar preceding him seems to suggest that the new emperor of the world is at once astride and in control of Fortune's wheel:

Wouldst thou be window'd in great Rome and see
Thy master thus with pleach'd arms, bending down
His corrigible neck, his face subdu'd
To penetrative shame, whilst the wheel'd seat
Of fortunate Caesar, drawn before him, branded
His baseness that ensued?

(IV.14.71, italics mine)

Later in Hamlet itself the image of the wheel associated with kingship evokes the iconography of Fortune. Rosencrantz in his famous speech on monarchy asserts:

                                                                                                    The cease of majesty
Dies not alone, but like a gulf doth draw
What's near it with it. It is a massy wheel,
Fix'd on the summit of the highest mount,
To whose huge spokes ten thousand lesser things
Are mortis'd and adjoin'd; which when it falls,
Each small annexment, petty consequence,
Attends the boist'rous ruin.


The many ‘lesser things’ attached to this figurative wheel suggest the numerous figures depicted on the periphery of Fortune's wheel in some representations; for example, around the rose window of the south porch of Amiens Cathedral.12

The factors which point to Claudius as Fortune's surrogate give a deeper significance to the bantering about Fortune's privates.13 Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem to delight in this word-play by which they classify themselves as true friends of Claudius-Fortune and oppose themselves to Horatio, the faithful friend who is insensitive to the frowns and smiles of the capricious goddess. Their adherence to the King particularly emphasizes the reasons for Hamlet's unhappiness, since previously, by Gertrude's testimony, there had not been ‘two men living’ to whom Hamlet was more attached (II.2.20). They are the exemplars of those, among whom Gertrude and Ophelia seem to be numbered, who have proved to be more Fortune's friends than Hamlet's.

At the same time, however, Fortune has done Hamlet a service by demonstrating the quality of Horatio's affection. ‘The firm friend is discerned in unstable circumstance’, says Laelius in De Amicitia.14 Hamlet's bad fortune has revealed to him a true friend whom he may prize in his ‘heart of hearts’. Horatio's presence comforts and reassures him very much as the faithful Danites revive Milton's Samson:

Your coming, Friends, revives me, for I learn
Now of my own experience, not by talk,
How counterfet a coin they are who friends
Bear in thir Superscription (of the most
I would be understood): in prosperous days
They swarm, but in adverse withdraw thir head
Not to be found, though sought.

(l. 187)15

Samson's friends, as well as Horatio, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern, illustrate very well the ancient commonplaces about friendship which make up Cicero's treatise and became, by way of Boethius, a part of discussions of Fortune. In Hamlet the exploitation of this tradition, explicitly evoked by the Player King, firmly establishes the contrast between the friends of the Prince and also points to the essential character of Claudius as vicar of Fortune.


  1. Quotations of Shakespeare are from The Complete Works, edited by Peter Alexander (1951).

  2. De Amicitia, xiv.51, from the Loeb edition by William A. Falconer (1923); I have occasionally modified Falconer's translations.

  3. Donec eris sospes, multos numerabis amicos:
    Tempora si fuerint nubila, solus eris.

    (Tristia, I.ix.5)

  4. The Romaunt and Boece appeared, that is, in the editions of Thynne, Stow, and Speght. See Eleanor P. Hammond, Chaucer: A Bibliographical Manual (New York, 1933), pp. 114-25.

  5. II. Prose viii. I quote the translation of ‘I.T.’, revised by H. F. Stewart, in the Loeb Boethius (1918).

  6. The Romaunt and Chaucer's works are quoted from The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, edited by F. N. Robinson, Second edition (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1957). The currency of the Consolation in the sixteenth century makes Shakespeare's familiarity with it almost certain (compare Hamlet's ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so’ with the nearly identical statement in II. Prose iv of Boethius). His knowledge of the Romaunt is less sure, though his acquaintance with all of Chaucer seems probable. W. W. Skeat (Athenaeum, 8 August 1891, 203-4) thought that Hamlet's ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy was inspired in important ways by passages of the Romaunt found very near the discussion of friendship. In any event this paper assumes only a general influence, not a direct use, of Boethius and the Romaunt.

  7. Laelius similarly notes that Scipio had nothing in a worldly way to gain from friendship with him (De Amicitia, ix.30).

  8. Lady Philosophy likewise extols the steadfast man who is unperturbed by either aspect of Fortune (utram fortunam, I. Meter iv).

  9. Beatrice White cites a number of other uses of the auspicious and dropping eyes in literary descriptions of Fortune in her article ‘Claudius and Fortune’, Anglia, 66 (1959), 204-7. She finds that the image stamps Claudius ‘from the first as a hypocrite’.

  10. Howard R. Patch discusses the common use of paradox in descriptions of Fortune in The Goddess Fortuna in Medieval Literature (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1927), pp. 55-7.

  11. Fortune's scales are related to her two tuns, one of adversity and one of prosperity, and to her well which has two buckets, one full and one empty (see Patch, pp. 52-3).

  12. See Émile Male, Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century (1913), pp. 94-5.

  13. The implications of Hamlet's musing about the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous Fortune’ are also widened by the association of Claudius with Fortune. And the player's tirade against Fortune comes to have a particular relevance to Hamlet's rage:

    Out, out, thou strumpet, Fortune! All you gods,
    In general synod, take away her power;
    Break all the spokes and fellies from her wheel,
    And bowl the round nave down the hill of heaven
    As low as to the fiends.


  14. ‘Amicus certus in re incerta cernitur’ (De Amicitia, xvii.64). Laelius is quoting Ennius approvingly.

  15. Poetical Works, edited by Helen Darbishire (Oxford, 1958).

Ruth Morse (essay date 1983)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 in a recent performance in Cambridge these seemed to cause no difficulty. But it is not really these agreed flaws which discourage potential directors. The play's distasteful feature is its success in creating the conflict between love and friendship which culminates in the final scene, in which Valentine appears to be so ready to sacrifice his beloved to the friend whose treachery he has just witnessed. This bare description of the plot conveys nothing of the feelings engendered by the characters and their situations. It is the seriousness of Julia's plight which is blamed for disrupting the brittle plot.

The usual attempt to redescribe the emotional forces which are the play's concern is by appealing to lost conventions of manly friendship, and by citing such analogues as Amis and Amiloun as well as the actual sources of the play in support of the view that medieval and renaissance thought exalted the bond between men at the expense of that between men and women.3 Such a claim would put Two Gentlemen into that category of literature which depends on shared commonplaces of an emotional climate which is now irrecoverable. But in none of the proposed sources or analogues of the love/friendship conflict is the Proteus-figure already in love before he meets his friend's beloved, so the play is not a rehearsal of commonplaces. While it would be foolish to underestimate the difficulties which changes in our views of love and friendship have brought to the appreciation of the dilemma of the play, changes in taste will not account for the particular complications of this situation. In this article I wish to suggest that in addition to their personification of the debate between love and honour, which was a standard theme of Elizabethan dramatic and social discussion, the two gentlemen are also individual characters whose behaviour is plausible. I should, however, make it clear from the start that I am not offering a ‘justification’ of Proteus and Valentine which will rehabilitate a neglected masterpiece. Stanley Wells seems to me have identified the play's technical failures as Harold Brooks identified its successes. By identifying one possible source of the tension between the two gentlemen, I hope to show that Shakespeare's ideas of love in this play are consistent with what he wrote elsewhere.

Part of the difficulty arises precisely from our ability to recapture the conventions of romantic comedy; just because our expectations are fixed (this is, after all, early Shakespeare) we experience a confusion akin to that experienced in reading Mansfield Park. We expect young heroes to be gallant, however foolish; good-hearted, however extravagant; and superior to the common run in intelligence, looks, and sensitivity. They may undergo trials, but they must make no serious mistakes, and in the end their rewards are always sure. Parallel conventions for romantic heroines are easily recognized: they are steadfast, sensible, and brave to the limits (and sometimes beyond) of their sex. In Shakespeare's comedies they often display better sense than their male opposites, though in the end their dependence upon these same youths is clear. In Two Gentlemen both Julia and Silvia correspond to our expectations: the one bravely setting off in order to follow her beloved, the other bravely fleeing a distasteful match in order to marry for love. The difficulty which arises for the audience is generally ascribed to some kind of imbalance, either between character and plot, or between the ‘worth’ of the women and that of the men. We do not come to comedy for imbalance, but for the exercise of that fantasy or wishfulfillment which is deeply satisfied by watching risks against the sure expectation of a happy ending.

By encouraging the audience's emotional investment in Julia, Shakespeare ensures that whoever wrongs her will receive little sympathy. It is Julia who holds our attention and who appears so obviously a rehearsal for other ladies we know and love: Rosalind, Viola, and Portia of the mature comedies. To take only one of the three contrasts which offers, whereas in The Merchant of Venice the expansive treatment of Portia's emotional life is justified by her place in the play, there seems to be no such sense of balance in the time spent with Julia.4 The scene between Julia and her servant, Lucetta, which shows Julia's love for Proteus, is clever, but lacks the complex economy of Portia's relationship with Nerissa. At an abstract level, this first letter scene corresponds to the later one (II, i) where Speed interprets Silvia's letter to Valentine, but the parallels are incomplete, since there is no connection between Speed and Lucetta as there is between Gratiano and Nerissa. Valentine is not only obtuse in recognizing that he is intended as the recipient of Silvia's letter, but he has a seamy side, displayed in his advice to Silvia's father about the way to woo women. Even if we recognize that the play is full of ironic comment on the courtly game of love, it is hard to escape the feeling that the romantic heroes, like Bertram in All's Well, risk becoming unworthy matches for the heroines. That the men carry ‘idealtype’ names while the women's names are specific may be a hint that they are different kinds of characters. If the romantic plot existed in isolation, we might do well to wonder if the young men playing at love deserve to win, but the ‘romance’ is consistently modified by the ‘noncourtly’ characters, especially by Launce, which suggests that here as elsewhere Shakespeare is giving us much more than a conventional love story. Not only is this more than we bargained for, it may be more than we want.

If the love/friendship theme in Two Gentlemen is compared either to its most likely sources or to the great body of traditional tales which treat the theme of friendship, it is clear both how much Shakespeare owed to contemporary or recent treatments of the disloyal friend theme and also how limited the sources are as ‘explanations’ for the play. Two Gentlemen is, like the other comedies, an exploration of a world, not a roman à thése. It is ‘a dramatic laboratory in which Shakespeare experimented with many of the ideas and devices which were to be his stock-in-trade and delight for years to come’.5 Valentine and Proteus, whose youth is quietly but clearly stressed, owe much to the world of prose fiction, where characters could be placed in difficult situations for the sake of what they could be made to say and do in them. In prose fiction characters change in the course of the story or intrigue in ways not yet usually associated with staged romantic comedy. Shakespeare's play and its characters are, however, much more complex than any of their likely fictional sources. In ‘Titus and Gysippus’ (told by Boccaccio in the Decameron Day Ten Story Eight, and by Elyot in The Governor) both the young men are single, and so far from acting on his sudden love for Gysippus's betrothed, Titus takes to his bed in Troiluslike illness in order to retreat from an impossible situation. He confesses his love to Gysippus, who explains that their similar tastes in women are due to their similarity as men (they are, to all intents and purposes, identical twins). Gysippus makes over his bride to his friend, and there is no disloyalty or betrayal—unless one counts the bride. In Euphues, another possible source, the woman whom both friends desire is herself corrupt, and in the end neither of them wants her. Nor does Montemayor's Diana (which lacks the friendship theme) provide the emotional conflict of Two Gentlemen, which is more like Shakespeare's own Midsummer Night's Dream. In the Diana Felismena narrates the story of her love for Don Felix, who wooed her, was parted from her, and forgot her for the sake of a new love, Celia. Nothing is made of the youth, there is no friend, and no motivation for the new romance except ‘out of sight out of mind’.

The other context for the emotional tangle is a cultural one. A history of Elizabethan homosexual and homophile feelings is obviously beyond the scope of an article, but it is obvious enough that friendship between men was a continuous concern to many men of the period. Its delights—and its dangers—appear in literature, in reports of conversation, in moral and philosophic treatises (it is worth remembering that both Boccaccio and Elyot use the story of Titus and Gysippus as an exemplum of the virtues of magnanimity and amity) with sufficient frequency and importance to suggest that the relationship was both highly thought of and highly troubling. In the late sixteenth century, physical homosexual relations were regarded as an unnatural vice and were subject to the severest legal penalties if prosecuted. Marlowe's opinion of the delights of tobacco and boys was quoted to show his degeneracy. That the problems which arise from passionate friendship between men appear constantly in Shakespeare's work hardly requires demonstration. In Twelfth Night Antonio loves Sebastian and Orsino Cesario; another Antonio loves Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice. Romeo and Juliet gives us Mercutio, and the Sonnets give us the transcendent exploration of the tensions of the relationship. This is not evidence that Shakespeare was rehearsing his autobiography over and over in print (although that is possible), but it identifies a culturally important subject of which he made much use. In the late collaboration, The Two Noble Kinsmen, Palemon and Arcite's friendship contrasts with the true friendship of Theseus and Pirithous.

Given this background, I think it is as possible to find psychological coherence in Proteus's unusual and seemingly inexplicable behaviour as J. I. M. Stewart showed it to be in Leontes' sudden jealousy,6 which will also help to explain the combination of the two plots. In The Winter's Tale, as Stewart suggests, Shakespeare used a kind of delusional jealousy recognized by psychoanalysts whereby Leontes may be considered to project (to use Freud's term) his own undiscovered feelings toward Polixenes onto Hermione. Proteus's sudden passion for Silvia, touched off by Valentine's love for her, belongs even more clearly to the realm of observable psychological behaviour. Even were it traditional in the source literature, it would not therefore be false to life—and it is not traditional. While Leonte's delusion belongs to severe cases of abnormal psychology, Proteus's probably more familiar to common experience, although the motivation for such behaviour is not usually made explicit. Tentatively, then, let me suggests that if Proteus's friendship for Valentine contains a homosexual element which Proteus would not wish to recognize, and would certainly at a conscious level deny, it is conceivable that he might transfer his love for Valentine to a passion for Valentine's beloved. Little is demonstrated of the friendship between Valentine and Proteus, but it is clear that Proteus is the weaker partner (he was so played in Cambridge). In the opening scene it is his love for Valentine that appears, less so Valentine's for him. Even Proteus's weakness (that he is a lover) stands in contrast to Valentine as we originally see him (free of Proteus's love-sickness). Significantly, it is only when Valentine turns from Proteus to become a lover that Proteus becomes a changer. Valentine condescends to his friend, ‘loving Proteus’ (I, i, 1) and teases him about his love (and has habitually done so from the evidence of II, iv, 144-45), and readily takes his leave. Proteus, by contrast, is less willing to part (I, i, 1 and 55), and his entreaties to Valentine to be remembered are stronger than either Valentine's demand for letters, or his conventional encomium of Proteus to the Duke:

I knew him as myself: for from our infancy
We have convers'd, and spent our hours together
And though myself have been an idle truant,
Omitting the sweet benefit of time
To clothe mine age with angel-like perfection,
Yet hath Sir Proteus (for that's his name)
Made use and fair advantage of his days:
His years but young, but his experience old;
His head unmellow'd, but his judgment ripe;
And in a word (for far behind his worth
Comes all the praises that I now bestow)
He is complete in feature and in mind,
With all good grace to grace a gentleman.

(II, iv, 57-69)

This is the kind of slickly rhetorical ‘puer senex’ speech that men go to court to learn—by contrast Proteus recalls his ‘zeal to Valentine’ in his suddenly cooling love for him (II, iv, 199-200). It is only when Proteus's love begins to sicken and decay that his address degenerates from the sincerely effusive ‘sweet’ Valentine to the enforced ceremony of ‘friend’ Valentine. It is then his turn to talk of letters (III, i, 248-50) and of speedy parting (III, i, 251-54). He gives Thurio the same advice that Valentine gave the Duke (cf. III, i, 51-105 and III, ii, 72-86) on the winning of women. Proteus is turning himself into Valentine.

Proteus quickly supplants Valentine with the Duke; Silvia's affections are less easily gained. There is, in addition, considerable play with ideas of knowledge and identity, as indeed there is throughout Shakespeare's comedies. In the passage quoted above Valentine claims to know Proteus as himself, and ‘Sebastian’ (Julia in her male disguise) tells Silvia that ‘he’ knows Julia ‘almost as well as I do know myself’ (IV, iv, 141).7 Even the famous lyric begins with a question of identity.8 Proteus's soliloquy which makes up all of Act II, scene vi, is full of quibbles on the loss of self in relation to his loves, and makes explicit the truth the betrayal of his friend is selfbetrayal. His mental confusion is clear:

Unheedful vows may heedfully be broken,
And he wants wit that wants resolved will
To learn his wit t'exchange the bad for better.
Fie, fie, unreverend tongue, to call her bad
Whose sovereignty so oft thou hast preferr'd,
With twenty thousand soul-confirming oaths.
I cannot leave to love; and yet I do;
But there I leave to love, where I should love.
Julia I lose, and Valentine I lose;
If I keep them, I needs must lose myself;
If I lose them, thus find I by their loss:
For Valentine, myself; for Julia, Silvia.
I to myself am dearer than a friend,
For love is still most precious in itself,
And Silvia (witness heaven that made her fair)
Shows Julia but a swarthy Ethiope.
I will forget that Julia is alive,
Rememb'ring that my love to her is dead.
And Valentine I'll hold an enemy,
Aiming at Silvia as a sweeter friend.
I cannot now prove constant to myself,
Without some treachery used to Valentine.

(II, vi, 11-32)

Proteus's bad arguments do not even really convince him that he is in the right; the sense of urgent necessity is created by that kind of writing which Shakespeare uses to show the mind under stress. The meaning is clear enough, even if the syntax strains. By comparison to the abstract quality of Euphues' soliloquy on the same subject we can see how much Shakespeare was interested in this character in the grip of this passion:

Shall I not then hazard my life to obtain my love? And deceive Philautus to receive Lucilla? Yes, Euphues, where love beareth sway, friendship can have no show. As Philautus brought me for his shadow at the last supper, so will I use him for my shadow till I have gained his saint. And canst thou, wretch, be false to him that is faithful to thee? Shall his courtesy be cause of thy cruelty? Wilt thou violate the league of faith to inherit the land of folly? Shall affection be of more force than friendship, love than law, hurt than loyalty? Knowest thou not that he that loseth his honesty hath nothing else to lose?

Tush, the case is light where reason taketh place; to love and to live well is not granted to Jupiter. Whoso is blinded with the caul of beauty discerneth no colour of honesty.9

The peculiar character of Proteus's supposed love for Silvia contrasts with his earlier feelings for Julia in ways that are familiar from other Shakespearean comedies, and which confirm the belief that there was nothing ‘unheedful’ about his vows to her. Far from being ready to ‘give and hazard all’ for Silvia, Proteus desires possession. Julia was a person; Silvia is a thing (for example at II, iv, 191 where she is an object), Valentine's most intimate belonging. From its onset, the new ‘love’ is referred to Valentine: Proteus himself realizes the importance of his friend's praise of Silvia:

Even as one heat another heat expels,
Or as one nail by strength drives out another,
So the remembrance of my former love
Is by a newer object quite forgotten.
Is it mine eye, or Valentinus' praise,
Her true perfection or my false transgression,
That makes me reasonless to reason thus?(10)

(II, iv, 188-94)

This same speech introduces the theme of Silvia's picture. In the light of Proteus's unreason, his language indicates not only the way he relates to Silvia (or fails to) but also important Shakespearean themes about the blindness of the eye (reiterated by the servants), the deception of appearances, and the acceptance of a shadow of reality (the play about Silvia's picture, picked up by ‘Sebastian's’ reference to ‘himself’ as a shadow). Proteus always knows with his rational mind that he is wrong, and continually tells himself so (as at IV, ii, 1-15), but he cannot help himself. The theory that one passion could drive out another is both an explanation and an excuse. This inner conflict might help to explain Proteus's ‘incompetence’ (the word is Leech's) at IV, ii, 109ff, where he tells Silvia first that Julia is dead (as he had decided to think her in the speech quoted above) and then that the now-banished Valentine is dead, too. This unconscious pairing emphasizes the double betrayal which first appeared in Proteus's soliloquy, after Julia's importance was prepared in her scene with Lucetta, and which will require a double resolution in the final scene. Unlike the ladies in ‘Titus and Gysippus’ and other sources, these women have claims upon us. If Proteus dwells upon Silvia as a picture, it is poetically apt, since that is all he is capable of seeing, from his first reflection upon her

'Tis but her picture I have yet beheld,
And that hath dazzled my reason's light;
But when I look on her perfections,
There is no reason but I shall be blind.

(II, iv, 205-08)

to his readiness to devote himself to the worship of her picture

Madam: if your heart be so obdurate,
Vouchsafe me yet your picture for my love,
The picture that is hanging in your chamber:
To that I'll speak, to that I'll sigh and weep;
For since the substance of your perfect self
Is else devoted, I am but a shadow;
And to your shadow will I make true love.

(IV, ii, 116-22)

The play on ‘shadow’ makes it clear that Proteus has dehumanized them both—the game of love is getting out of hand. By contrast, Julia's echoes of both themes of identity and betrayal return us to the ‘ordinary’ world of poetic drama from the confused but emotive heights of Proteus's outbursts.

The final scene in the forest brings the romantic intrigue to a climax which is by all readers agreed to be beset with problems. (Even in the theatre, where events pass with dizzying speed, there are great difficulties. The end feels more like The Recruiting Officer than a play by Shakespeare.) The first problem is the cowardice of Sir Eglamour, who abandons Silvia when they are attacked by the robbers whose chieftain Valentine has become. It is probably a mistake to try to analyze Eglamour's character (especially since it's not clear how many characters there are to be analyzed), which is almost as non-existent as the robbers' or the Host's. He exists only to perform a function: to provide an escort from whom Silvia can be separated without complicating the plot. Three other possibilities which Shakespeare might have used are even more objectionable than the plot as it stands. He might have made Silvia escape alone, which would have made her too much like Julia, and would also have disturbed even the special verisimilitude of comedy, since Silvia, who is the daughter of a ruler, is not specifically seeking her beloved. Shakespeare might have had the robbers kill Eglamour, which would quite have spoiled the comic tone. Or, if the robbers had captured both Silvia and Eglamour, not only would Proteus have had an awkward third party in his confrontation with Silvia, but Shakespeare would have been left with a character to provide for in the final tying up. Better to make him disappear. The temptation to make something of Eglamour belongs to the thematic concerns of the play, since he is lover of another traditional kind, who has sworn eternal chastity after the death of his beloved. The fault which runs through the play appears here as well: treatment of theme via characters who represent Shakespeare's larger interests overbalance his plot.

But on another level, where comedy takes its plots from folklore and fairy tale, there is a certain rightness to the use of Sir Eglamour. Proteus is acting out a rescue fantasy, displaying all the expectations of gratitude and reward that are traditional to the hero who just saved the king's daughter. Since the play is far from being simply a narrative romance, it is not surprising that Silvia refuses to play the appropriate role. Throughout, the servants have pointed out the absurdities inherent in the conventions and gestures of romance. Since, moreover, the audience can see that Proteus is about to be brought face to face with reality, the apparent danger loses its threat. Both Valentine and Julia are in sight; our superior knowledge allows us to watch in comfort. Proteus's offer of violence is set off by Silvia herself when she touches the sore place, his relation to Valentine: ‘Thou counterfeit to thy true friend’ (V, iv, 53). In the play's scheme of imagery ‘counterfeit’ belongs, with ‘picture’ and ‘shadow’, to the theme of betrayal of mistress, friend, and self, and reminds us that Proteus has tried to ‘be’ Valentine. Against this background, Proteus's extreme reaction becomes psychologically plausible. The stress on ‘force’ and the accompanying soldierly metaphor express nothing so much as hostility (as indeed Leech remarks in his note to line 57), because Proteus is in the grip of strong self-hate, at the height of what approaches madness. If he has failed to be Valentine, he has also failed to be Proteus. On either a Renaissance description of the effects of the passions or a modern psychoanalytic description of the force of sexual confusion, Proteus has been removed from his normal self. The cure for his fit of rage and his ‘love’ is, like the cure for Leontes' more serious madness, as sudden as its onset. This is both unexceptionable in the context of Renaissance drama and in psychological terms. Like Leontes, Proteus ‘wakes up’ to himself. Unlike Leontes, however, Proteus has always known, even at the point of rape (V, iv, 58) that he wronged both his mistress and his friend, both of whom are now present. Valentine's discovery releases Proteus from pretence, which must include his pretended love for Silvia. Proteus himself speaks of shame and guilt, but his repentance so far only refers to the hurt done to Valentine, which as he has himself always recognized, is only half his offence.

It is within this setting of the half-completed repentance that the notorious couplet appears. Valentine says

And that my love may appear plain and free,
All that was mine in Silvia I give thee.

(V, iv, 82-3)

Solutions of several kinds have been suggested to explain away this seemingly repugnant generosity. Edward Capell's idea,11 that Valentine should be clearly seen by the audience (though not by ‘Sebastian’) to be testing Proteus, would make the point of Proteus's renewal, though it endows Valentine with a percipience and strength that we have not seen demonstrated.12 Much can be done in the theatre by the actor's response to Valentine's couplet—finding it repugnant, a final humiliation. This is a better solution than denying that Shakespeare wrote this part or the play. The consensus solution in modern criticism is the idea that magnanimous gestures of the sort common to the Amis and Amiloun analogues were commonplaces which would have caused no difficulty to a Renaissance audience, so that the problem is created by an anachronistic approach to the claims of love and friendship.

The question is not: Is this a magnanimous gesture or isn't it? but rather: What is the meaning of such a speech in a dramatic comedy? As with the ‘possibility’ of rape, which provides a familiar frisson within the security of what is permissible in comedy, Valentine's gesture can be made against the safe assurance that all is about to be well. The reason we in the audience can be sure that the lovers are going to return to their original pairing is that there has never been any attempt to bring Julia and Valentine into a position where a new pairing might be possible. In the special context of Shakespearean comedy, everything that we know of his idea of love as surrender of self supports the view that Valentine cannot expect Proteus suddenly to rush over to Silvia in triumph. In the theatre, to show the distance between his own love and Proteus's possessive passion, Valentine has only to step back, making the magnanimous gesture a form of cure for his friend, secure in the knowledge that as Proteus has once more come to himself he loves Julia, not Silvia. Proteus must be seen to come to his senses.

Yet on none of these accounts is there any explanation for the interruption of the test/reconciliation by Julia's swoon. There are both good moral and dramatic reasons for it. Proteus's betrayal has throughout the play been shown to be double, and though Valentine has forgiven him, his repentance is still incomplete. When Julia reveals that she, too, is there in the forest of revelation, Proteus can complete the process of recognition, remorse, and restoration. It would be hard, moreover, to prolong the humiliation of one of the young men at the end of the play, when things are being wound up at quite a remarkable speed. As for Thurio's claim to Silvia, his repetition of ideas of ownership and possession reveal—even to the Duke—how unworthy he is of love. What is revealed to us, who have watched the parallels and parodies of the whole play, is what G. K. Hunter describes as ‘our clear awareness of what are the more important attitudes and what are the less’.13 Proteus and Valentine provide the romantic intrigue, but not the whole interest. That is a combination of Shakespearean concerns: love, friendship, and truth tested by and testing those who are growing up. From the safe psychic distance of maturity and the other side of the footlights, the audience can rejoice in the conventions of the happy ending while recognizing (with Launce and Speed) that there is more to life than the young lovers allow. In the city world (whatever the city may be called), wooing has been played at, criticized, and tested, and the clowns and the Host have reminded us of its special place. Like the darker side of Love's Labour's Lost, The Two Gentlemen of Verona has its serious issues, even if they are not as fully integrated into the scheme of the play as they would be later. Jack hath Jill—but not without reminders of the complications of reality. In the world of the forest, that special comedy world of release and revelation, love's harmony can be the completeness of giving, and a healing balm to those who share it.14


  1. Earlier views are summarized, and the play's technical weaknesses analyzed, by Stanley Wells in ‘The Failure of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona”’, Shakespeare Jahrbuch XCIX (1963), 161-73.

  2. Quiller-Couch and Dover Wilson in the New Cambridge Shakespeare (1921), pp. 77-78 (but withdrawn in the reprint in 1955). Noted by Clifford Leech in his New Arden edition (London, 1969) from which all quotations from the text are taken.

  3. E.g. John Vyvyan, citing Jean de Meun and Montaigne in Shakespeare and the Rose of Love (London, 1960), p. 133; M. C. Bradbrook in Shakespeare and Elizabethan Poetry (Harmondsworth, 1964), pp. 136-37; Stanley Wells, ‘The Failure …’, p. 170 (again summarizing earlier views); Harold Brooks, ‘Two Clowns in a Comedy (to say nothing of the Dog): Speed, Launce (and Crab) in “The Two Gentlemen of Verona”’, Essays and Studies (1963), 91-100.

  4. See Leech's notes to I, ii (pp. 10-11).

  5. Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London, 1957), I, 210. This should be supplemented by the introduction to A Critical Edition of Young's Translation of George of Montemayor's DIANA and Gil Polo's ENAMOURED DIANA, ed. Judith M. Kennedy (Oxford, 1968), pp. xxi-lvii.

  6. J. I. M. Stewart, Character and Motivation in Shakespeare (London, 1949), pp. 30-37. Stewart quotes Freud's essay, ‘Certain neurotic mechanisms in jealousy, paranoia, and homosexuality’ (1922) from Collected Papers II. In another essay Freud reminds us that ‘it is well known that even in the normal person it takes a certain time before a decision in regard to the sex of the love object is finally achieved. Homosexual enthusiasm, unduly strong friendship tinged with sensuality, are common enough in both sexes during the first years after puberty’. (C. P., II, 227)

  7. Leech, p. 96n; Bullough, pp. 212ff.

  8. John Vyvyan thinks that Silvia symbolizes ‘eternal Beauty’ in Shakespeare and the Rose of Beauty, p. 135. He develops the neoplatonic theme in Shakespeare and Platonic Beauty (London, 1961), pp. 68-9.

  9. John Lyly, Euphues: the Anatomy of Wit. Euphues & His England, ed. M. W. Croll and H. Clemons (London, 1916), pp. 45-6. Were the figures of speech not such commonplaces it would be tempting to see a relationship between this speech and Shakespeare's. In dealing with this and similar speeches John Vyvyan develops the idea that ‘Silvia and Julia, in their inmost nature, are one’ and that the one they symbolize is Uranian Aphrodite. Surely the point of metaphoric language is comparison, not identity. Vyvyan's view that Valentine's magnimous gesture is actually an invitation to Proteus to share his appreciation of beauty is unlikely. Valentine's neoplatonism is the only sign given of his increasing maturity.

  10. The first part of 1. 192 is defective. The traditional emendation is discussed in J. J. Munro's introduction to the play in The London Shakespeare (London, 1958), I, 263 and by Leech, p. 43n.

  11. Capell, quoted by Leech, p. 116n.

  12. Stanley Wells thinks that the characterization of Valentine fails because Shakespeare's conception is incompatible with the demands of romantic comedy (pp. 166-67).

  13. G. K. Hunter, John Lyly (London, 1962), p. 312.

  14. I should like to thank Dr. Marie Axton, Dr. Stefan Collini, and Prof. Arthur Sherbo for reading and commenting upon this article.

Barry Weller (essay date 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 extreme conditions. In the variant narrative, exemplified by The Two Gentlemen of Verona and perhaps Euphues, friendship collapses, for one partner at least, under the first assault of eros. It is to this variant tradition that The Two Noble Kinsmen clearly belongs.

The earlier form of the story has also left its traces on this Shakespearean version of Chaucer. Talbot Donaldson comments, “Such differences as Chaucer wrote in or inherited from Boccaccio [in the Teseida] the dramatists wrote out. They did this largely, I suppose, to prevent our taking sides in the quarrel and thus being distracted from the more important issue of the sad destruction of their friendship; Shakespeare remembered the disastrous effect that his differentiation of Valentine and Proteus had on the issue of friendship in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.2 Donaldson may overstate the lack of differentiation, at least in personal styles, between the two characters, perhaps because their dissimilarities are not those implied in Chaucer: in their encounters in the third act, Arcite seems the more gallant and generous, while Emilia testifies to a certain Byronic sulkiness in Palamon:

He's swarth and meagre, of an eye as heavy
As if he had lost his mother; a still temper,
No stirring in him, no alacrity,
Of all this sprightly sharpness, not a smile.


Immediately afterward she declares her preference for Palamon's “sad” demeanor: “Palamon, thou art alone / And only beautiful” (4.2.37-38), and the love frenzy of the Jailor's Daughter offers even more powerful evidence of erotic magnetism in Palamon. It's hard to feel, nevertheless, that the cousins are strongly distinguished. As with other pawns of eros (the quartet of lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream, for example), one is led to reflect that any grounds of choice between them (tall, short, dark, or fair) are arbitrary and accidental. Moreover, an erosion of individuality is one of the premises of the parable of friendship, as given classic form by Boccaccio and further elaborated by Sir Thomas Elyot in The Book of the Governor. Elyot's Titus and Gisippus share the moral affinity of Boccaccio's friends:

nature wrought in their hearts such a mutual affection, that their wills and appetites daily more and more so confederated themselves, that it seemed none other, then their names were declared, but that they had only their places, issuing (as I might say) out of the one body, and entering into the other.3

Not content with this overheated rhetoric, Elyot literalizes and physicalizes the similarity, making them doubles:

This Chremes happened to have also a son named Gisippus, who not only was equal to the said young Titus in years, but also in stature, proportion of body, favour, and colour of visage, countenance and speech. The two children were so like that without much difficulty it could not be discerned of their proper parents which was Titus from Gisippus, or Gisippus from Titus.4

In a sense Elyot goes too far even for his own purposes, undercutting the conception of friendship by turning it into mere narcissism.

A more significant, though related, legacy from the tradition of friendship narrative is the sustained focus of the friends on one another at the expense of the woman who presumably occasions a crisis in their friendship. The Two Gentlemen of Verona revealed the embarrassments of transferring such a plot to the stage because Silvia could not be regarded (like Sofronia in Boccaccio) as disposable property or as serving a cipher-like function of the plot. When Valentine offers Proteus “All that was mine in Silvia” (5.4.83), he leaves vague the exact nature of his rights in her, and Arcite and Palamon debate their respective claims to Emilia without expressed awareness of how tenuously either assertion of right is grounded. Examination of Valentine and Palamon is especially telling since both are putatively exemplary lovers: Valentine is faithful, if sometimes fatuous, and Palamon prays to Venus rather than to Mars (although his prayers to Venus put his vocation as lover into question); each is ultimately successful in winning his lady. They also share a male complacency about the extent to which “possession” of the lady exists independently of her will. Valentine is marginally less culpable; he founds his sense of possession on signs of reciprocated affection, but he assumes that her affections are alienable and disposable property to be assigned as he sees fit. Palamon is more nakedly imperialistic:

I, that first saw her; I, that took possession
First with mine eye of all those beauties in her
Reveal'd to mankind.


Palamon's assertion of rights based on priority sounds almost like a parody of primogeniture; perhaps that is why a patriarchal figure like Theseus ultimately seems to confirm this claim and to imply that the gods have upheld its justice (5.4.114-22).

While Silvia may not be a cipher in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, she remains a rather remote and shadowy figure, an ideal embodiment of feminine grace and virtue whose essence is most appropriately evoked interrogatively (“Who is Silvia? what is she / That all our swains commend her?” [4.2.39-40]). Emilia belongs to the same lineage. Donaldson argues that Shakespeare compensates for the pallid characterization of Palamon and Arcite by making Emilia “more fully developed and more interesting” than Chaucer's Emelye: “She has to receive fuller fleshing out in the play, for in the poem … she is hardly more than a poetic image, a lovely object without character or individuality who speaks never a word except in her prayer to Diana before the tournament.”5 It seems at least as plausible, however, to describe her, from a feminist perspective, as Jeanne Addison Roberts does, as “more a projection of a male dilemma than an interesting dramatic character.”6 As I have already suggested, and as Donaldson's own wording may imply, the reason she is more fully fleshed out than Emelye is more a generic necessity than a real change of perspective: drama resists her relegation to the background more strongly than narrative does.

Whether or not Emilia is dramatically individualized, the action largely isolates her from her suitors, and to the end of the play her primary allegiance is to Diana. Although she is capable of articulating a preference for one kinsman over the other (as in 4.2, a scene scholars prefer to attribute to Fletcher), her most frequently reiterated response is compassion and concern to prevent the death of at least one suitor, if not of both, rather than desire to have either as her husband. (To judge from this play and from A Midsummer Night's Dream, death and forced marriage constitute Theseus's customary solution to romantic triangles. This introduction of compulsion into the erotic arena both echoes his own courtship—“Hippolyta, I woo'd thee with my sword, / And won thy love doing thee injuries” [1.1.16-17]—and casts disconcerting shadows on the prospects of his union with Hippolyta.)

Emilia's fundamental aloofness emphasizes the extent to which, even after the friendship of the cousins has been apparently ruptured by the intrusion of sexual desire, the charged lines of force remain those between Palamon and Arcite rather than between the two kinsmen and Emilia. While it is assumed that their affections cannot survive, have indeed been turned inside out by their rivalry in love, it is on one another that their thoughts and even their most passionate words are still focused. In the first scene of the third act, Palamon invites, almost cajoles, Arcite to mortal combat:

                                                                                come before me then,
A good sword in thy hand, and do but say
That Emily is thine, I will forgive
The trespass thou hast done me, yea, my life
If then thou carry't, and brave souls in shades
That have died manly, which will seek of me
Some news from earth, they shall get none but this—
That thou art brave and noble.


In corresponding, if not more passionate, words, Arcite says, a few scenes later: “Defy me in these fair terms, and you show / More than a mistress to me” (3.6.25-26). Both these sections of the play may belong to Fletcher, but the erotic intensity with which well-matched and mutually admiring enemies greet one another would not be new to Shakespeare's imagination. This intensity finds, for example, extraordinarily naked expression in the language with which Aufidius greets Coriolanus:

                                                                                                              Let me twine
Mine arms about that body, where against
My grained ash an hundred times hath broke,
And scarr'd the moon with splinters. Here I cleep
The anvil of my sword, and do contest
As hotly and as nobly with thy love
As ever in ambitious strength I did
Contend against thy valor. Know thou first,
I lov'd the maid I married; never man
Sigh'd truer breath; but that I see thee here,
Thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart
Than when I first my wedded mistress saw
Bestride my threshold.

(Coriolanus 4.5.106-18)

Just as love or friendship can sometimes be a strategy for avoiding aggression—neutralizing the threat presented by another through identification and appropriation—so it can seem at such moments that the posture of aggression or the actuality of conflict is a means of deflecting inappropriately directed eros. While the language of Palamon and Arcite is less urgent and less sexy than that of Aufidius, they, contemplating a lifetime of shared imprisonment, relocate the erotic and social properties of the family within their friendship:

We are one another's wife, ever begetting
New births of love; we are father, friends, acquaintance;
We are, in one another, families:
I am your heir, and you are mine; this place
Is our inheritance.


The Two Noble Kinsmen is, at least in part, about the means by which society disciplines and corrects such mutual self-sufficiency by seizing hold of such energies and incorporating them, often quite unerotically, for its own uses through the institution of marriage.

Even in its most classical presentation, friendship was seen to be potentially antisocial. In Aristotle's Ethics, the most philosophically authoritative source for the rhetoric of the friend as “other self,” friendship is, like philosophy, introduced in the later books when the discussion begins to veer away from the more political virtues. Friendship and philosophy are in fact linked; the solution to the riddle of how the desires of friends can converge on the same object without conflict is that the object of their desire is to be ideal and infinite, in other words, philosophy (or, in the Augustinian transformation of this kind of friendship, God). Both friendship and contemplation, weaning men away from the problematic goal of public honor, draw them to the margins of society.

Of course the terms, or at least the rhetoric, of Aristotle's philosophical friendship were inevitably adopted for more mundane and carnal bonds, while the only other means of preserving true symmetry within the relationship—admitting each other as the object of the desire—remained socially inadmissible. If friendship alone could be understood as competitive with social bonds, friendship not qualified but strengthened by eros would be an even more significant threat to cohesion. In the final scene of the play, as the corpse of Arcite is carried off, Palamon exclaims:

                                                                                                              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!


The gloss of these lines, to which the explicit level of the action invites us, is a lament that desiring Emilia should lead to the destruction of Arcite; the actual language points to the identity, rather than the difference, of “desire” and “dear love” and their objects. It requires less interpretation of this speech to produce the sense that Palamon is grieving because his love for Arcite has cost Arcite's life; his desire turned not to another object but against itself.

It is not merely the friendship of Palamon and Arcite that The Two Noble Kinsmen apparently defines as aberrant from, even hostile to, a well-ordered state founded on marriage. After Theseus leaves for his expedition against Thebes, Emilia and Hippolyta observe the grief of Pirithous for Theseus:

                                                                                          How his longing
Follows his friend: since his depart, his sports,
Though craving seriousness and skill, pass'd slightly
His careless execution, where nor gain
Made him regard, or loss consider, but
Playing o'er business in his hand, another
Directing in his head, his mind nurse equal
To these so diff'ring twins.


                                                                                          Their knot of love
Tied, weav'd, entangled, with so true, so long,
And with a finger of so deep a cunning,
May be outworn, never undone. I think
Theseus cannot be umpire to himself,
Cleaving his conscience into twain and doing
Each side like justice, which he loves best.


The conversation continues edgily as Emilia, whether naively or deliberately, misunderstands her sister's final sentence and responds as though Hippolyta were speaking of a division of Theseus's affections between herself and Pirithous, rather than between himself and Pirithous:

There is a best, and reason has no manners
To say it is not you.


Theseus and Pirithous, like Orestes and Pylades or David and Jonathan, are traditional exemplars of lofty and selfless friendship who are presumably adduced to strengthen the play's thematic emphasis. Nevertheless, the context in which their history is evoked makes it not merely a pattern but an alternative to marriage. Even more surprising are the following speeches in which Emilia remembers her childhood friendship with Flavina, who died at the age of eleven but whose memory is offered as evidence that “the true love 'tween maid and maid may be / More than in sex dividual” (1.3.81-82):

You talk of Pirithous' and Theseus' love:
Theirs has more ground, is more maturely season'd,
More buckled with strong judgment, and their needs
The one of th' other may be said to water
Their intertangled roots of love, but I
And she (I sigh and spoke of) were things innocent,
Lov'd for we did, and like the elements
That know not what nor why, yet do effect
Rare issues by their operance, our souls
Did so to one another. What she lik'd
Was then of me approv'd, what not, condemn'd
No more arraignment. The flow'r that I would pluck
And put between my breasts (O then but beginning
To swell about the blossom), she would long
Till she had such another, and commit it
To the like innocent cradle, where phoenix-like
They died in perfume. On my head no toy
But was her pattern, her affections (pretty,
Though happily careless wear) I followed
For my most serious decking. Had mine ear
Stol'n some new air, or at adventure humm'd one
From musical coinage, why, it was a note
Whereon her spirits would sojourn (rather dwell on)
And sing it in her slumbers.


Despite her previous sympathetic account of Theseus and Pirithous, Hippolyta responds rather crossly to this nostalgic rhapsody:

                                                                                Now alack, weak sister,
I must no more believe thee in this point
(Though in't I know thou dost believe thyself)
Than I will trust a sickly appetite.


Hippolyta concedes, “If I were ripe for your persuasion, you / Have said enough to shake me from the arm / Of the all-noble Theseus” (1.3.91-93), but she ends with a ringing assertion of the priority of marital affection over friendship, declaring she will enter the temple to pray for Theseus “with great assurance / That we, more than his Pirithous, possess / The high throne in his heart” (1.3.94-96).

As other critics have pointed out, this conclusion is a non sequitur, and in the fifty lines since she last spoke of Pirithous she has both accepted Emilia's revision of her own (that is, Hippolyta's) meaning and claimed victory in a previously unacknowledged competition. In rebuking Emilia's praise of single-sex friendship, she also seems to rebuke something in herself that Emilia's words have sympathetically evoked, and so marriage is presented less as an independently attractive choice than as a cure for something weak, sickly, and probably adolescent. This is much the tone that critics have taken not only toward Emilia but also toward Palamon and Arcite, insisting that all three are going through a stage: “When a resolution [to remain single] means resisting a stage of life on which nature insists, the life of sexual relations, there will be more than unexpected happenings to fight against it, there will be one's own desires.”7 It does Edwards's subtle reading of the play an injustice to quote this sentence out of context since he also recognizes that while “two ways of life have … been compared … the poetic weight is obviously with innocence and Flavina” and that the play is going “to show good grounds for that nostalgia for innocence.”8 Only Talbot Donaldson comments:

Although the play does indeed depict an unavoidable process of change, this is not necessarily growth; and though the movement is away from joy, it may not necessarily be away from innocence: it may simply be away from one experience to another that is less pleasant. … As for Emilia, Shakespeare (though not Fletcher) seems to suggest that her resistance to sexual love is mature and valid, and that the entanglement of marriage is not an inevitable prescription for all women's happiness.9

Even Donaldson does not extend this argument to Palamon and Arcite; partly because the poetry in which they celebrate their friendship is weaker and partly because they ostensibly succumb to the power of eros. On the other hand, as I have already suggested, once eros has set the cousins at odds, it appears to have done its work.

It becomes even more conspicuous how little attention is devoted to Emilia, as opposed to the rivalry, when the scenes involving the kinsmen are set beside those that dramatize the painful erotic obsession of the Jailer's Daughter. Everyone who has written about this play has expressed some degree of dismay at Palamon's shockingly inept and inappropriate praise of Venus:

                                                                                                    I never practiced
Upon man's wife, nor would the libels read
Of liberal wits. I never at great feasts
Sought to betray a beauty, but have blush'd
At simp'ring sirs that did. I have been harsh
To large confessors, and have hotly ask'd them
If they had mothers; I had one, a woman,
And women 'twere they wrong'd. I knew a man
Of eighty winters—this I told them—who
A lass of fourteen brided. 'Twas thy power
To put life into dust: the aged cramp
Had screw'd his square foot round,
The gout had knit his fingers into knots,
Torturing convulsions from his globy eyes
Had almost drawn their spheres, that what was life
In him seem'd torture. This anatomy
Had by his young fair fere a boy, and I
Believ'd it was his, for she swore it was,
And who would not believe her?


Yet the critical consensus assigns these lines to Shakespeare, and if they were intended to convey a true lover's prayer, the ineptitude would not be Palamon's alone. His cousin, who addresses himself to Mars, is a fortiori even less concerned with desire. It is not clear that Palamon and Arcite, even at this stage of the play, know more about love—heterosexual love, at any rate—than Emilia, as she continues to cling to the altar of Diana. Marriage for all three becomes an exercise in what feminists have called “compulsory heterosexuality.”10

Despite the affinities of the plot here with that of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Two Noble Kinsmen belongs to a set of plays different from those that dramatize the conflict between friendship and love; instead, it dramatizes the conflict between friendship and marriage, and in these terms its most obvious predecessor in the Shakespearean canon is The Merchant of Venice. There is even a sign of this connection in the motif of the unconsummated marriage. Portia refuses to allow Bassanio to “lie by Portia's side / With an unquiet soul” (3.2.305-6), and when the widowed queens fear that every hour of the marriage night will blunt the urgency of Theseus's resolution to avenge them, Hippolyta joins them in begging Theseus to “Prorogue this business we are going about, and hang / Your shield afore your heart” (1.1.196-97). (The delay of this particular marriage is a motif to be recognized and remembered from the opening lines of A Midsummer Night's Dream, where Hippolyta is again the more patient partner. It is possible to suspect in either case that the patience veils reluctance.) It is clear that Portia understands that she must supersede Antonio in Bassanio's affections before her marriage can be a true one; it is less clear how Hippolyta understands the Theban expedition as a prologue to marriage, but perhaps in espousing the cause of the widowed queens Theseus enacts a symbolic commitment to the marriage bond.

The modern view of The Merchant of Venice accords such centrality to the figure of Shylock that it may be necessary to sketch, at least briefly, how the contest between Portia and Antonio over Bassanio equally informs the play's basic structure. The play opens with parallel scenes in which Antonio and Portia confess an apparently groundless melancholy and world-weariness. The second scene makes it clear that the source of Portia's uneasiness is erotic and probably connected with Bassanio. In the first scene Antonio hastily rejects, rather than refutes, the surmise that he is in love, and the parallelism of the scenes reinforces the suggestion of suppressed erotic feeling for Bassanio. When Salerio reports Antonio's grief at Bassanio's departure for Belmont, Solanio remarks, “I think he only loves the world for him” (2.8.50). Antonio would certainly call this affection for Bassanio friendship, and since it is in the name of friendship that he prefers to register its claims, it is probably irrelevant whether he recognizes it as something more. Antonio sends Bassanio off to marry Portia—that is, he underwrites the fortune-hunting suit—but he cannot so easily relinquish his claim to the first place in his kinsman's affections. When Shylock's bond comes due, Antonio wants Bassanio to witness his suffering on his behalf, and he embraces the occasion with a swooning intensity that suggests an otherwise unavailable consummation: “since in paying [the forfeit], it is impossible I should live, all debts are clear'd between you and I, if I might but see you at my death” (3.2.317-20). The indifference (and perhaps the generosity) of what follows is spurious: “Notwithstanding, use your pleasure; if your love do not persuade you to come, let not my letter” (3.2.320-22). The abrupt disavowal of pleading is more wheedling than the initial plea, and it demeans Bassanio in its implication of ingratitude. The note of passionate abandon is sounded once again in Antonio's “Pray God Bassanio come / To see me pay his debt, and then I care not!” (3.3.35-36). His combination of self-pity and self-exaltation reaches a nadir when he says:

I am a tainted wether of the flock,
Meetest for death. The weakest kind of fruit
Drops earliest to the ground, and so let me.
You cannot better be employed, Bassanio,
Than to live still and write mine epitaph.


It is within Bassanio that Antonio wants his epitaph engraved. Portia may be Bassanio's bride, but Antonio wishes to install himself in Bassanio's consciousness with a finality beside which the bond of marriage will seem trivial. Antonio tells Bassanio:

Commend me to your honorable wife,
Tell her the process of Antonio's end,
Say how I loved you, speak me fair in death;
And when the tale is told, bid her be judge
Whether Bassanio had not once a love.


Bassanio responds with the fervor Antonio desires:

Antonio, I am married to a wife
Which is as dear to me as life itself;
But life itself, my wife, and all the world,
Are not with me esteem'd above thy life.
I would lose all, ay, sacrifice them all
Here to this devil, to deliver you.


This declaration leaves Portia (disguised as the doctor of law, Balthasar) to remark, “Your wife would give you little thanks for that / If she were by to hear you make the offer” (4.1.288-89). The dead are formidable rivals to the living, and Portia cannot and will not allow such an intrusion into her marriage. Her active beneficence in saving Antonio's life removes the threat and counterbalances Antonio's passive willingness to suffer mutilation and death for Bassanio. In the final scenes she signals her complete victory by stage-managing the little drama of the rings, which, with their obvious sexual suggestion, emphasize the erotic bond between her and Bassanio. While Antonio retains the solitary dignity of an honored friend, he is conspicuously out of place, amid the conjugal couples and the densely amorous atmosphere of Belmont by night, and is orphaned by the happiness that he himself has made possible. Once again he offers his bond for Bassanio, this time pledging his soul rather than his body, with the implication that that marriage, too, is contractual and, more disconcertingly, that Portia has become a new version of Shylock.11

Nevertheless, in The Merchant of Venice the rival proponents of marriage and friendship are clearly visible. There is little question about either the nature of the conflict or the stakes. In The Two Noble Kinsmen, on the other hand, the conflict is not only internal but also occurs (except, perhaps, in the case of Emilia) below the level of conscious articulation. While the claims of marriage and friendship receive verbal expression, no single character steadfastly identifies her or his interests with either, so that, for example, in 1.3 Hippolyta can both praise the mutual devotion of Theseus and Pirithous and assert, somewhat arbitrarily, that she has now superseded Pirithous in Theseus's affections. Emilia, moreover, who is “bride-habited, / But maiden-hearted” (1.3.150-51), prays to Diana for either the “file and quality” of a militantly imagined virginity or a choice of husband that will leave her “guiltless of election” (1.3.161, 154). Friendship is apparently repudiated by the actions of Palamon and Arcite, but marriage is repeatedly disrupted, deferred, and finally accomplished only with a Claudian mixture of “mirth in funeral” and “dirge in marriage.” The first scene brings a reminder of the “mortal loathsomeness” of decaying bodies into the midst of a wedding celebration, and one might reasonably expect this discord to be resolved by the end of the play. Instead, the final scene echoes the first, and if the corpse is more decorously treated than those of Thebes's fallen enemies, it is, this time, physically present. While the official rhetoric of the play may declare that we have witnessed, as Edwards says, the “movement from one stage to the next, the unavoidable process of growth,”12 the message of its form is stasis, just as its Prologue imagines a bride who, on the morning after, “still retains / More of the maid to sight than husband's pains” (Pro. 8).

Even as the Prologue suggests that watching a performance of the play will be like a wedding, its ugly yet revealing language evokes defloration rather than consummation (assuming they can be distinguished) as the substance of this ritual observance. Despite the marriage of Emilia and Palamon, the expectations of most readers or auditors are probably unfulfilled (unconsummated) by this conclusion with its perfunctory mechanism and its message of self-canceling desire, neither of which corresponds to the Chaucerian prototype. The Two Noble Kinsmen may be no more antigeneric than other tragicomedies of the period, and its rebuff to comic form, or at least to a resolution based on marriage, is certainly less explicit than that of the much earlier Love's Labour's Lost. Nor is it the only Shakespearean play to end with marriages under the sign of compulsion; in Measure for Measure, for example, the legal rectifies the erotic in the marriage of Claudio and Julietta and wholly supersedes it in the marriages of Angelo and Mariana and of Lucio and Kate Keepdown, while the only voluntary marriage (or at least proposal) of the play, the Duke's to Isabella, is singularly devoid of romantic feeling. In The Two Noble Kinsmen, however, something happens beyond intermittent evocations of plays such as The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, and A Midsummer Night's Dream that, while capable of questioning conventional social arrangements, still grant them at least a qualified affirmation and invest them with the glamour of a generally ungrudging lyricism. For it seems undeniable that, if a play like A Midsummer Night's Dream participates in the character of a wedding masque, a play such as The Two Noble Kinsmen is, in spirit at any rate, closer to an antimasque.

While the conflict between love and marriage may be transacted within the major characters, as already suggested, it is best seen as internalized, rather than merely internal. One of the antagonists is clearly the social authority of marriage and, at this historical moment, of patriarchal marriage in particular. Despite the inevitability of this institution as both the building block of the social order and the seal of adult sexuality, the mood of the play suggests a recoil before its appropriation of private feeling. Not only for Emilia, whose imagination is inhabited by the dead Flavina, but also, in different ways, for Hippolyta and for the two cousins, friendship represents a retreat from public imperatives and degradations. (This emotional withdrawal from the “common stream” is the subject of the first scene between Palamon and Arcite, a scene that would otherwise be—as many critics have found it—extraneous.) Renewed contemporary interest in social history, furthermore, has made the ways in which marriage participates in and is informed by public and political spheres more evident than they might have been a generation ago. Recent scholarship, like that of Jonathan Goldberg and Coppélia Kahn,13 has explored the implications of the patriarchal Renaissance family and particularly the intensification of its power in the early seventeenth century as recorded by Lawrence Stone.14 Patriarchal power and its potentially deforming influence on the marital bond are felt throughout the Shakespearean canon, but it is at least possible that by 1613, a probable date for The Two Noble Kinsmen, it had assumed an especially repulsive form. The misogyny of James I, his ideological investment in patriarchy as a model for the state, and a sordid series of marital scandals among the aristocrats of his court all may have contributed to such a result.15 It is not hard to imagine why a woman might hesitate to enter a legal condition that severely circumscribed her rights and virtually abolished her autonomy without a compensating rise in status; compared to the potential dangers of such a situation, the known restrictions of a paternal household might have seemed on the whole benevolent.

The official distribution of power within the household, furthermore, did not always make the arrangements of patriarchal marriage attractive to males. Although it is a slight weight to counterpoise to a long history of socially sanctioned abuses, one nearly contemporary voice may suggest the emotional costs of seventeenth-century marriage, even to a male:

For although God in the first ordaining of marriage taught us to what end he did it, in words expressly implying the apt and cheerful conversation of man with woman, to comfort and refresh him against the evil of solitary life, not mentioning the purpose of generation till afterwards, as being but a secondary end in dignity, though not in necessity: yet now, if any two be but once handed in the church, and have tasted in any sort the nuptial bed, let them find themselves never so mistaken in their dispositions through any error, concealment, or misadventure, that through their different tempers, thoughts and constitutions, they can neither be to one another a remedy against loneliness, nor live in any union or contentment all their days; yet they shall, so they be but found suitably weaponed to the least possibility of sensual enjoyment, be made, spite of antipathy, to fadge together, and combine as they may to their unspeakable wearisomeness, and despair of all sociable delight in the ordinance which God established to that very end.16

Throughout The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, Milton's plaintive articulation of the true end of matrimony implies, by its very insistence, how little disposed his contemporaries were to look for something in marriage beyond breeding, acquisition and transmission of property, and a fairly rudimentary sexual satisfaction. To admit, much less accommodate, some other and less carnal goal, such as companionship, would be to erode the principle of patriarchy so recently reinforced; the price of power was the loss, or inhibition, of intimacy.

In other Shakespearean texts an erotic world may be constructed as an alternative to the political and familial (as, for example, in Romeo and Juliet, where only after the lovers' deaths can their moon-silvered privacies be translated into public images, cast in the medium of commerce, gold), but in The Two Noble Kinsmen, as in The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, sexual desire is a betrayer. Milton protests against the tyranny “of an impetuous nerve” and the “venom of a lusty and over-abounding concoction”:17

Who hath the power to struggle with an intelligible flame, not in Paradise to be resisted, become now more ardent by being failed of what in reason it looked for and even then most unquenched, when the importunity of a provender burning is well enough appeased; and yet the soul hath obtained nothing of what it justly desires.18

In The Two Noble Kinsmen, the fate of the Jailer's Daughter most clearly expresses the imperious brutality of desire, as she is worked into marriage with a surrogate Palamon (just as Palamon himself becomes, in effect, a surrogate Arcite for Emilia). While eros is both specific and clamorous in its demands, it appears easily deluded—as though to provide another gloss on the blindness of Cupid.

It is possible to feel that the interchangeability of one male for another is a comment on their slender endowment of individuality: the estranged cousins can seem twinned in nullity rather than in symmetrical virtues. More eloquent than the substitution of sexual partners, however, is the extent to which each major character encounters his or her fate in isolation. It is the prospect of loneliness within marriage that haunts Milton's tract, and, while the prayers in The Two Noble Kinsmen to the three different deities are modeled on The Knight's Tale, dramatic presentation makes even clearer the separateness and solitude with which Emilia, Arcite, and Palamon confront the future. Edwards describes the “growth into experience” in this play as “walking into the future as through a fog,”19 but the extent to which that fog might evoke not only ignorance but also mutual isolation requires emphasis. Even more cheerful Shakespearean texts suggest the distance between the sexes by the strategies that must be employed to overcome it. Disguise and intrigue are the conditions for satisfactory romantic conjunctions; Viola and Orsino, or Rosalind and Orlando, can accomplish their courtships only in situations that one partner fails to recognize as such. Beatrice and Benedict may be brought together by hearsay and stratagem (not to mention the aggression through which they disguise their feelings from themselves and others), but it is the “straightforward” love match of Hero and Claudio that nearly produces disaster. Unfortunately, even without much investigation of the historical facts, one would suspect that the marriages of Hero and Claudio or of Emilia and Arcite, either sponsored or arranged by all the appropriate authorities, more closely resemble aristocratic marriages of the era than the playful and devious romances that occupy the center stage of Shakespearean comedy. It may have seemed, at some point, that the dreams of freedom, and of friendship within love, to which such comedy gave shape were no longer strong enough to resist, even imaginatively, the pressure of social realities.20

Ultimately, the revulsion from patriarchal marriage and the society of which it is the foundation also affects the presentation of friendship. Perhaps the treatment of marriage (and, more problematically, of eros as the power that delivers us to the uncertainties of union with a stranger) in The Two Noble Kinsmen would be less disconcerting if friendship itself seemed less of a recoil from experience. Like the reminiscence of a presexual and even pretemporal innocence in The Winter's Tale (“we knew not / The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dream'd / That any did” [1.2.69-71]), longing for friendship in The Two Noble Kinsmen depends on negation, on an Edenic absence of conflict or dissonance.

Reticence about the essential character of friendship, or defining it by negation, need not be seen as a function of its weakness. In Emilia's case her rejection of self-consciousness may be seen as naive and rather touching:


And she (I sigh and spoke of) were things innocent,
Lov'd for we did, and like the elements
That know not what nor why, yet do effect
Rare issues by their operance. …


Yet a similar confession of verbal impotence (which Shakespeare may be deliberately echoing) can be found at the center of Montaigne's essay “De l'amitié,” one of the Renaissance's most sophisticated and subtle accounts of friendship: “If you press me to tell why I loved him, I feel that this cannot be expressed, except by answering: Because it was he, because it was I.”21

The moment before the friendship of Palamon and Arcite dissolves, or rather explodes, is one not of silence but of overabundant rhetoric:

We are an endless mine to one another;
We are one another's wife, ever begetting
New births of love; we are father, friends, acquaintance;
We are, in one another, families:
I am your heir, and you are mine. …


If eros offers the prospect of loneliness and self-alienation, such friendship seems to offer nothing more than a terrifyingly endless repetition of the self. The dream of intimacy turns into a nightmare of claustrophobia. The kinsmen escape from this impasse, but only into conflict. It is a conflict that more clearly exorcises the threat of excessive intimacy than it testifies to the redirection of their emotions. The true goal of their rivalry, as a flight from friendship, seems neither Emilia nor marriage but extinction of the self or of the other, and ultimately each wins some share of what he wants from this destructive compact.


  1. The most direct predecessors were tales from the Disciplina Clericalis of Petrus Alfonsi (ca. 1110) and from the Gesta Romanorum and the thirteenth-century Romanz d'Athis et Prophilias (alternatively called L'Estoire d'Athènes).

  2. Talbot Donaldson, Swan at the Well: Shakespeare Reading Chaucer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 56.

  3. Sir Thomas Elyot, The Book of the Governor, ed. S. E. Lehmberg (London: Dent, 1962), 136.

  4. Ibid.

  5. Donaldson, Swan at the Well, 60.

  6. “Crises of Male Self-Definition in The Two Noble Kinsmen,” elsewhere in this volume.

  7. Philip Edwards, “On the Design of The Two Noble Kinsmen,Review of English Literature 5 (1964): 89-105, rpt. in The Two Noble Kinsmen, ed. Clifford Leech (New York: NAL, 1966), 255.

  8. Ibid., 253.

  9. Donaldson, Swan at the Well, 62-63.

  10. Cf. Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Signs 5.4 (Summer 1980): 631-60. Rich cites the use of this phrase at the Brussels Tribunal on Crimes against Women in 1976.

  11. The reasons for regarding Antonio's sexual disposition as homosexual have been discussed by other critics, most notably W. H. Auden, who persuasively considers Shylock and Antonio as parallel figures, both excluded from full participation in Venetian society and its idealized mirror-image, Belmont. He also comments shrewdly on Shakespeare's alteration of his source: “Had he wished, Shakespeare could have followed the Pecorone story in which it is Ansaldo, not Gratiano, who marries the equivalent of Nerissa. Instead, he portrays Antonio as a melancholic who is incapable of loving a woman. He deliberately avoids the classical formula of the Perfect Friends by making the relationship unequal. When Salanio says of Antonio's feelings for Bassanio

    I think he only loves the world for him

    we believe it, but no one would say that Bassanio's affections are equally exclusive.” “Brothers and Others,” in The Dyer's Hand (New York: Random, 1963), 229.

  12. Edwards, “Design of The Two Noble Kinsmen,” 259.

  13. Cf. Jonathan Goldberg, “State Secrets,” in James I and the Politics of Literature, chap. 2 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), 55-112; and Coppélia Kahn, Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), 12-16.

  14. Lawrence Stone, “The Reinforcement of Patriarchy,” in The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 (New York: Harper, 1979), 109-46 is especially relevant.

  15. Stone, Family, Sex and Marriage, 110; Goldberg, Politics of Literature, 85-86; and Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965), 665-67.

  16. Preface to book 1 of The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce in Milton's Prose Writings (London: Dent, 1958), 255.

  17. Ibid., 263-64.

  18. Ibid., 265.

  19. Edwards, “Design of The Two Noble Kinsmen,” 259.

  20. For a discussion of the way in which marginal institutions, such as the Elizabethan theater, can articulate excluded or not yet realized social possibilities, see Louis Montrose, “The Purpose of Playing: Reflections on a Shakespearean Anthropology,” Helios n.s. 7 (1980): 51-74.

  21. ”Of Friendship,” in The Complete Essays of Montaigne, trans. Donald Frame (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1965), 139.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 of new genres allowed for the possibility of a more complex statement of the problem and a less magical solution. But even while apparently in abeyance, I shall argue, fantasies that arise from the concern with male bonding shape those middle comedies concerned overtly with heterosexual union.

We ordinarily think of Shakespearean comedy as characterized by its ending in a marriage, or at least in the promise of a marriage, that will resolve the tensions of the plot as it marks the passing of the hero and heroine from childlike dependence on their old family unit to the establishment of new adult identities in the formation of a new family unit. The logic of the plot classically represents this psychological transition as generational conflict, so that the father's will becomes the main impediment to marriage. This pattern is indeed a shaping force in Shakespearean comedy, most clearly in A Midsummer Night's Dream, more problematically in The Merchant of Venice, where Portia's implicit manipulation of her father's will is played out in Jessica's double theft, robbing her father of both daughter and money; its familiar presence in Romeo and Juliet allows us to feel that the play is a comedy somehow gone wrong. Nonetheless, perhaps because of its familiarity, it is easy to overestimate the force of this pattern in Shakespearean comedy, where the father frequently is not the blocking agent and marriage is not always the goal. Even among those middle comedies where marriage seems unambivalently the goal, only A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Merchant of Venice posit the father as the chief obstacle to marriage, and then only initially: in Dream, the infidelity of the men—both natural and magically enhanced—poses a far more serious threat to marital union than Egeus's paternal will; and in Merchant, the power of the father Shylock works to disrupt marital union after the fact not by a Brabantio-like attempt to spoil his own daughter's marriage but by exacerbating the tension already inherent in Bassanio's double loyalty to Antonio and Portia. Even in these comedies, that is, the stress tends to fall more on the internal impediments to marriage than on the sheer prohibition of the father's will; and in the other marriage comedies—As You Like it, Much Ado About Nothing, and Twelfth Night—the impediment of paternal will has essentially disappeared,2 replaced in all three plays by an educative process which assumes that the most serious threats to happy marriage are the internal ones.

If even these marriage comedies deviate from the classical pattern, the earliest comedies disrupt it entirely. Only one of them, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, ends conventionally with the promise of marriage, and then, as I shall argue, only by a magical wishing away of problems. In The Comedy of Errors, marriage is so incidental to the prime business of the play that the normally talkative Luciana is allowed no response to Antipholus of Syracuse's rather off-hand marriage proposal at the play's end; its part in the joyful resolution is insignificant in comparison with the reunion of the broken family. Furthermore, the play's rather meager promise of a happy marriage for one twin is more than balanced by its full demonstration of the unharmonious marriage of the other twin. The Taming of the Shrew allows marriage only in the context of a programmatic attack on domination by women; the burst of high spirits at the end comes not from the conventional promise of marriage but from the promise of a union based comfortably on an acknowledgement of male superiority, whether tongue in cheek or not. And Love's Labor's Lost ends in a retreat from marriage, explicitly not like an old play.3

The retreat from marriage that ends Love's Labor's Lost is particularly telling: for the retreat signalled by the death of the Princess's father in many ways reduplicates the beginning of the play. At the start, the men band together to eternize themselves independent of women, explicitly vowing to exclude women; and though they seem to move toward heterosexual union, they remain more bound to one another as members in a society of lovers than bound to the women as individuals.4 Throughout, the play is based in part on the comic predictability with which the men reiterate one another, but the comic device points unerringly to a psychological fact. For the women fail to take the men seriously as lovers partly because the men fail to become individuals, to separate themselves from each other either in the women's eyes or—more seriously—in their own. Even in this play, then, in which the retreat from marriage seems to be occasioned by the intrusion of the father,5 the retreat reiterates the constraints to marriage inherent in a peculiarly adolescent form of male society. And this ending is characteristic: in the early comedies it is not the father but the complications posed by male identity and male friendship that threaten marriage, that in fact make marriage as much the problem as it is the solution. The love plot of The Comedy of Errors cannot be sorted out until Antipholus of Syracuse finds out in the most literal way who he isn't; and the resolution of the love plot in The Two Gentlemen of Verona depends entirely on the resolution of the conflict in friendship. In fact these plays all to some extent emphasize male identity and male bonds at the expense of romantic love:6Comedy suggests the necessary basis of marriage in the establishment of male identity; Two Gentlemen allows marriage only via a fantasy that preserves friendship; and Love's Labor's Lost shows the truncated progress from male bonds to heterosexual love. In The Comedy of Errors, the love plot exists largely to add to the confusions of identity; and in Two Gentlemen, despite our interest in Julia and Silvia, the complicated love plot seems designed largely as a test of friendship. Even in The Taming of the Shrew, marriage threatens to become subordinate: Petruchio initially undertakes the wooing and subduing of Katherina as part of a male pact; and the demonstration to other men of the superiority of his technique shapes the ending as decisively as concerns about romantic love.

If Shakespeare's middle comedies finally seem to enable a sense of marriage as joyous resolution, his early comedies begin much more tentatively with the sense of marriage as problematically related to male identity; particularly in Comedy and Two Gentlemen, Shakespeare explores issues of male identity and friendship felt as necessarily prior to marriage. In beginning by considering issues of male identity and friendship, Shakespeare seems to me to recapitulate in his own career the development of the individual toward adulthood and marriage. For despite the implicit assertion of the comic pattern that sees conflict largely in generational terms, we do not move directly from family bonds to marriage without an intervening period in which our friendships with same-sex friends help us to establish our independent identities; and marriage is notoriously disruptive of these friendships and sometimes of the identities based on them. This double movement is perfectly embodied in The Comedy of Errors and The Two Gentlemen of Verona: taken together, they begin to suggest the full complexity of the pattern in which male identity is achieved by merger with a mirror self7 and then threatened by women.8

The Comedy of Errors explores the first part of this pattern almost diagrammatically. Antipholus of Syracuse tells us that he loses himself in his quest to find his mother and brother (1.2.40); but the action of the play argues that he can find himself only by so losing himself. In the course of the play, he is robbed of those external assurances by which identity is normally confirmed and begins to doubt even the self-identification of his own memory; his identity is assured only at the unravelling that occurs when he and his twin are finally face to face. His identity at this moment is contingent upon his discovery of himself in a mirroring other, a process that Dromio of Ephesus makes clear when he says to his own twin, “Methinks you are my glass, and not my brother. / I see by you I am a sweet-faced youth” (5.1.419-20). Identity here develops precisely out of the tension between self and other, only in the presence of the mirroring twin who is both self and other.

But such an identity borders perilously on fusion. The terms in which Antipholus of Syracuse puts his quest from the start have suggested that his discovery of his brother will enact a fusion with him: “I to the world am like a drop of water / That in the ocean seeks another drop” (1.2.35-36). The comedy depends throughout on just such a tension between separation and fusion, so that we are always struggling to see which twin is which as we unravel the plot. In fact the end of the play emphasizes the process by which identity is created out of a state of undifferentiated fusion. Everyone on stage assumes for a dizzying moment that the two Antipholuses are in fact one—“which is the natural man, / And which the spirit?” (5.1.334-35)—and the remaining action discovers who is who only by a sometimes tedious insistence on the separateness of events, in effect separating out the identities from the fused mirror-images by detailing what has happened to whom. This insistence is unnecessary for the audience, who already knows the plot, but apparently necessary for the fantasy about identity embedded here: for the recounting of events already familiar to the audience seems to ward off the danger that the twins, who discover themselves in the mirror relationship, will simply fuse. If Comedy is thus about the tenuousness of identity, it leaves us with a radical image of the frail arena of the self: for the twins must be separated out from one another to know who they are; and yet they can know who they are only by seeing themselves mirrored in one another.

If The Comedy of Errors suggests the basis of identity in a mirror-self, The Two Gentlemen of Verona exposes the mirror relationship and the self thus perilously established to the threat of dissolution in the presence of women. And as with Comedy, the very thinness of the play allows us to see these issues with surprising clarity. Before the play opens, Valentine and Proteus have already achieved the union achieved only at the end of Comedy: Valentine will later tell the Duke that he knows Proteus “as myself” (2.4.59), suggesting the simultaneity of self-knowledge and knowledge of the mirroring other. The opening lines of the play enact the beginnings of the rupture of this union by heterosexual love. In fact we can see the rupture epitomized in the delicate shift in the meaning of love in Valentine's first words:

Cease to persuade, my loving Proteus;
Home-keeping youth have ever homely wits.
Were't not affection chains thy tender days
To the sweet glances of thy honored love,
I rather would entreat thy company. …


Valentine initially seems to call Proteus “loving” in acknowledgement of Proteus's love for him, as a token of their friendship; it is only after we are told that Proteus's love for a woman will separate the two friends that we hear the initial “loving” as “in love with a woman,” hence incapable either of persuading his friend to stay in Verona or of following him to Milan. Valentine's epithet for his friend shifts in meaning, that is, from an acknowledgement of friendship to an acknowledgement of the rupture in friendship caused by the love of woman. Indeed, as Valentine begins to characterize Proteus's love of woman as an affection that chains him, albeit to sweet glances, we may begin to hear the sonnets' distinction between the two loves of comfort and despair: if Proteus were not so fettered, Valentine “rather would entreat thy company / To see the wonders of the world abroad / Than, living dully sluggardized at home, / Wear out thy youth with shapeless idleness” (1.1.5-8).9 And although Valentine himself allows for the possibility that love and honor can be conjoined, Proteus locates honor firmly with Valentine's pursuits rather than his own, in lines that amplify Valentine's hint of erotic bondage and shape-shifting:

He after honor hunts, I after love.
He leaves his friends to dignify them more;
I leave myself, my friends, and all for love.
Thou, Julia, thou hast metamorphosed me.


For Proteus, loving Julia entails separation not only from his friend but from himself, as though these two partings were in fact simultaneous acts.

The rupture of friendship through love implicit in the opening lines of the play becomes of course its main action, as Proteus betrays Valentine in order to win Silvia. Proteus suggests at the start that love for him means metamorphosis, the establishment of a new identity; later the terms in which he rationalizes his double betrayal of Valentine and Julia suggest that his love for Silvia is in part a search for a new identity specifically independent of his identity as Valentine's friend:

Julia I lose and Valentine I lose.
If I keep them, I needs must lose myself;
If I lose them, thus find I by their loss:
For Valentine, myself; for Julia, Silvia.
I to myself am dearer than a friend.


These lines suggest that the simple and natural movement from friendship to love—from Valentine to Julia—is not enough for Proteus; the establishment of a new self for him seems actively to require the betrayal of friendship, hence to require Silvia, in order to establish himself in place of Valentine: “for Valentine, myself.” In fact Silvia seems to exist for Proteus largely as an occasion for the betrayal of Valentine. His love for her immediately reveals its basis in his rivalrous identification with Valentine; as he first tells us of his love, he wonders whether it is “mine eye, or Valentine's praise, / Her true perfection, or my false transgression” (2.4.193-94) that attracts him to Silvia and hence to the betrayal both of friendship and of his previous love. But if he falls in love with Silvia because of Valentine's praise, as though he and Valentine must share one love object, the competition immediately becomes more important to him than the love; in that sense, it is indeed his “false transgression”, the possibility of betrayal, that makes him love, not his love that makes him transgress. Immediately after he has told us of his love for Silvia, he muses about the transformation in his feelings for Valentine, incidentally giving Julia scarcely a second thought: “Methinks my zeal to Valentine is cold, / And that I love him not as I was wont. / O, but I love his lady too too much” (2.4.200-202). Loving Silvia is thus an expression simultaneously of his identification with Valentine and his attempt to disentangle himself from Valentine by becoming his rival. He can form a new self only by betraying Valentine, but can betray Valentine only by loving where he loves.10 The new love thus both confirms and attempts to dissolve the old mirroring bond with Valentine. The plot with Silvia thus becomes for Proteus a playing out of the initial tension between his love for Valentine and his love for Julia, almost as though the betrayal of Valentine involved in loving Julia had to become literalized in order to serve its psychic function in separating him from Valentine.

But if Shakespeare's consideration of the conventional conflict between friendship and love here suggests the constitution of the self in the tension between fusion with and opposition to a mirror self, the end of the play simply dissolves this tension by declaring that there is no conflict at all, that there is no need for Proteus to separate from Valentine. The ending depends on a series of magical gestures—on Valentine's giving Silvia to Proteus, on Proteus's renewed love for Julia, on the Duke's instantaneous conversion to Valentine as son-in-law—and only these gestures insure that the play can end, that the conflict can apparently be resolved. But the conflict is less resolved than it is wished away. The utter psychological implausibility of the ending is striking partly because the play has been surprisingly attentive to psychological issues; but the implausibility is based, I think, precisely on the desire to undo the play's own central insights. For the ending magically enacts the fulfillment of an impossible bargain: it asserts that one can maintain an initial fusion with a mirror image while establishing a heterosexual relationship that is explicitly a repudiation—a betrayal—of that mirror relationship. The ending thus attempts to satisfy the wish that one can have it both ways, and at no psychic cost. In fact, in the fantasy that allows both relationships simultaneous fulfillment, the willingness to sacrifice everything to the earlier male bond magically enables the later heterosexual bond: the couples get sorted out only because Valentine gives friendship primacy when he tells Proteus “All that was mine in Silvia I give thee” (5.4.83), giving not only Silvia but more importantly himself to Proteus. But in order for the play to enact this fantasy, the autonomy of both Silvia and Julia as fully realized figures has to be sacrificed: Silvia stands by silently as she is swapped from Valentine to Proteus, who has just tried to rape her (indeed, she never speaks after the rape attempt); and Julia is not permitted to notice, or to care, that her man is a would-be rapist. The sacrifice of the autonomy of these hitherto sensible characters suggests the extent to which the deepest concern of the play is with the male bond. Indeed, the final fantasy of the play, embodied in its last lines, works to establish not the heterosexual but the same-sex bond. If earlier, the sacrifice of the heterosexual bond to the homosexual one magically enabled the heterosexual bond, here the heterosexual bond itself seems largely a means to the homosexual one. Valentine scarcely acknowledges that Silvia is now his; but at the end he turns to Proteus to say, “our day of marriage shall be yours: / One feast, one house, one mutual happiness” (5.4.173-74). Not only is the conflict between friendship and love wished away; the rather desperate assertions of unity in the last line assert that the two kinds of relationships are at bottom one, that nothing need be given up.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona achieves a happy ending only by magically denying conflict. When Shakespeare rewrote this conflict in The Merchant of Venice, he made it abundantly clear that this fantasy solution is impossible. For the play pits Antonio's love for Bassanio against Portia's and makes it clear that Portia can win only insofar as Antonio loses. When Antonio requests that the disguised Portia be given the ring, he himself implies such a contest: “My Lord Bassanio, let him have the ring. / Let his deservings, and my love withal, / Be valued 'gainst your wife's commandement” (4.1.447-49). He demands that heterosexual love in effect be sacrificed to friendship, a “sacrifice” that Bassanio himself had been eager to make during the trial (4.1.284); the struggle over the ring thus becomes a struggle over possession of Bassanio.11 Portia underlines her victory—and Antonio's defeat—by making Antonio surety for Bassanio's faith to her. When Antonio asks Bassanio to swear to keep his wife's ring, he thus undoes his earlier request that Bassanio give up the ring, in effect returning not only the ring but also Bassanio to his rightful owner. In place of the spurious fusions of the last line of Two Gentlemen, that is, we are given at the end of Merchant Antonio's defeat and his isolation, for which the magical return of his ships provides only poor compensation. Antonio's isolation provides an uncomfortable ending to the comedy precisely insofar as it refuses to be wished away: as the only unmarried figure on stage at the end, he suggests the tensions that comedy cannot resolve. Much Ado About Nothing similarly approaches the limits of comedy when Beatrice urges Benedick to kill Claudio as proof of his love for her;12 insofar as Claudio has been identified at the beginning of the play as Benedick's “new sworn brother” (1.1.64), Beatrice's demand and Benedick's stunned response to it re-enact in compressed but very powerful form the full fantasy of woman as murderous to the male bond. The characters—and the audience—are saved from the consequences of this moment only by the fortuitous discovery of Borachio's role in deceiving Claudio and by Hero's miraculous restitution.

Without the magical restitutions that temper the ending of Merchant and undo the conflict in Much Ado, the fantasies embedded in these plays lead toward tragedy. When the rage of the male rival is presented without the denials of Two Gentlemen or the magical compensation of Merchant, it issues in the tragedy of Othello, motivated at least in part by Iago's sense that he has been displaced not only by Cassio but also by Desdemona. And when Shakespeare allows women to test the solidity of male bonds without Much Ado's comic protection from harm, that testing issues in Macbeth's murder of Duncan at Lady Macbeth's instigation, in Coriolanus's ambiguous betrayal of Aufidius at his mother's request, and above all in Hamlet's image of literal fratricide. The fantasies initially explored in comedy thus find their full expression in tragedy. In fact Romeo and Juliet gives us a condensed but suggestive analogue for the turn of this fantasy material from comedy to tragedy. The play seems to begin securely in a comic realm, where the child-lovers' escape from family is promised. The bantering love and competition between Romeo and Mercutio seems safely of this realm, even when it suggests the dissolution of friendship threatened by Romeo's old and new love of woman.13 After one such wit combat, Mercutio claims Romeo as his own, as identified by this male fellowship: “Why, is not this better now than groaning for love? Now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo” (2.4.883-84). But Romeo is not Mercutio's; and the play turns decisively tragic at the moment that Romeo's new loyalty to women graphically destroys the old male bond. Mercutio's death signals the end of the comic realm. But that death is imagined partly as the consequence of Romeo's new loyalty to Juliet: as he forfeits his old identity, based on familial aggression and male camaraderie, he enables Mercutio to take up his quarrel; as he turns peacemaker, he enables Tybalt to kill Mercutio under his arm. Even Tybalt's death seems curiously the consequence of Romeo's loss of his secure male identity: Romeo's sense that Juliet's beauty has made him effeminate (3.1.112) makes him resume his old identity with a vengeance that kills Tybalt and drives the play further toward tragedy.14

Hamlet is the first of the plays in which Shakespeare gives the fantasy elaborated in Two Gentlemen its tragic consequence. In the plays between Two Gentlemen and Hamlet, the conflict I have been delineating emerges only in muted and disguised form. If, that is, Shakespeare attempted to manage conflict by magically wishing it away in Two Gentlemen, he used more sophisticated strategies of denial in the plays before Hamlet. In these plays, the two loves brought uncomfortably together in Two Gentlemen are separated out again. Strong male bonds are only rarely brought into direct conflict with heterosexual love: the histories and Julius Caesar tend to explore male bonds in the absence of the complications posed by women; with the exception of Merchant and to some extent Much Ado, the comedies tend to explore the complications of heterosexual love in the absence of strong male bonds—and the exceptions suggest the danger to the comic mood posed by the failure to keep the two loves separate. The potential for disaster expressed during this period in the sonnets is thus contained in the plays through strategies of isolation. As You Like It itself provides a suggestive model for this process of isolation: there male bonds and the heterosexual relationship are strikingly present in the same play, but in total isolation from one another.

The fantasies of Shakespeare's earliest comedies, then, seem not to be at issue in most of his middle marriage comedies. In fact, A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It work out their concern with heterosexual relation in the context explicitly of a strong female bond, rather than a strong male bond. Furthermore, the bond that would not dissolve in Two Gentlemen dissolves relatively painlessly in these plays; the breach in bonding felt as potentially tragic when it occurs between men is felt as negligible or even as deeply comic when it occurs between women. Even the fluid world of Twelfth Night delicately allows for the comic formation and dissolution of female bonds in the relationship of Olivia to Viola-Cesario. I want to turn now to the ways in which these plays, apparently concerned with heterosexual relationship and the female bond, express fantasies of male bonding.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the bond between men is present only in muted form, suggested only by their rivalry. Demetrius seems to abandon Helena and turn to Hermia largely—as in Two Gentlemen—because she is loved by Lysander; the old mirror relationship is echoed only very faintly in Lysander's claim that he is Demetrius's equal. At the same time as the male bond is essentially eradicated from this play, concern with same sex bonding is made comically safe and distant by its transfer to the women.15 The strongest expression of same-sex fusion anywhere in Shakespeare's plays is in Helena's wonderfully poignant lines about herself and Hermia as a “double cherry, seeming parted, / But yet an union in partition” (3.2.209-10). Here Helena's insistence on oneness—“one” occurs five times in three lines—makes the two women seem indeed “incorporate” (3.2.208). But this statement of union comes only after its rupture, defined by its own loss. Helena's accusation that Hermia has “rent our ancient love asunder, / To join with men” (3.2.215-16) may strike us as somewhat disingenuous, given Helena's own betrayal of Hermia and Lysander to Demetrius; nonetheless it perfectly captures the sense of hurt and outrage as adolescent same-sex friendships give way to romantic attachments. Nonetheless, despite their poignance, Helena's lines do not disturb the comic mood; they are in fact delicately funny. Instead of focussing on the pain just below the surface here, the comic spectacle of Dream presents individuation for women largely in terms of the man's need to find his beloved unique: the differences between Helena and Hermia become comic, a function of their status as beloved or rejected, rather than painful evidence of a lost union. It is simply assumed in this play that their union will dissolve and that men are not only the cause of, but also more than compensation for, this dissolution.

Issues of same-sex bonding, for both men and women, become far more complex in As You Like It and Twelfth Night than in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The female bond that in Dream has already been ruptured and is largely the subject for laughter becomes in As You Like It an important motivation for the plot and its dissolution is only imperfectly achieved; and that bond is finally allowed a curious satisfaction in the deeply androgynous fantasy of Twelfth Night. At the same time, the male bond, so apparently insignificant in Dream, reappears in powerful—and frequently powerfully disguised—forms in As You Like It and Twelfth Night. Although fantasies about the two loves are banished from overt consideration, they increasingly shape these plays; and in Twelfth Night the threatened male bond itself reappears painfully clearly in the relationship of Antonio to Sebastian.

As You Like It begins with the same pattern of female bonds and rivalrous males—in this case the two sets of brothers—that characterized Dream, but now these two plot elements are isolated from one another. The love of Celia for Rosalind is stated so often and so unambiguously in the first act of the play that we might expect its dissolution to provide a source of dramatic tension, but for the most part it does not. From the first, Celia insists on the element of fusion in their love. She initially argues that Rosalind should be willing to take Celia's father for her own, in effect making them sisters (1.2.6-12), as Le Beau does when he tells Orlando that their “loves / Are dearer than the natural bond of sisters” (1.2.256-57). Celia imagines them as indeed dearer than sisters, in fact as fully incorporate in fantasy as Helena was with Hermia: she defends Rosalind from the charge of treason by telling her father, “If she be a traitor, / Why, so am I … wheresoe'er we went, like Juno's swans, / Still we went coupled and inseparable” (1.3.68-72); she announces her intention to go into exile with Rosalind because “thou and I am one. / Shall we be sund'red, shall we part, sweet girl?” (1.3.92-93). Charles initially tells us, “never two ladies loved as they do” (1.1.104-5); and Celia's language here, as she persuades Rosalind to escape her father by running off together into the forest, is so lover-like that it would not surprise us coming from Lysander as he and Hermia prepare for their flight from her father to the wood. In fact this moment begins to take on peculiar resonances from their earlier one, as though the lovers' flight in Dream is being replayed with homoerotic coloration. These resonances become more pronounced as the girls disguise themselves to form the heterosexual couple Ganymede and Aliena.

But the language of fusion and the plan for escape are all Celia's; though Rosalind finally concurs in the plan with enthusiasm, we feel that she does so more from a desire to try out a man's role than to preserve the friendship (1.3.110-16). Celia has throughout worried that Rosalind's love was not equal to her own, first when chiding Rosalind for mourning for her father (1.2.5-6, 11-12), then when registering surprise at Rosalind's failure to understand that her banishment means Celia's own (1.3.92-93). And her worries are well-founded: from the start, Rosalind has hinted at her readiness to move past the relationship with Celia. Within twenty five lines of their first entrance, Rosalind has proposed the sport of falling in love, and Celia has rejected it (1.2.22-25); Celia herself seems to imagine a life emphatically without marriage when she imagines herself making Rosalind in effect her father's heir (1.2.16-18). Orlando's appearance in the Forest of Arden seems so natural that we tend to forget how fortuitous it is; Rosalind and Celia flee together to Arden not to seek Orlando but to preserve their friendship. Given all this dramatic preparation, we might expect that Orlando's presence would cause some friction in the friendship. But despite the sulkiness that we may hear, for example, in Celia's teasing discounting of the seriousness of Orlando's love (3.4.19-25; 4.3.3-6),16 Celia expresses no pain at the dissolution of the relationship with Rosalind; we are left with the sense of a discomfort not fully acknowledged or resolved. Whatever her feeling in the court—whatever her fantasy of a life in which she is permanently coupled with Rosalind—once in the forest she becomes largely the handmaid to Rosalind's love and is finally consoled by being given her very own reformed man at the end. That is: the play raises the issue of the breaking of female bonds very powerfully only to have it disappear in the forest, as though that too were a part of the forest's magical power of conversion, though in this case unacknowledged. Nonetheless, the love of Celia for Rosalind evaded in the forest finds its parodic representation—perhaps its comic exorcism—in the love of Phebe for Rosalind-as-Ganymede, one of the odds that must be made even before the play can end comically under the auspices of Hymen.

If As You Like It studiously neglects the potential conflict between same-sex and heterosexual bonding in the case of the women, it seems to deny the possibility of such conflict in the case of the men. Here, as in the histories, the rupture in male bonds is the consequence of the struggle for power and patrimony, not at all the consequence of a female presence.17 Insofar as male bonds and heterosexual bonds are here allowed to inhabit the same dramatic world, the play suggests that there need be no conflict between them; in fact here, as in Two Gentlemen, the restoration of male bonds seems the necessary precondition for the formation of heterosexual bonds.18 But for the most part male bonds and heterosexual bonds are not allowed to inhabit the same dramatic world: one part of the forest is Rosalind's space, another is the Duke's. Indeed, the separation between these spaces seems precisely the point. The play insists on the possibility of male harmony achieved in isolation, undisturbed by women. The forest in this play is the home of fantasy solutions, and deep within its confines we meet, in Duke Senior and his men, the image of the restitution of all the broken male bonds with which the play begins, a restitution based on the double image of “old Robin Hood of England” (1.1.109) and the return of the golden world (1.1.111). As with the scene of Valentine's escape to the outlaws in Two Gentlemen, the Duke's pastoral society gives us an ideal image of male harmony to replace the ruptures in actuality and hence paves the way for the fantasy solutions of the end—there the spurious oneness, here the magical conversions. This male society keeps its distance from women—in fact promises fulfillment without women—partly insofar as the men themselves take on traditionally female nurturing qualities in the face of an indifferent nature. What makes this world golden is significantly not the presence of a maternally sheltering and providing nature—nature here does not provide—but the self-sufficiency of the men.19 The fantasy underlying this image of harmony seems to be that the restitution of male bonds is the return of the golden world. Underlying the images both of Robin Hood and of the golden world is I think the image of an all male Eden, Eden imagined before the destructive presence of Eve; and the absence of Eve here itself goes a long way toward undoing “the penalty of Adam” (2.1.5)—the penalty mysteriously felt and not felt in Arden, as Duke Senior tells us first that he does not feel the “seasons' difference” and then describes its effects on his body (2.1.5-9).20 We may measure the extent to which women must be kept apart from this image of male harmony, as well as the distance of this play from King Lear or The Winter's Tale or The Tempest, by noting how little attention is given to the reunion of father and daughter at the end. For despite the acumen with which the play analyzes and works toward curing the various excesses of heterosexual love, it makes its peace with the psychological issues raised by same sex bonding not so much by exploring as by isolating them; hence the fragmentation of its design.21

But at the same time as male bonds are restored through the forest's magic and are protected from the intrusions of women, they are also covertly restored through the image of heterosexual love itself in this play. For beneath its shrewd, witty, realistic and romantic appreciation of heterosexual love, As You Like It permits a fantasy of oneness not unlike that at the end of Two Gentlemen, though in far more sophisticated and disguised form. Orlando enters the love plot conspicuously isolated through a quadrupal image of broken male bonds: exiled by his brother's hate, he engages in the wrestling match with the murderous Charles, winning thereby not the protection but the enmity of Duke Frederick, an enmity based on the Duke's hatred of Orlando's father. Male relations are obviously dangerous outside the forest. And although Orlando is reassuringly accepted into the forest's male society, his acceptance into the larger reformed society exterior to the forest at the end is under the protection of a Rosalind imagined as the restorer, not the destroyer, of male bonds. Marriage thus becomes the means by which Orlando is restored to his rightful place in the male order of things.22 But Rosalind can acquire this restorative power partly because she becomes in fantasy less a woman than the presiding androgynous deity of the forest. Even the male bonds restored to Orlando in the forest society are played out not in that society but in the presence of Rosalind/Ganymede. After Orlando has been accepted into the Duke's company in 2.7, we do not see him in this company again; instead we see his developing friendship with the boy Ganymede. In dramatic terms, then, Rosalind's disguise carries the weight of the restored male bond even as it promises eventual heterosexual union. Orlando can thus play at heterosexual love while maintaining the male bond as primary.

The fantasy that proved so unsatisfactory when actualized in the plot of Two Gentlemen thus achieves a safely muted expression by means of disguise: for both here and in Twelfth Night, disguise provides the means by which a fantasy of same-sex bonding can be maintained at the same time that heterosexual relationships are achieved in fact. Both plays grant women the power to educate men out of their folly and into a state suitable for a mature heterosexual union. And while neither Orlando nor Orsino are defined mainly by their relationships with other men, in both plays the women carry out their educative function precisely by allowing the formation of such relationships—to themselves disguised as men. The process of disguise and the eventual unveiling allow the dissolution of the friendships of Orlando and Ganymede, Orsino and Cesario, to be simultaneously the formation of the heterosexual relationships of Orlando and Rosalind, Orsino and Viola. This simultaneity gives us a curiously condensed image of the disruption of male bonding by heterosexual relationships. But before its unveiling, the disguise allows for the fantasy that the relationships are simultaneously homosexual and heterosexual—a simultaneity that threatens to become uncomfortable when, for example, in As You Like It we hear that Orlando has kissed Ganymede-Rosalind (3.4.8-13), or when the two apparent men join in the mock marriage ceremony. And even after the unveiling of the disguise, when the boys have become women and the odds have been made even, the actual presence of the boy actors who have been playing the roles of women playing men tends once more to re-establish the androgynous image and with it the fantasy of the simultaneous fulfillment of homosexual and heterosexual bonds. Thus the epilogue of As You Like It delicately re-establishes Rosalind's androgyny and the cross currents of sexual desire: “It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue. … If I were a woman, I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me.” Here Rosalind both is and is not a lady, as the boy actor is and is not a lady; and sexual desire for men is felt to originate both from the imagined female character and from the actual male actor.

But As You Like It and Twelfth Night are not quite identical in their use of the fantasy enabled by disguise and by theatrical convention. In As You Like It, Rosalind's disguise allows for a playful wooing felt as simultaneously homosexual and heterosexual; but in the end, the play moves away from this fantasy of simultaneity. In Twelfth Night, the relationship between Orsino and Viola-Cesario is not one of wooing but rather one of friendship, as though the play through the person of Orsino tentatively explores the possibility of heterosexual friendship rather than homosexual marriage; but in the end, Twelfth Night does not relinquish the fantasy of sexual simultaneity as willingly as As You Like It does. Hence Orlando at the end of As You Like It seems quite ready to abandon the fantasy that homosexual and heterosexual bonds can be contained within a single relationship: because Ganymede can no longer “serve [his] turn” for Rosalind (5.2.46-47), because, that is, Orlando's sexual needs cannot be met by Ganymede, Orlando “can live no longer by thinking” (5.2.48). Rosalind is accordingly allowed to appear unambiguously as a woman at the end of the play, and although the epilogue begins to re-establish her androgyny, we are left within the confines of the play with the image of a firmly heterosexual union. Twelfth Night gives us an altogether darker exploration of the same fantasy material, partly because its fantasy of simultaneity is not contained within the play-space of the forest or within the conscious boundaries of a game;23 the similarity of the names Orlando and Orsino may even signal Shakespeare's implicit awareness that he was rewriting the same problem in a different guise. Orlando plays with Ganymede-as-Rosalind, and the play allows his wish that Ganymede be Rosalind to become a fact. But Orsino isn't playing. That is: Orlando is attracted by the fantasy that Ganymede may be Rosalind; Orsino is attracted by the genuinely androgynous nature of Viola-Cesario. Valentine notes the immediate and surprising intensity of Orsino's affectionate trust of Viola-Cesario (1.4.1-3); and this trust seems based squarely on Orsino's appreciation of her double nature. As he rightly perceives the attraction that this androgynous figure will have for Olivia, he reveals the basis of his own affection:

                                                                                Dear lad, believe it;
For they shall yet belie thy happy years
That say thou art a man. Diana's lip
Is not more smooth and rubious; thy small pipe
Is as the maiden's organ, shrill and sound,
And all is semblative a woman's part.


Nowhere does As You Like It insist in this way on the attraction of the double-sexed creature; instead Orlando seems to grow increasingly impatient with Ganymede for not being Rosalind. Because the pull in Twelfth Night is more deeply toward the androgynous image, Viola does not become unambiguously female within the play itself, as Rosalind does. Even after the discovery of her identity, Orsino calls her “boy” (5.1.259); and his final words to her suggest why she cannot put on her woman's weeds within the play itself:

                                                                                                    Cesario, come—
For so you shall be while you are a man,
But when in other habits you are seen,
Orsino's mistress and his fancy's queen.


For Orsino, Viola is still Cesario, still a man; and his unwillingness to relinquish the image of her as a man dictates that she still be seen as a man, in man's clothes, at the end of the play.24 His words invite us to imagine her in woman's clothes as his mistress beyond the confines of the play; but at the same time, the stress on the change of clothing leaves open the possibility that only her clothing, not her being, will change. Within the play, that is, Twelfth Night remains true to its own fantasy as As You Like It does not. Put another way: As You Like It manages the transition from homosexual to heterosexual relationships within the confines of the play partly by denying the force of the Rosalind-Ganymede disguise; Twelfth Night leaves its delicately androgynous image unresolved.25

As You Like It achieves its fragile stability and harmony through strategies of isolation and denial; Twelfth Night reverses these strategies and recombines the elements of As You Like It, exposing them dangerously to one another and achieving a resolution muted in effect and very well aware of what it leaves out. Only Jaques, the scoffer, is left out of the dancing measures at the close of As You Like It; but Twelfth Night leaves us not only with Malvolio's vow of revenge but also with the melancholy of Feste and the perplexity of Antonio: Feste, who speaks for the inadequacy of fantasy solutions as he both is and is not Master Parson; and Antonio, who receives no compensation, real or imagined, for the loss of Sebastian. As You Like It protects its male bonds from the threat of women; in the figure of Antonio, reminiscent of the Antonio of The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night exposes these bonds to the threat of women and records the pain of their dissolution, though in a displaced form. Like the earlier Antonio, that is, this Antonio reveals the inadequacy of the fantasy of simultaneity played out in the relationship of Orsino and Cesario-Viola. Antonio repeatedly states his love for Sebastian in unambiguous terms (2.1.1-43; 3.3.4-13; 3.4.341-43; 5.1.70-78); his is the strongest and most direct expression of homoerotic feeling in Shakespeare's plays. Pleading to go with Sebastian, he says, “If you will not murder me for my love, let me be your servant” (2.1.31-32); announcing in soliloquy that he will go despite Sebastian's wish, and despite some danger to himself, he says, “I do adore thee so / That danger shall seem sport, and I will go” (2.1.42-43). Given his adoration of Sebastian as an idol or a virtual god (3.4.342-45), given his “love without retention or restraint” (5.1.75), we must I think hear the sexual force behind the “desire / (More sharp than filed steel)” (3.3.4-5) which spurs him to seek Sebastian and the “jealousy” (3.3.8) with which he guards him. But from his first words, he seems to feel himself an about-to-be-jilted lover: watching Sebastian prepare to leave him to see the sights of the town, he says, “Will you stay no longer? Nor will you not that I go with you?” (2.1.1-2). His sense of himself as jilted lover is eventually actualized in the plot, which severs Sebastian from him to give Sebastian to Olivia. But the play does not permit Antonio to respond directly to this loss; instead, it permits Antonio to respond only to a displaced and comically distanced version of loss. In a moment that recalls the farce of The Comedy of Errors, but with a difference, Antonio receives at the hands of a Viola disguised to look like Sebastian (3.4.359-60) a shorthand form of the rejection that we might expect him to receive from Sebastian himself as Sebastian moves from the homosexual to the heterosexual bond. And although we know he is mistaken in thinking Viola Sebastian, his response to the imagined rejection expresses all the poignant bitterness of disappointed love (3.4.339-50)—a bitterness inappropriate here, but entirely appropriate to Sebastian's eventual move away from him. Of course it matters that he is wrong, and that Sebastian greets him with enthusiastic love when they do meet (5.1.210-12). But in the safety provided by the comedy of disguise, the play gives us at this moment an image of loss that it can do little to assuage, since at the end Antonio finds Sebastian only to stand silently by, watching him commit himself to Olivia. Even in its indirect expression of loss, that is, the relationship of Antonio to Sebastian suggests the pain that the fantasy of sexual simultaneity is designed to assuage. We arrive here at a core of loss, the consequence of a felt necessity to choose between homosexual and heterosexual bonds; the central fantasies of the play attempt momentarily to deny that core of loss by denying the need for choice.26

The emotional density of Twelfth Night depends partly on its willingness to include a figure like Antonio, who would be banished from the apparently more self-assured but also thinner and more brittle world of As You Like It. And as Twelfth Night brings into contact with one another in the figure of Antonio elements kept isolated in As You Like It, so the central relationships of the play bring together the relationships kept apart in As You Like It. The pairings of Celia and Rosalind, and Rosalind and Phebe, are explored in the relationship of Viola and Olivia; the pairing of Orlando and Ganymede is explored in the relationship of Orsino and Cesario. Viola serves as the fulcrum for these relationships as Rosalind does; but the relationships themselves are brought together in Twelfth Night as they are not in As You Like It. The perfect circularity whereby Viola loves Orsino who loves Olivia who loves Viola is a comic comment on the irrationality of desire; but it is also an image of the way in which relationships in this play tend to fuse: not only to coalesce around the person of Viola but to fuse in her. Perhaps because its expression of loss is more overt than in any other comedy, the fantasized remedy for loss proposed in Twelfth Night is more radical: for at its most primitive levels, Twelfth Night allows not only for the fantasy that both homosexual and heterosexual components can be satisfied within one relationship but for the more radical fantasy that the self can literally be both male and female. In its embracing of androgyny, that is, Twelfth Night goes well beyond the hint of androgyny in Rosalind's disguise and epilogue, or even in Orsino's appreciation of Viola-Cesario's sexual indeterminacy and Viola's failure to appear in her woman's weeds. Rosalind's disguise as a man simply ends; Viola's is embodied not only in her continuing appearance as a man on stage but also in the appearance on stage of the man whose identity she has assumed, the Sebastian “yet living in [her] glass” (3.4.360). For the twinship is itself the unfolding in the plot of Viola's disguise; it enacts on the most literal surface of the play the fantasy that one person can be both sexes, that Olivia can be “betrothed both to a maid and man” (5.1.255) who are mysteriously both the same person and different persons.

Throughout Shakespeare's plays, boys are associated with women. In the tragedies, this association tends to point toward fear of the lack or loss of masculinity. But in these comedies, this association tends to point toward an image of youth as a blessed period of sexual indeterminacy—hence the fragile charm of Rosalind and Viola, the boy-women. But the ending in marriage of these comedies depends on the resolution of sexual indeterminacy. In that sense, the discovery that Rosalind and Viola are women enacts both the resolution and the failure of androgyny, the moment at adolescence that one becomes decisively male or female, with all the benefits and limitations that these firm gender identities entail. And if Twelfth Night celebrates marriage and the necessary sorting out into male and female that enables marriage, it also mourns the loss of sexual indeterminacy and works to repair that loss through fantasy. It is this point of no return that Twelfth Night imaginatively enacts and dissolves, does and undoes, in its fantasy of twinship.27

After Viola contemplates the confusions of desire that her disguise has engendered, she surprises us by attributing her difficulties not simply to the wickedness of disguise (2.2.26-27) and the frailty of women (2.2.28-31) but also to her own double sexual identity. In effect, she suddenly internalizes the doubleness of disguise:

                                                                      As I am man,
My state is desperate for my master's love.
As I am woman (now alas the day!),
What thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe?


The familiar contrast between appearance and reality has now become a contrast between two kinds of being, two realities: as I am man, as I am woman. The doubleness of disguise is newly felt to correspond to an internal doubleness. Twinship is the means by which Shakespeare resolves this doubleness in the plot: at the moment that Viola meets her brother face to face, she splits in effect into male and female components.28 Cesario is resolved into Viola and Sebastian. Overtly this moment seems to serve the needs of sexual differentiation, for Viola's identity as a woman seems utterly contingent on this meeting. The plot does not tell us why she cannot reveal herself as a woman until Sebastian appears, but despite the pain that her disguise gives her,29 she does not relinquish it until she is in the presence of the twin who becomes in effect her male self. Given the double sexual identity that is felt to underlie the disguise, her inability to reveal herself until her twin appears suggests the presence of a fantasy that she can become fully female only when she has in effect found a repository for her maleness.30 Here gender identity is visibly the sorting of the androgynous creature into male and female; and the plot depends for its comic ending in marriage on the “little thing” that is how much Viola lacks of a man (3.4.282-83)—depends, that is, on sexual differentiation. But if the meeting of the twins enacts the sexual difference necessary for the plot, at its deepest level the fantasy of identical twinship between man and woman does away with the difference. The dramatic fact that Viola and Sebastian are mistaken for one another in the same way as the two Antipholuses are clearly puts strains not only on common sense but even on the license that we normally allow to disguise; like Viola's assertion that she sees Sebastian when she looks in the mirror (3.4.360), it is an expression of the fantasy that Viola and Sebastian are one. The response of those who witness the meeting of the twins insists on the lack of differentiation even as it insists on the division of one person into two: “One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons” (5.1.208), Orsino says; and Antonio asks Sebastian, “How have you made division of yourself? / An apple cleft in two is not more twin / Than these two creatures” (5.1.214-16). In a sense, then, Twelfth Night finally enables not only the fantasy that one need not choose between a homosexual and a heterosexual bond but that one need not become either male or female, that one can be both Viola and Sebastian, both maid and man: hence the comic circle of relationships, the knot that only Viola-(Cesario)-Sebastian can untie.

In its use of twinship, Twelfth Night suggestively re-explores the issues of The Comedy of Errors: if marriage there is enabled only by the discovery of identity contingent on meeting oneself in one's mirroring twin, here marriage is enabled by the difference between the sexes that seems to unfold from a similar meeting with one's mirror, but now a meeting with a mirroring twin who is both identical and sexually different. At the same time, the fantasy of twinship in Twelfth Night—“one face, one voice, one habit, and two persons”—makes plausible in plot terms Two Gentlemen's fantasy of a radical oneness—“one feast, one house, one mutual happiness”—that undoes the need to choose between homosexual and heterosexual bonds: because Viola and Sebastian are both one and two, both Olivia and Orsino can be satisfied. That is: the ending of Twelfth Night condenses the twinship fantasy of Comedy with Two Gentlemen's fantasy of combined homosexual and heterosexual bonding by giving us the image of a fragile androgyny that alone can satisfy all our desires. The very fragility of this fantasy may help to account both for the melancholy of Twelfth Night and for its position near the start of the great tragic period.

The fragile solution of Twelfth Night does not survive the pressures of the tragedies, where androgyny becomes a matter for fear.31 But after the tragedies, The Winter's Tale enables once again the fantasy of sexual simultaneity. This simultaneity is to some extent dependent on plot magic—on the coincidences that unite Perdita and Florizel and bring them to Sicily, and especially on Hermione's miraculous return to life; but unlike the solutions in the earlier comedies, the solutions here depend less on sheer plot magic than on those displacements of desire, those satisfactions in absentia, that are the stuff of our ordinary non-magical lives. The pattern of male bonding interrupted by women is given its most explicit statement in Shakespeare's plays in Polixenes' “twinned lambs” speech; there women, or more precisely the temptations that women present (1.2.67-82), are identified as the agents not only of sin but also of the fall into individuation, the “vast” (1.1.28) now separating Leontes and Polixenes. The separation imaged by Polixenes is reiterated and actualized in the action of the first part of the play as Hermione's presence turns the twinning into attempted fratricide. But if the temptations of heterosexuality cause this breach, only heterosexuality can heal it: as C. L. Barber has argued brilliantly, the marriage of their two children at the end re-establishes and legitimizes the bond between Leontes and Polixenes broken at the beginning.32 Put slightly differently: the heterosexual union of the children enacts in a safely displaced way the necessarily disrupted homosexual union of the parents. The fact of paternity here enables the restoration of both the homosexual and the heterosexual bond. At the end of the play, Leontes has regained both his friend and his wife; but he regains both only when he regains his paternity, regains the daughter who makes him a father. For if he is reunited with Polixenes through the return of his daughter, it is equally true that the reunion with Hermione depends upon her return: only when the lost is found can Hermione “be stone no more” (5.3.99).

To say that Hermione's return is contingent on Perdita's is to suggest, however, that Hermione returns as much a mother as a wife. But in important ways her loss has always been doubly as wife and mother. If it is Leontes' paternity that restores the bonds of the end, it is at least in part Hermione's maternity that breaks them in the beginning.33 Partly because of the reiterated emphasis on brotherhood (1.2.4, 25, 27, 67, 148, 173), the broken relationship between Leontes and Polixenes begins to take on the coloration of the rivalry of siblings for the attention of a mother. Leontes' jealousy of Polixenes furthermore becomes oddly fused with his jealousy of the baby that Hermione carries, the baby he assumes is Polixenes'; when he removes Mamillius from Hermione to decontaminate him, he imagines Hermione bizarrely engaged in sexual sport with the unborn child: “Away with him! And let her sport herself / With that she's big with” (2.1.60-61). Leontes' jealousy of Polixenes fuses with the son's jealousy of the rival baby and the father's jealousy of his son; Leontes in fact identifies with Mamillius (1.2.153-60), whom the maids suggest will be displaced by the new baby (2.1.16-19). Leontes' loss of Hermione is thus associated with the loss both of mother and wife; her return as both wife and mother assuages this double loss.

The fusion of wife and mother in Hermione may help to explain why her loss and recovery is simultaneous with the loss and recovery of Polixenes—why, that is, in this play homosexual and heterosexual bonds are ruptured and recovered together. Hermione can return only when the lost bond with Polixenes is recovered.34 The recapturing of the earlier ruptured union of twins enables the lost union with a wife-mother partly insofar as that union of twins itself reiterates a still earlier union with the mother.35 Polixenes' initial image of twinship suggests in its allusion to the maternally sheltering and undifferentiated state of pastoral landscape that even the original fusion of twinship is an attempt to recover the lost fusion with the mother. Hence the logic by which the recovery of those bonds allows for the recovery of the wife-mother.

The association of male bonding with the return of the healing presence of the wife-mother in The Winter's Tale can return us to the starting point of this essay, The Comedy of Errors. For the issues condensed in the double image of rupture and return in The Winter's Tale are played out in literal form in The Comedy of Errors; there too the recovery of male bonds is suggestively associated with the return of the mother, as though the two are necessarily simultaneous, or at bottom one.36 The simultaneity of this recovery is I think behind Shakespeare's rather odd impulse to join the Menaechmi with the story of Apollonius of Tyre, though he would not make that simultaneity coherent in psychological terms until The Winter's Tale. At the start, Antipholus of Syracuse claims to be searching for both brother and mother, and although the search for the mother is forgotten—even by the audience, as the search for the brother never is—her return in the surprise ending perfectly satisfies the longings suggested by Antipholus's initial description of the hopelessness of his search:

I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who falling there to find his fellow forth,
Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself.
So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself.


This passage is extraordinary in its insistence on the simultaneity of finding and losing the self: although Antipholus imagines himself lost in the fruitlessness of the search, the imagery suggests that success in the search would also entail loss of self. That is, from the point of view of a drop of water, it presumably does not much matter whether one fuses with another drop or with an ocean: either failing to find or finding entails loss of self; and even two perfectly fused drops would fuse with the larger ocean. Antipholus's logic works to suggest that finding the drop should forestall the larger fusion; but the metaphor itself belies this logic. We are consequently left with an image of watery differentiation scarcely distinguishable from total fusion. For the search to find oneself in brother and mother is also a search for fusion in which the self will be lost.

We may begin to understand the force of this fusion both feared and desired if we locate Antipholus's metaphoric speech in its imagined point of literal embodiment in the play. The initial description of the splitting of each pair of twins, and of the parents, during their sea voyage gives us a cataclysmic image of oceanic “divorce” (1.1.104) that seems clearly the emotional foundation for Antipholus's metaphor of the self confounded in the ocean. But at the same time, this cataclysmic image allows us to understand the desire for fusion inherent in Antipholus's watery metaphor. For the sea-splitting is in part a re-imagining of the divorce of birth itself, a fearful birth felt not as individuation but as incompletion. The implicit conjunction of birth and the splitting of the family by oceanic forces here becomes literalized when Shakespeare returns to the story of Apollonius of Tyre in Pericles; and the sea-separation of the twins in Twelfth Night similarly takes on the force of the splitting of a single entity into parts. Antipholus's desire to find his twin—his desire for the fusion of one drop with another—is the desire to undo the violent sea-splittings that initiate the wanderings, the errors, of the play. In that sense, the starting point for the play's insistence on the search for the split-off mirror self is the radical sense of separation from the mother—a separation that leaves one restlessly searching for one's other half. Hence the power of Antipholus's desire for fusion and the plot-magic by which the recovery of the twin-self dissolves into the recovery of the mother. Hence too the utter appropriateness with which the Abbess redefines birth itself by associating the recovery of her children with their birth, with the long-awaited parturition: “Thirty-three years have I but gone in travail / Of you, my sons; and till this present hour / My heavy burden ne'er delivered” (5.1.402-4). As the characters leave the stage to participate in her sons' “gossips' feast” (5.1.407), the play ends with a powerfully reassuring image of birth not as abandonment into incompletion but as the taking on of individuated identities within the mirroring and sheltering presence of the family.

The condensation in The Comedy of Errors of the search for mirroring self and the search for the mother may allow us to understand more exactly both the double return in The Winter's Tale and the force of male bonding in Shakespeare's works, especially in the plays that deal with male identity in transition. For the mirror relationship is itself transitional: it allows for a new sense of self based on separateness from the mother while maintaining the fluidity of the boundaries between self and other characteristic of that first relationship. In that sense it offers protection against engulfment by the mother while allowing for the comforts of union. Both the desire for fusion and the protection offered by the mirror relationship are perfectly captured by the illogic of Antipholus's metaphor of the drops and the ocean: in his imagination, fusion with the other identical drop will somehow prevent fusion with the mother-ocean.37 For the male bond protects against total fusion with the mother by replicating the early mother-child relationship with a difference—replicating it not in its choice of object but in its choice of mode: not by choosing a woman who can then be imaginatively linked with the mother, as in Troilus and Cressida or Othello, but by choosing a twin-self with whom one can be fused.38 Thus, for example, in the Sonnets, we see the ways in which the mirroring relationship of the poet to the young man reduplicates aspects of the mother-child relationship, in C. L. Barber's wonderful formulation.39 And in Coriolanus we see disastrously the ways in which the twin relationship can function simultaneously as protection against, and substitution for, the relationship with the mother: Coriolanus attempts literally to replace mother with twin when he flees to Aufidius as nurturing twin after his expulsion from Rome and mother.40

Woman's danger to the male bond thus becomes explicable not only in terms of the progression from friendship to marriage, but also because that bond initially served partly as protection against the first, engulfing, woman—in effect as a kind of statement that men can have the joys of fusion without its dangers. And in fact at roughly the same time as he was writing The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare was suggesting those dangers in a series of tragedies and histories. In Tamora, Titus Andronicus portrays a mother whose sons are virtual automatons, merely the agents of her sexualized devouring; the power of this mother is reflected in the image of Rome itself as devouring mother.41 The Henry VI plays begin by mourning the loss of a world of male bonds and locating degeneracy in the power of women to seduce magically and then dominate: the triumph of Margaret over both Suffolk and the young king is both emblem and cause of this degeneracy in England, as Joan's triumph over Charles is both emblem and cause in France.42 The agent of corruption is specifically identified with a female force when the struggle of these histories is relived tragically in the person of Richard III, who believes that a “she”—simultaneously identified with love, nature, and mother—has deformed him in his mother's womb (3 Henry VI, 3.2.155).43 The conjunction of these plays with The Comedy of Errors suggests the extent to which the search for a twin-self is partly a search for a safe mother. The mother who returns at the end of The Comedy of Errors is imagined virtually as an antidote to these overwhelming mothers: emerging from the nunnery, she answers their catastrophic and effeminizing sexuality with her own beneficent purity. Only in the presence of such a mother—here and in The Winter's Tale—can the discovery of the twin-self turn out to be simultaneous with the discovery of the mother.

At the very start of Shakespeare's career, then, the tragedies of ruptured male bonds invoke the image of the overwhelming and sexual mother, while the comedy of re-established male bonds invokes the image of the mother as sanctified. And the plays from Hamlet on reiterate and complicate this pattern. Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, Coriolanus, Cymbeline, and even The Tempest imagine the rupture of male bonds in the context of the catastrophic mother: Gertrude; the adulterous mother and Fortune the arrant whore in Lear; the Lady Macbeth who would dash her infant's brains out; Volumnia; the poisoning stepmother-queen in Cymbeline; and the witch-mother Sycorax. Only Hermione's purified presence is recuperative of male bonds. The whole of the pattern is in fact reiterated in the double movement of The Winter's Tale, toward rupture and return, as Hermione is doubly imagined as tempting whore and most sacred lady. In the plays that I have been considering directly in this essay, the male bond is protected from these associations because mothers themselves are banished. It is I think their banishment that allows Shakespeare both to imagine marriage as a comic solution and to evade the full consequence of marriage for male bonding by imagining his women at least partly as men.44 When this fantasy solution fails, as it does after Twelfth Night, marriage itself becomes frightening and we are squarely in the domain of tragedy.


  1. This essay grew out of a brief paper on male bonding in Shakespeare's comedies delivered at David Willbern's Special Session on Shakespeare and Psychoanalysis at the meeting of the Modern Language Association in San Francisco, in December 1979. When at different sessions of the same meeting Coppélia Kahn read the brilliant paper on male bonding in the histories that now forms a chapter of her study of male identity (Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981) and Peter Erickson read his powerfully compelling paper on male bonding and sexual politics in As You Like It (now “Sexual Politics and the Social Structure in As You Like It,The Massachusetts Review 23 (1982): 65-83, also to be a chapter of his forthcoming book on patriarchal structures in Shakespeare's dramas), it was clear that we had all been thinking in similar terms about different plays. My own relationship to their work is hard to assess. Although Kahn does not discuss at length the pattern I delineate here and Erickson's focus is more on the disturbance to male-female bonds posed by male bonds in patriarchal society than on the attempts to recuperate the male bond in fantasy that I emphasize, there are many points of similarity in our arguments: some, the product of simultaneous discovery, others, the mark of how much I have learned from them. It is a pleasure to record these similarities below and to record here my general indebtedness to them. I am also very deeply indebted to Richard Wheeler, whose way of thinking about Shakespeare opened up whole new avenues for me even before publication of his Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies: Turn and Counter-Turn (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981); he moreover gave an early version of this essay a reading so meticulous and generous that my revisions have often incorporated his comments verbatim. The largest debt of all is to the one who is missing and to whom this volume is dedicated.

  2. Rosalind's easy shift of allegiance from father to husband is registered in delicate comedy both when Rosalind tells Celia that she grieves not only for her father but also for her “child's father” (1.3.11) and when she expresses her impatience at talking “of fathers when there is such a man as Orlando” (3.4.34-35). But in fact both As You Like It and Twelfth Night tend to set fathers and husbands in conjunction rather than in opposition: that Rosalind (As You Like It, 1.2.216) and Viola (Twelfth Night, 1.2.28) immediately associate their husbands-to-be with their fathers suggests that in these plays the father is not an impediment but a link to the husband. Given the logic by which “the Duke my father loved his father dearly” (As You Like It, 1.3.28) seems—despite Celia's protest—to entail “I love him,” perhaps it is not surprising that Rosalind finds her lover when she goes to the forest where her father is.

  3. Love's Labor's Lost, 5.2.864. All references to Shakespeare's plays in this essay are to William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, edited by Alfred Harbage (New York: The Viking Press, 1969).

  4. See Peter Erickson's fine analysis of the extent to which “the relationships between men and women remain problematic in a way which derives from the King's original stance,” his scheme to “construct a haven for masculine purity based on the exclusion of women” (“The Failure of Relationship between Men and Women in Love's Labor's Lost,Women's Studies 9 (1981): 66). He comments specifically on the extent to which the men's “primary involvement here is with one another rather than with the women” (p. 76).

  5. In good Lacanian fashion, this father is never more intrusive than in his absence; in fact he becomes fully present both to us and to the characters only when his death is announced. This simultaneous presence and absence prefigures the power of Portia's father as well as Hamlet's. But his intrusive death here seems to me to signal less a Lacanian law of the father or absent phallus as signifier than it does an end to play: by dying and hence conferring fully adult status on his daughter, the father here makes the antics of the lovers seem more than ever only adolescent games. His death, then, serves to reinforce obstacles already present in the lovers themselves. (For Erickson, these obstacles include a fear of women's power—a power made more pronounced by the death of the father. See “The Failure of Relationship,” p. 79.)

  6. In the course of his brilliant essay on The Comedy of Errors, W. Thomas MacCary argues the inadequacy of the model of New Comedy for Shakespeare's early comedies (“The Comedy of Errors: A Different Kind of Comedy,” New Literary History 9 (1977-78): 525-36). In The Stranger in Shakespeare (New York: Stein and Day, 1972), Leslie Fiedler comments—as always, suggestively—on the uneasiness of Shakespeare's relations to the conventions of New Comedy, an uneasiness necessitated by Shakespeare's “personal mythology,” which “considered not marriage but male friendship the redeeming sentimental relationship” (pp. 127, 130).

  7. Both MacCary and Kahn read The Comedy of Errors in terms similar to my own. For MacCary, however, the search for the lost twin is less a search for a male figure outside the self who can confirm identity by providing a mirror image than it is the search for an alter ego, “the ideal ego which the mother first creates for us and we strive to assimilate” (“The Comedy of Errors: A Different Kind of Comedy,” p. 530). He finds this search largely successful insofar as the splitting of the potentially overwhelming mother into possessive Adriana and benign Luciana enables Antipholus to rediscover his benevolent mother and hence the ideal ego he has sought (p. 534). Suggestively locating the search in the context of adolescent psychological process, Kahn finds its success to be more equivocal: “The irony for Erikson's adolescent and for Shakespeare's character is that seeking identity by narcissistic mirroring leads only to the obliteration, not the discovery, of the self” (Man's Estate, p. 202). I find the play ultimately less harsh to the fantasy of narcissistic mirroring than Kahn does; its action seems to me to enable the sense of a self created simultaneously by fusion and differentiation. MacCary sees the play largely as an expression of pre-Oedipal issues, Kahn as an adolescent reworking of many of the same issues. Both essays make wonderful sense of numerous details in the play. Although he scarcely alludes to The Comedy of Errors, Joel Fineman's brilliant and difficult essay on the confirmation of masculine identity in Shakespeare through doubling fratricidal structures provides an important complement to my exploration of the fantasies about identity embodied in that play (“Fratricide and Cuckoldry: Shakespeare's Doubles,” in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980], pp. 70-109). In this essay Fineman works within a Girardian context in which No-Difference is the ultimate enemy; this context informs his rich discussions of mirroring rivalry, androgyny, and much else. In some ways one could say that my essay traces out the underbelly of the Girardian myth, that is, the longing for No-Difference expressed not by fratricidal opposition but by a mirroring confirmation of self and by an androgyny imagined as benign.

  8. In the course of the powerful exploration of Shakespeare's private mythology that serves as an introduction to The Stranger in Shakespeare, Fiedler identifies this threat as a common Shakespearean theme: “men bound together by friendship are sundered by the love of woman (as in Two Gentlemen of Verona) and must somehow make another, more fragile compact or sadly learn to part” (p. 30). Fiedler does not however pursue this theme at any length. Much of my essay is an attempt to understand the “fragile compact” that Shakespeare makes in fantasy to cope with the sadness of this parting or to deny the parting altogether.

  9. See Sonnet 144. In Valentine's terms, one love leads to manly freedom of movement, the other to effeminate constriction at home. His words suggest that male bonding serves at least partly defensive needs: “wear out” and “shapeless” both suggest fears of the sexual depletion attendant on love of woman. The play thus counterposes a mirroring other who gives oneself back intact against a differing other who gives oneself back shapeless.

  10. To the extent that Proteus's love for Silvia seems to be in the service of his need to disentangle himself from Valentine, the play suggests that the pattern of the male bond disrupted by women obscures a more fundamental cause of disruption by scapegoating women: in the same way as Antipholus confirms his identity both by mirroring himself in his twin and by differentiating himself from his twin, Proteus attempts to confirm his identity both by identifying with and by betraying Valentine. Fineman implies this obscurantist function in his discussion of Difference in Hamlet: “In the myth, fraternal violence is built into a world of doubles; the battle between the enemy twins is its own cause and its own explanation. In Hamlet, though all violence is doubled, reflexive, fratricidal, Shakespeare immediately reunderstands that violence in terms of, and makes it seem the consequence of, erotic duplicity” (“Fratricide and Cuckoldry,” p. 89).

  11. Many critics have anticipated my understanding of the relationship of Antonio to Bassanio and of the emblematic function of the ring. See, for example, Graham Midgley, “The Merchant of Venice: A Reconsideration,” Essays in Criticism 10 (1960): 119-33; Lawrence W. Hyman, “The Rival Lovers in The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare Quarterly 21 (Spring 1970): 109-16; Leslie Fiedler, The Stranger in Shakespeare, pp. 132-35; Marianne Novy, “Sex, Reciprocity and Self-Sacrifice in The Merchant of Venice,” in Human Sexuality in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, ed. Douglas Radcliffe-Umstead, Center for Medieval & Renaissance Studies (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1978), pp. 153-66; and Jan Lawson Hinely, “Bond Priorities in The Merchant of Venice,Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 20 (1980): 217-39. The latter two essays are particularly interesting in relating Antonio's love to his style of giving, in Hinely's terms an emotional usury in which possessiveness is expressed through generosity (p. 234), in Novy's an attempt at self-sacrifice ultimately criticized by the play.

  12. J. F. Cox testifies to the shock effect of this moment when, in the course of his interesting survey of productions of Much Ado, he comments on the strategies by which an actress “can help avoid the situation in which the shock of her ‘Kill Claudio’ may seem so incongruous as to raise unwanted laughter” (“The Stage Representation of the ‘Kill Claudio’ Sequence in ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’” Shakespeare Survey 32 (1979): 27). His assumption here that this embarrassed laughter is unwanted implies that it comes not from what we might imagine as the comic spirit of the play but from a sense of incongruity—an incongruity that I would associate with the breaking of the comic mode.

  13. Fiedler comments wryly that Mercutio “manages to spare himself the pain of someone else's happy ending by dying before his beloved friend is quite Juliet's” (The Stranger in Shakespeare, p. 90).

  14. See Coppélia Kahn's compelling analysis of this old identity (Man's Estate, pp. 82-93). In her reading, the play presents the conflict “between manhood as aggression on behalf of the father and manhood as loving a woman” (p. 93); for her too, the murder of Tybalt is a tragic point of no return, an act that “poses the two conflicting definitions of manhood between which Romeo must make his choice” (p. 87; see also pp. 89-90).

  15. Not entirely safe, however. Titania's bond with the mother of her Indian prince is the occasion not only of some of the loveliest poetry in the play (2.1.122-37) but also of major disruptions in the natural order. Disrupting the tenacity of Titania's bond with her friend is the object of Oberon's strategy because that tenacity threatens marriage. Seen from this perspective, the ease with which the Hermia-Helena bond dissolves is designed to assuage the threat played out in the Titania-Oberon relationship. In “A Midsummer Night's Dream: ‘Jack shall have Jill; / Nought shall go ill,’” Women's Studies 9 (1981): 47-63, Shirley Nelson Garner argues powerfully that “the renewal at the end of the play affirms patriarchal order and hierarchy, insisting that the power of women must be circumscribed. … The movement of the play toward ordering the fairy, human, and natural worlds is also a movement toward satisfying men's psychological needs, as Shakespeare perceived them, but its cost is the disruption of women's bonds with each other” (p. 47). I have implied that the focus on female bonds in A Midsummer Night's Dream is partly a defensive displacement of concern with male bonds; Garner's essay provides an important counterweight to my argument insofar as she demonstrates the extent to which the revelry of the play depends on the dissolution of female bonds and hence the extent to which a concern with female bonding is primary, not simply defensive.

  16. At a time when I was chiefly impressed by the apparent ease with which Celia manages Rosalind's defection, David McPherson, David Jones and Richard Wheeler all pointed out to me the discomfort suggested by Celia's persistent teasing of Rosalind and her tendency to become somewhat sullen in stage portrayals.

  17. In his brilliant essay on As You Like It, Louis Adrian Montrose argues compellingly that the social realities of primogeniture are at the root of fratricidal conflict in Elizabethan society and in the play (“‘The Place of a Brother’ in As You Like It; Social Process and Comic Form,” Shakespeare Quarterly 32 (1981): 28-54). Fineman (“Fratricide and Cuckoldry”) and Montrose both assume the primacy of the fratricidal rivalry that they ascribe to different causes; in that way—and in many others—both essays offer important correctives to my exploration of the fantasy of male bonds disturbed by women. It may be, however, that the “originality” of fraternal rivalry finally doesn't matter; whatever the point of origin, it seems clear that women sometimes cause male rivalries and sometimes are defensively blamed for pre-existing rivalries (see n. 10). And insofar as these differentiating rivalries are felt as derivatives of childhood experiences, either the earliest experience of identity as a function of differentiation from the mother or the later experience of competition with a father or brother for the mother's love, they will also be felt to originate in a response to the female. See Fineman's eventual relocation of the Girardian fear of No-Difference in the male child's need to differentiate himself from his mother (“Fratricide and Cuckoldry”, pp. 102-5).

  18. Both Erickson (“Sexual Politics and the Social Structure in As You Like It”, p. 73) and Montrose (“‘The Place of a Brother’ in As You Like It,” p. 48) note that Orlando re-establishes ultimately patriarchal male bonds before he moves toward marriage.

  19. In his compelling account of As You Like It as the attempt to recapture the ideal of a sovereign male bounty and in effect to secure male succession without the intervention of a mother, Jim Swan points to the alliance between nostalgia for the golden world and the attempt to recover the ideal of the beneficent father; in the fantasy he delineates, this father enables male bonds partly insofar as he protects against the dangerous mother by assuming her nurturant qualities within himself. Although Swan's account is unpublished, it has been widely influential; in reading it only after this study was essentially completed, I found that I had vicariously learned a great deal from him. My understanding of this society of men is more directly endebted to Peter Erickson's portrayal of “idealized male alliance” in As You Like It, particularly to his convincing assertion that the androgyny that the men display by taking on female qualities here remains theirs at the end of the play, while Rosalind is compelled to give up her androgynous powers for the play to end happily (“Sexual Politics and the Social Structure in As You Like It”, pp. 72, 75-80.) For Swan, Erickson, and Montrose, the restored and idealized male bonds in As You Like It serve partly as a defense against the power of women (see Erickson, p. 82; Montrose, “‘The Place of a Brother,’” pp. 50-52). Hence the absence of women here. For Swan, the snake/lioness is the intrusive devouring mother against whom the fantasy of the benign nurturing father attempts to defend us; Montrose speculates that the killing of the lioness that precedes the reunion of Orlando and Oliver is “a kind of matricide” that allows paternity and fraternity to be “reconceived as male relationships unmediated by women” (p. 51).

  20. I am endebted to Richard Wheeler for the suggestion that the absence of Eve is in effect an undoing of the “penalty of Adam” brought on by relation to Eve. Perhaps it is the fantasy of this world as an unfallen Eden that accounts for the general irritation at Jaques's reminder that the men must after all shoot the deer in order to eat.

  21. Although Fineman and I locate the sources of male rivalry differently, he too finds As You Like It a play that remains comic because its dangerous themes “are employed only to the extent that their resonating ambiguities can be stabilized by comic dissociation” (“Fratricide and Cuckoldry,” p. 84).

  22. Both Erickson and Montrose see Rosalind as the consolidator of male bonds insofar as she gives up the power implicit in her disguise and enters into the institution of marriage, by which patriarchy is preserved (Erickson, “Sexual Politics,” p. 72; Montrose, “‘The Place of a Brother,’” pp. 48-52). I would argue that she enables male bonds not only because she gives up disguise but also because her disguise itself permits the formation of an eroticized male bond that serves as a transition between male and heterosexual bonds.

  23. Fineman similarly sees the tone of Twelfth Night as a consequence of the breaking down of boundaries and the joining together of things kept separate in As You Like It: “the wit, like the disguise, is just at the edge, almost as though Shakespeare were now making fun of something about which he cared too much to joke. It is as though the protective, psychological boundaries surrounding his play were beginning to crumble and, as a result, the differences summed up for him both by fratricide and the ensemble of themes attached to androgyny—incest, castration, female unfaithfulness, cuckoldry—begin therefore to join, each denying with its own divisions the distinctions predicated by the other” (“Fratricide and Cuckoldry,” p. 93).

  24. Many critics understand Viola's disguise not as an expression of the fantasy that shapes the play but as an expression of her own needs; see, for example, J. Dennis Huston, “‘When I came to Man's Estate’: Twelfth Night and Problems of Identity,” Modern Language Quarterly 33 (1972): 274-88, and Helene Moglen, “Disguise and Development: The Self and Society in Twelfth Night,Literature and Psychology 23 (1973): 13-20. Thus Huston attributes Viola's failure to appear in woman's weeds not to the male fantasy that I delineate here but to her own reluctance to give up her disguise and the masculine freedom it gives her (p. 288); he shrewdly argues that the same reluctance is behind her slowness to recognize Sebastian (p. 285). It is part of Shakespeare's power, I think, that we can thus feel that a particular dramatic fact serves both the needs of the character and the not always similar needs of the whole play.

  25. Most critics who comment on these issues trace out the ways in which the androgyny of Viola's disguise finally enables heterosexual union by moving Olivia and Orsino from their initial self-absorbtion through a transitional state in which they can learn to love safely. See, for example, C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959), pp. 245-47; Helene Moglen, “Disguise and Development,” pp. 14-16; Nancy K. Hayles, “Sexual Disguise in ‘As You Like It’ and ‘Twelfth Night,’” Shakespeare Survey 32 (1979): 70; and Coppélia Kahn, Man's Estate, pp. 209-10. Of these accounts, Moglen's is the fullest and most compelling. It seems to me undeniable that the androgynous disguise serves the function that these critics articulate; but at the same time, if we conceive of the androgyny as only a facilitator on the way to marriage, then we have to ask why it is not definitively given up in the course of the play, as it is in As You Like it.

  26. See Leslie Fiedler (The Stranger in Shakespeare, pp. 91-95) for a very similar understanding of the relationship of Antonio to Sebastian and of the importance of this relationship in generating the play's compensatory fantasies. Pondering Antonio's long silence at the end of the play, Fiedler says, “Antonio is not what he may have seemed at first, another actor in the dream play, but rather its ‘shamanized’ dreamer. As such he no longer has a function on stage, where he is represented by the two surrogates of his bisexual desire: Olivia, the female whom brother Sebastian tells, ‘You are betrothed both to a maid and man,’ and Duke Orsino, the male who himself tells sister Viola (invoking—inevitably—Sonnet 20 yet again), ‘You shall from this time be / Your master's mistress” (p. 92).

  27. Huston (“‘When I Came to Man's Estate,’” p. 283), Moglen (“Disguise and Development,” p. 15), and Kahn (Man's Estate, pp. 207-10) all associate the androgyny of Viola's disguise with the confusions of sexual identity and role characteristic of adolescence. Kahn is particularly acute in her analysis of the discomfort Viola's disguise causes us as it threatens “the binary opposition on which sexual identity, and much else in culture, is based” (p. 209). Without denying that discomfort, I want to point to the kind of joyous liberation enabled by the fantasy of androgyny insofar as it allows us the fulfillment of simultaneous but contradictory desires. These critics assume with C. L. Barber that the appearance of Sebastian reassuringly reinstates sexual differentiation. For Barber “the disguising of a girl as a boy in Twelfth Night is exploited so as to renew in a special way our sense of the difference” (Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, p. 245); he comments that it is “delightful—almost a relief” to see the “manly reflex” with which Sebastian takes up the fight that Viola has been attempting to avoid (p. 246). This sharp sex-role differentiation undercuts Carolyn G. Heilbrun's claim that opposite sex twins serve here the socially androgynous function of eliminating polarized sex role distinctions (Toward a Recognition of Androgyny [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973], pp. 34 ff.). But I will argue that, at the same time as twinship polarizes sex roles and enables marriage, it also works to fuse not sex roles but gender identities, hence simultaneously enabling and disavowing differentiation.

  28. Heilbrun claims that “throughout opposite-sex twin lore, the two are always seen as an original unit which has split, a unit destined to be reunited by sexual love, the ultimate symbol of sexual conjoining” (Toward a Recognition of Androgyny, p. 34).

  29. Critics sometimes assume that practical necessity keeps Viola from revealing herself; if so, the plot declines to make that necessity clear. Fineman comments acutely that in the earlier plays of transvestite disguise, “disguise was used by Shakespeare as part of the solution to complications engendered otherwise by the plot. In this context, Twelfth Night is unusual in that its disguise by itself constitutes the play's problem” (“Fratricide and Cuckoldry,” p. 80).

  30. Or perhaps when the play has proved the adequacy of such a repository by demonstrating him to be fully masculine, the fighter of Sir Andrew and the lover of Olivia. See Moglen's suggestion that Sebastion himself begins the play a relatively androgynous creature (“Disguise and Development,” p. 17). Moglen understands the meeting with Sebastian in almost exactly the opposite terms; for her, Viola's new awareness of the nature of her feminity—an awareness enabled by her disguise—allows her to “encounter the masculine possibility: her brother externalized and experienced now as ‘the other’” (p. 17).

  31. See Fineman's brilliant discussion of the shift by which comic androgyny becomes tragic in the move from Twelfth Night to Hamlet (“Fratricide and Cuckoldry,” pp. 79-94).

  32. C. L. Barber, “‘Thou that beget'st him that did thee beget’: Transformation in Pericles and The Winter's Tale,Shakespeare Survey 22 (1969): 59-67. This essay has shaped much of my understanding of Shakespeare's works. I can still vividly recall the sense of excitement and discovery that I felt when I heard Barber read it at a scholarly meeting. I am indebted to it—and to him—not only for many specifics in my understanding of The Winter's Tale but also for an entirely new sense of the possibilities of literary criticism. My reading of The Winter's Tale is also heavily indebted to the brilliant work of Murray M. Schwartz, “Leontes' Jealousy in The Winter's Tale,American Imago 30 (1973): 250-73; and “The Winter's Tale: Loss and Transformation,” American Imago 32 (1975): 145-99.

  33. Although the emphasis in Peter Erickson's powerful reading of The Winter's Tale is on the accommodations to patriarchy that enable the mutuality of the ending, many details in our understanding of the play are similar. He comments astutely, for example, on the way in which “Hermione's visible pregnancy activates a maternal image that seems in and of itself to provoke male insecurity” (“Patriarchal Structures in The Winter's Tale,PMLA 97 (1982): 819).

  34. The return of beloved friend and wife-mother are not strictly simultaneous; Barber, Kahn and Erickson all argue persuasively that the mending of the male bond precedes and enables the mending of the heterosexual bond. See Barber, “‘Thou that beget'st him,’” pp. 65-66. Erickson argues the defensive function of this sequence; for him the restoration of male bonds shores up male confidence and reestablishes the patriarchal framework so that the return of the female can be contained and tolerated (“Patriarchal Structures,” p. 824). Kahn sees the recovery of male bonds as a crucial break away from the initial “identity of like with like” that was “an effort to repeat the mother-child symbiotic unity and to avoid male identity”; she emphasizes the progress by which Leontes comes to accept his own paternity as part of his masculine identity in taking Florizel for Polixenes and Mamillius. Since that paternity is “equally based upon his separateness from the feminine and his union with it,” its acceptance enables him to go on “to recognize and recast his relationship with the feminine in Perdita and then Hermione” (Man's Estate, p. 219). This analysis of forward movement seems to me brilliant; without denying its force, I want to point to the ways in which the reunion with Polixenes through Florizel enables an imaginative repetition of the earlier twinship as well as a recasting of it. In an earlier and fuller version of the essay on The Winter's Tale that appears in PMLA (“Patriarchal Structures”), Erickson comments wonderfully suggestively on the way in which even Hermione's return can enable elements of that earlier fantasy: Hermione returns as an “icon,” an “idealized maternal figure” in relation to whom “Leontes can be ‘boy eternal’ as his allusions to ‘infancy’ (27) and ‘eating’ (111) suggest.”

  35. Kahn understands the twinship in similar terms. See n. 34, above, and her comment that Leontes “is stuck at the developmental stage preceding the formation of identity, the stage of undifferentiated oneness with the mother, on which his oneness with Polixenes was modeled” (Man's Estate, pp. 216-17). This understanding is at the basis of Barber's and Schwartz's readings of The Winter's Tale, cited in n. 32 above.

  36. For MacCary, the search for twin and mother and the return of both are simultaneous because the twin is “his ideal ego, his mother's image of himself” (“The Comedy of Errors: A Different Kind of Comedy,” p. 532).

  37. Both MacCary and Kahn note that the imagery of fusion in Antipholus's speech is associated with the undifferentiated union of infant with mother. Kahn says of Antipholus's initial search that “he wants to make a mirroring mother of his brother” and argues the “futility of this means of self-definition,” a futility implied in the language of fusion he uses (Man's Estate, p. 201). MacCary asserts that the search is for a mirror image first created by the mother; he associates “the mother from whom the child cannot differentiate himself” specifically with the ocean in Antipholus's speech (“The Comedy of Errors: A Different Kind of Comedy,” p. 530). Neither MacCary nor Kahn sees the defensive function that fusion with a twin serves in the fantasy expressed by Antipholus here.

  38. In Fineman's argument, this replication itself becomes the basis for rivalry: the male child who must initially differentiate himself from his mother to achieve independent identity repeats that differentiation through fratricide (“Fratricide and Cuckoldry,” pp. 102-4).

  39. The New York Review of Books 25 (6 April 1978): 35-36. Richard Wheeler extends this formulation in his beautiful study of the ways in which Shakespeare manages the conjunction of male bonds with estrangement from a woman conceived as both a sexual and maternal figure in The Sonnets, The Merchant of Venice, and Othello (see his essay in this volume).

  40. Coriolanus approaches Aufidius musing on the fate of those who “twin … in love / Unseparable” (4.4.15-16) and allows himself to be feasted by Aufidius. His need to find an equal in Aufidius causes him radically to overestimate Aufidius's magnanimity. See my “‘Anger's My Meat’: Feeding, Dependency and Aggression in Coriolanus,” in Representing Shakespeare, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), pp. 138-39.

  41. See David Willbern's brilliant essay, “Rape and Revenge in Titus Andronicus,English Liberary Renaissance 8 (1978): 152-82.

  42. See Fiedler, The Stranger in Shakespeare, p. 54, and Kahn, Man's Estate, pp. 55-56.

  43. Kahn suggests that the play supports Richard's belief insofar as it portrays the lovelessness of his early childhood (Man's Estate, pp. 63-65).

  44. Hence Erickson's suggestion that the final solution to the problem of woman in As You Like It depends on the unveiling of the boy actor in the Epilogue: “Not only are women to be subordinate; they can, if necessary, be imagined as nonexistent” (“Sexual Politics,” p. 81).

Clifford Davidson (essay date summer 1980)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 paper is that the emblematic nature of Shakespeare's art can very properly be studied through the iconography of false friendship in Timon of Athens,4 a play which has commonly been called unfinished or imperfect even when critics have not brought Shakespeare's sole authorship into question.

An iconographic analysis of Timon of Athens illustrates how the play revolves around visual tableaux which illuminate the classical understanding of friendship—an understanding which Shakespeare himself, as the sonnets prove, valued most highly. To be sure, the iconography, like the very language of the play, explores the negative aspects of this quality. The lines of the drama are not swelled “with stuff so fine and smooth” that they are given the appearance of a painted naturalness (V.i.83-84); this is not “the happy verse / Which aptly sings the good” (I.i.16-17). The art of Timon is keenly attuned to irony and the deception which carefully placed visual tableaux can unmask for the audience.

In this play the major character himself must be seen as a highly significant icon of failed friendship. He who at the beginning had believed himself to be the epitome of friendship is at the end a totally disillusioned man. His epitaph reads:

Here lies a wretched corse, of wretched soul bereft;
Seek not my name. A plague consume you, wicked caitiffs left!
Here lie I, Timon, who, alive, all living men did hate.
Pass by and curse thy fill, but pass and stay not here thy gait.


Timon would never have come to such an end if he had not experienced the failure among his acquaintances of the great Renaissance ideal of friendship. The “bond” between friends ought to be as strong, and of the same quality, as the essential bonds of love and loyalty which cement together the social structure itself. Unfortunately, however, Timon has found that he has built his prodigal expectations on an imaginary “bare friendship” which only destroys him after its failure. From a picture of blind and excessive generosity, he falls to a representation of an excessive and alienated hatred which cannot be conquered even by the moving example of the good man, his former steward, who refuses to relinquish his loyalty to his former master. As Apemantus tells him in Act IV.iii.301-302, Timon has never known the “middle of humanity … but the extremity of both ends.”

Because he so prodigally shares his substance with wolfish parasites, Timon will ultimately be tumbled into an angry misanthropy which thinks it sees the devastating truth about the universality of human depravity. Prodigality, as visualized by Cesare Ripa, is “hoodwink'd”—i.e., blindfolded, as in the game of blind-man's-buff. Thus Timon is one of those who unseeingly “spend and squander their Substance without Reason, to those who are unworthy, for the most part, observing neither Rule nor Measure.”5 He takes the show or shadow of friendship for the reality, until the hypocrisy of his guests is revealed to him. At the point when he recognizes the truth, however, the milk of his kind disposition begins to sour, and by the beginning of the fourth act he can only pour the scorn of his fury (also pictured as blindfolded by Ripa6) upon the concepts of loyalty, piety, degree, truth, manners, law, and custom. “And let confusion live!” he loudly concludes. This is his prayer to Chaos that all might be swallowed up in her numbing power. At neither “extremity” does Timon have a clear-sighted view of the human condition.

Traditionally, Timon had been known in the Renaissance as the image of a more or less unmotivated misanthrope who was believed to have lived in the Athens of Socrates, Plato, and Aristophanes. It is thus that he is presented in North's translation of Plutarch, who pictures him as “angry” and untrusting.7 Typical of the Renaissance view of Timon as a “hater of all mankinde” is Montaigne: “Timon wisht all evill might light on us; He was passionate in desiring our ruine. He shunned and loathed our conversation, as dangerous and wicked, and of a depraved nature.”8 Such a merely cynical and misanthropic character would have been of little use to Shakespeare had not another element also informed the iconography of Timon. It was largely from Lucian's satiric dialogue of Timon, widely known in the Renaissance through Erasmus' Latin translation,9 that the notion was derived of a man, once wealthy, who had ruined himself through generosity. In the seventeenth-century English translation of Thomas Heywood, Mercury speaks as follows:

You see how his humanitie hath chang'd him,
And freenesse, from his dearest friends estrang'd him:
His mercy unto others, being so kinde,
And then amongst so many not to finde
One gratefull, hath distraction in him bred,
Still to be living, but to them thought dead.
Considering next how is he scorn'd, derided,
And his revenue and estate divided,
Not amongst Crowes and Wolves, but worser far,
Ravenous and tearing vultures, who still are
Gnawing upon his liver; those whom he
His friends and best familiars thought to be.
For they who now in his aboundance swim,
Were more delighted in his feasts than him:
Nay, those who at his table did applaud him;
When even unto the bare bones they had gnawne him,
They suckt his very marrow, and then fled.(10)

Reliance on a set of false friends, none of whom will live up to any ideal, brings Timon to a thoroughgoing hatred of the human species: “These brought him to this base despised trade, / And hurld him from the Scepter to the Spade,” while those “rais'd and brought to fame” by his “bounty” now hardly “remember Timon has a name.”11 Here, in Lucian's dialogue, is the basis for the icon of the exemplar of friendship's acts who becomes understandably disillusioned.

Shakespeare's Timon is engaged in displaying tremendous acts of generosity when we first see him in Act I. He visualizes himself at the center of a band of friends knit to him by the most sacred bond of comradeship. Almost his first words in the play are “I am not of that feather to shake off / My friend when he must need me” (I.i.103-104), and he expects the same quality of those who surround him. Nor does he hear anything which would shatter his illusion. For example, Ventidius, whose servant tells Timon that his master is “ever” bound to him (I.i.107), would have him think that he is secure among those who share his friendship. Moved by that feeling that Spenser identified as a “kindly flame,”12 he is even comforted by his relationship to others: “O what a precious comfort 'tis,” he says, “to have so many like brothers commanding one another's fortunes” (I.ii.101-103). His will to give is infinite, for he is truly “the very soul of bounty” (I.ii.207).

Friendship is understood as a bond which is not only a radiant ideal but is also an expression of a most necessary kind of good will that makes society cohesive. For the Renaissance, one of the basic texts thus describing friendship was Cicero's De Amicitia, a work which specifically mentions the negative case of Timon, an unusual man without desire for or need of friends, as an example of the adverse of the ideal.13 For Cicero, “if you take out of the world the knot of Frendship [benevolentiae conjunctionem], certes, neyther shall any house be able to stand, ne City to endure, no, nor yet any tillage to continue.”14 Since virtue and good will are the natural wellsprings of friendship,15 it cannot be forced or false, but must flow spontaneously from the heart. There can be nothing calculating about true friendship, no cool weighing of profit and loss.16 Nor can such a feeling of unity, such love come into being except between virtuous men. Cicero explains, “neyther can Freendeshippe in anye wise bee withoute Vertue.”17 Thus, while Timon scorns hollow “ceremony” (I.ii.15-17) and wishes that he had possession of whole “kingdoms” that he might bestow them on his “friends” (I.ii.219), these hypocritical parasites universally will prove themselves unworthy of his trust. But the total lack of true friendship and gratitude in Athens will eventually make itself felt: the city will not be able to stand when the banished Alcibiades returns to work his revenge.

Timon's will is weak only on the side of generosity. As his Steward comments, he is “brought low by his own heart, / Undone by goodness” (IV.ii.37-38). He is, of course, the image of a most unusual man, sanguine and sophisticated in his love of music, entertainment, and feasting—all of which provide central tableaux in the earlier part of the play. Yet he loves such things not for their own sake but because they will delight and cheer his friends. His prodigality is not, of course, to be identified too precisely with the classic Christian paradigm: he is no prodigal son sowing his wild oats. Despite the obvious double meaning which would seem to connect Timon's “spending” of gold with “spending” in the sexual sense,18 Shakespeare seems content with the iconography of a man ecstatically scattering his worldly wealth. Indeed, we see no women in the play, except in the masque, until Alcibiades' mistresses appear in IV.iii. But the Renaissance meaning of “prodigality” would allow for the facts as they are presented in Timon. The principal character's flattering would-be friends are shown drawing away the riches of this magnanimous man and leaving him impoverished. In this instance, a gloss in the Geneva Bible seems relevant, for there reference to the prodigal's “riotous living” is said to involve a “Greke worde [which] signifieth, so to waste all that a man reserveth nothing to him self.”19

The magnanimous person, however, was believed in the Renaissance to be entitled to a certain carelessness in his disposing of wealth. A putto behind the figure representing Magnanimity in the Hertel edition of the Iconologia pours forth the contents of a cornucopia with careless generosity.20 Hence Timon is said to “pour out” kindness (I.i.273-274). Surely it is significant that in the 1603 and 1630 editions of the Iconologia, the pouring out from a cornucopia appears as an essential detail in both Prodigalita and Pieta.21 To have a liberal hand may thus be a sign of immense goodness and nobility, or it may mean unpardonable folly. In Timon, goodness and prodigality are inseparably bound together in one character. Shakespeare seems very much aware that Timon's openness is at once a great virtue and a great fault. Unfortunately for Timon, however, the Renaissance proverb is proven true: “A spending hand that alway powreth owte / Had nede to have a bringer in as fast.”22

Except for his loyal servants, Timon as we see him in the early part of the play is surrounded only by parasites and flatterers rapaciously reaching out for whatever wealth they can get from Timon's liberal hand. With the exception of bitter, unfeeling Apemantus, those who come to Timon's feast present false faces which hide more or less crudely disguised serpent hearts full of “poisonous spite and envy” (I.ii.135). These “glass-fac'd” flatterers are “glib and slipp'ry creatures” (I.i.54, 59) who are intent upon transforming the quality of their host's good will into a quantity of gold coin. The description of the flatterer as “glass-fac'd” is iconographically important, for the mirror appears widely as a standard emblem of pride23 and surely is intended to point toward weakness in Timon, who obviously very much likes to receive back the desired image of his beneficence. The smiling face of the flatterer is thus the mirror into which he looks. Nevertheless, despite the obvious ambiguity in Timon's character, the reader will tend to overlook such faults in comparison with the horrible depravity presented by the parasites. Until the mirror is shattered in Act III, Lord Timon will fail to see what is behind the glass. Unlike Hamlet when we first see him, he is blind to that which only “seems”; Timon cannot recognize these spiritual ancestors of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for what they are. Surely the words of Apemantus, unpleasant as he is, are better than the “smiling, smooth” flatterers whom Timon will come later to detest.24

The most important emblem of the deceptive language of flattery is the dog, a creature to which Timon's friends are constantly being compared. Appropriately, a dog is an equivocal symbol in Renaissance iconography, for this creature can appear in reference to loyal friendship25 as well as to flattery, or even ingratitude.26 The latter is the more common. Two proverbs recorded by Tilley are typical of the prevailing attitude toward canines: “The dog wags his tail not for love of you but of your bread”; “Whores and dogs fawn on a man no longer than they are fed.”27 As Caroline Spurgeon has pointed out, Shakespeare generally linked dogs to ideas of fawning, licking sweets, flattering.28 Thus in Timon, flatterers are hungry dogs who gulp down the Lord Timon's “meat”; thereafter they only “fawn upon his debts / And take down th' int'rest into their gluttonous maws” (III.iv.51-52). They are hypocrites who, when they are unveiled, are utterly lacking in the sanctity they pretended while enticed by the candy of Timon's feast and riches. More than this, they actually incorporate within themselves a high degree of viciousness. In the height of Timon's fortune, they dance before him; when he becomes bankrupt, they will, as Apemantus predicted, “stamp upon” him (I.ii.139-140). These dogs will attack Timon's substance, and when that substance has been swallowed down, they will bare their ungrateful teeth and snarl at him. So it is that at the base of a column in the illustration of Ingratitude in the Hertel edition of Ripa, the following words appear: “Nutri canes, ut Te edant” (“Feed dogs, that they may eat you”). The words allude “to the story of Actaeon devoured by his own dogs.”29 Hence Timon becomes the victim of those whom he has fed, recognizes at last his position in relation to these false friends, and invites them with perfect appropriateness to partake of a banquet of warm water with the words “Uncover, dogs, and lap” (III.xi.82).

As they symbolically devour the lord who has kept and fed and pampered them, the false friends are indeed like Actaeon's “dogs” which, in Ovid's Metamorphoses (III.301-302), “hem [their master] in on everie side” and “With greedie teeth and griping pawes their Lord in peeces dragge.” “I know my lord hath spent of Timon's wealth,” says Hortensius, “And now ingratitude makes it worse than stealth” (III.iv.27-28). Ingratitude, symbolized in Renaissance iconography by Actaeon's dogs, is indeed much worse than theft, for it is a barbaric devouring of a victim: “O you gods!” exclaims Apemantus, “What a number of men eats Timon, and he sees 'em not” (I.ii.39-40). Since Actaeon's death is capable of being interpreted by the allegorizers of Ovid as symbolic of the crucifixion,30 Timon's destruction by the ravening mouths of his alleged friends may be seen as having more complex meanings. His feasting of his fellow Athenians is even, on one level, a kind of parody of Communion in which they partake of his body and blood. Because the basic ingredient of trust and friendship is missing from the hearts of those attending the supper, his love feasts are no more successful than Macbeth's banquet for Banquo: none of these are able to produce a community knit together in peace and good will. And Apemantus in a sense voices our horror that “so many dip their meat in one man's blood” (I.ii.41).

The cannibal theme is, as we have seen, introduced in Lucian: “When even unto the bare bones they had gnawne him, / They suckt his very marrow, and then fled.”31 In Shakespeare's play, the prodigal turned misanthrope will understand life only in terms of his own dreadful experience with his untrustworthy friends. “You must eat men,” he will advise the banditti (IV.iii.428). Men indeed have feasted upon him; now he firmly believes that not friendship but hostility between man and man is the normal and only condition of life. He has come to understand his “mouth-friends,” his “trencher-friends” (, 92) as gaping for his flesh as well as his substance. They are but betrayers of pretended friendship, and hence in Timon's eyes they prove all mankind unworthy of any expenditure of love. Before his mock banquet, Timon prays: “Let no assembly of twenty be without a score of villains. If there sit twelve women at the table, let a dozen of them be as they are” ( All men and women at every feast are hollow-hearted Judases (and the feminine equivalents of the archetypal betrayer).

The false friends are like (or worse than) ravenous beasts, for they are designated as “Courteous destroyers, affable wolves, meek bears” ( Cicero states that it is “a verye beastlye thinge to preferre money before Freendeshyppe,”32 yet this is precisely what these men have done. The Triall of True Friendship (see n. 4, above) speaks of those who “esteme no more of fine Thraso without pence, then a horse doth a faire stable without provender” (sig. C1v). Farnham quotes a sentence attributed to Alphonsus: “flatterers are not unlyke Wolves: for even as Wolves by tickling and clawing are wont to devour Asses: so flatterers use their flatterye and lyes, to the destruction of Princes.”33 Timon, of course, is the ass upon whose carcass the wolves have fed. Leaving Athens, he expects to find in the wilderness that “Th' unkindest beast [is] more kinder than mankind” (IV.i.36). He has learned the lesson stated in Peacham's Minerva Britanna, an emblem book which asserts that “No Hircan Tyger, Erymanthian Beare” is “So arm'd with malice, thirstie after blood, / To high estate aspiring” as such men are. These are “The worst of men, nay man it is too good,” for they are Luciferian in their rebellious intent.34 Their greed and ambition indeed have taught the flatterers to rebel against the values which support both friendship and the very fabric of society. These are men who, motivated by self-interest, have devoted themselves to the acquisition of a quantity of goods at the expense of the essential quality of life. As we might expect, they have gained no understanding of themselves from their experience at Timon's last banquet. One of them speaks for all when he insists that “He's but a mad lord, and nought but humors sways him. He gave me a jewel th' other day, and now he has beat it out of my hat. Did you see my jewel?” ( So when Timon in the next scene looks back on the city wall of Athens, he calls for that structure which “girdles in those wolves” to sink into the earth (IV.i.1-3). He will turn his back on civilization and will go forth naked with the prayer that he might be given the strength to hate “the whole race of mankind, high and low” (IV.i.39-40).

Earlier, the pouring forth of wealth had seemed infinite; now its sources are all dried up, and Timon himself has become a sapless branch cut off from the life of the community of men. His former “great flood of visitors” (I.i.42), now revealed as a “tide / Of knaves” (III.iv.112-113), presumably will find other channels in which to flow. Timon's former “bounty” and “kindness” are described as a liquid which he pours out (I.i.273-275). The Steward complains that he will not “cease his flow of riot” (II.ii.3), and finally when he gets the opportunity to tell Timon that he should have held his “hand more close” (II.ii.143), he laments that he was not allowed to influence his master “in the ebb of your estate / And your great flow of debts” (II.ii.143-146). The imagery is significant, for here prodigality is set forth iconographically. The playwright is surely indicating that on the tide of excessive and careless giving, irrational and immoderate generosity is destined to bring one in the end to the bottom of one's purse. Lucian had noted that to give wealth to Timon is like attempting to fill Danaë's daughters' casks: “No sooner ought pour'd in, but out it runnes; / So many holes being in the bottom drild, / That it draines faster than it can be fild.”35 Furthermore, the outward flow lacks a significant result, for ultimately such needless pouring forth of bounty as Timon's will inevitably conclude with the drying up of its source.

In the meantime, however, Timon is displayed attempting to give the impression of limitless bounty. Instead of keeping a balanced course—the “mediocrity” which the Elizabethans had felt to be the best economic policy—he engages in spectacular waste. “Still in motion / Of raging waste!” the Senator exclaims at II.i.3-4; “It cannot hold, it will not.” In contrast, one of the predatory and flattering lords attending on Timon in Act I is speaker for the illusion of limitless wealth: “Plutus the god of gold / Is but his steward. No meed but he repays / Seven-fold above itself: no gift to him / But breeds the giver a return exceeding / All use of quittance” (I.i.275-279). According to Fraunce, “Pluto was accompted the Lord of riches and treasure: Pluto is the earth, whence al metals are digged. Plutos in Greeke, signifieth riches.36 But despite the fact that precious metals indeed do come from under the earth, they will breed only for the parasites who have found a fool to repay them at a higher rate than usury. Yet for Timon wealth fails to breed: he will be left shortly with less than empty coffers, for his debts exceed his net worth.

Nevertheless, despite his interest in Timon's prodigality as imprudent economy, Shakespeare really insists upon focusing on the matter which he considers more basic—the subject of friendship. As a Renaissance playwright, he could not have wished to isolate mere business matters and the tabulation of accounts as the stuff upon which his imagination might work. Timon is most certainly not a lesson in holding onto one's money, for Shakespeare surely accepts the Renaissance dictum that to have a too tight fist is far less desirable than to have a too open hand. Typical is Sir Francis Bacon's statement that “sins of defect are justly accounted worse than sins of excess; because in excess there is something of magnanimity,—something, like the flight of a bird, that holds kindred with heaven; whereas defect creeps on the ground like a reptile.”37 Shakespeare must have believed with Cicero that the defects of “Covetousnes of monye” and ambition are among the greatest plagues which might infect friendship.38 Also, Cicero lashes out at the means which the parasites use to gain financial enrichment as well as pleasure: “there is no greater Plague or mischiefe in Frendship, then adulation, glavering [blanditiam], and flattrye.”39 Such men will speak “all to pleasure, and nothing to Truth.”40 Fickle falsehood and hypocrisy masking love of money and pleasure are faults that tend to dismember the communal unity toward which friendship naturally aims. A famous classical proverb attributed to Pythagoras states: “Among friends all things are common,”41 and Cicero writes: “there should bee among [friends] a communitie or participation of al their gooddes purposes and willes withoute any exception.”42 Love unifies and brings together.43 On the other hand, Timon's “friends” will dismember, tear him apart for his gold. Gold is, of course, the prime temptation for Timon's false friends. While he is rich, they will come around him like “Time's flies” (; when his time of poverty comes, they will swiftly buzz away to other feasts. Yet it is not when gold has failed him that Timon becomes a misanthrope: we see him driven into his final despairing and angry state only when he has discovered that he is not rich in friends.

Timon's “bounty” might well have seemed on the level of the play's spectacle to function with the efficacy of “Magic” which has the “power” to conjure “these spirits”—i.e., parasites—“to attend” him (I.i.6-7). But magic also involves deception or “juggling,” as Macbeth and Marlowe's Doctor Faustus learned. In the case of the latter, occult power over spirits turns out to be illusory in the end, when they turn upon him and tear his soul from his body. Magic is playing with appearances; the ability to transform reality or to perform genuine miracles is beyond its reach. Timon thus has been like a magician attempting to create artificial bonds of loyalty and friendship. The illusion lasts as long as Timon's gold with iconographic appropriateness gives him the appearance of potency; when it is all spent, the revels at his house are ended.

The illusion, to be sure, has been grandiose. The tableaux of feasting have been sumptuous, the entertainment lavish: “every room / Hath blaz'd with lights and bray'd with minstrelsy” (II.ii.164-165). We see an example of the splendor in the masque introduced by Cupid in I.ii. Like everything we see and hear in the first act, the words spoken by the blind god of love point to the desperate condition of Timon's fortunes. When he cries, “Hail to thee, worthy Timon, and to all / that of his bounties taste” (I.ii.118-119), he is echoing the “all hail” of Decius' greeting to Julius Caesar, the words of the betraying witches in Macbeth, and Judas' fatal salutation to Christ.44 He continues: “The five best senses / acknowledge thee their patron, and come freely / to gratulate thy plenteous bosom. There, / taste, touch, all, pleas'd from thy table rise; / They only now come but to feast their eyes” (I.ii.119-123). Epicurean delight focused upon the five senses will appropriately be celebrated emblematically in this masque, which promises to reflect the spirit of the feasting at Timon's house.45 Timon will presumably be paying the bill for such entertainments as this, for he himself thanks the “fair ladies” for entertaining him “with mine own device” (I.ii.142-147).

At the height of his bounty, fortunate Timon appears to have been the focal figure for a whole school of Athenian poets and painters who claim to be his friends. It is the representative Poet who very early in the play describes the iconographic landscape enclosing Fortune's hill:

I have upon a high and pleasant hill
Feign'd Fortune to be thron'd. The base o' th' mount
Is rank'd with all deserts, all kinds of natures
That labor on the bosom of this sphere
To propogate their states. Amongst them all,
Whose eyes are on this sovereign lady fix'd,
One do I personate of Lord Timon's frame,
Whom Fortune with her ivory hand wafts to her,
Whose present grace to present slaves and servants
Translates his rivals.


For Timon is one who appears to be loved especially by Fortune and followed by those who would look as though they are worshiping him. The Poet finally, however, comes around to a prophecy of the tragic conclusion, and his prophecy is expressed in terms of the familiar iconography introduced above:

When Fortune in her shift and change of mood
Spurns down her late beloved, all his dependants
Which labor'd after him to the mountain's top
Even on their knees and hands, let him sit down,
Not one accompanying his declining foot.


“'Tis common,” the Painter responds, accurately mirroring reality. For Fortune is about to frown upon her favorite.

When the crisis is first brought home to Timon by his Steward, he insists that, despite his drooping fortunes, he is still “wealthy in my friends” (II.ii.189). Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth, for his friends are iconographically portrayed as insects that fly away to shelter when unseasonable weather comes: “Feast-won, fast-lost; one cloud of winter show'rs, / These flies are couch'd” (II.ii.175-176). They are also compared to swallows who follow Timon as they follow the summer (; these are birds which are often regarded as emblematic of “fair-weather friends.”46 The Renaissance proverb says, “Swallows, like false friends, fly away upon the approach of winter.”47 “Such summer birds are men,” Timon says ( The seasonal imagery is also very explicit in Lucius' servant's speech at III.iv.11ff:

Ay, but the days are wax'd shorter with [Timon]:
You must consider that a prodigal course
Is like the sun's,
But not, like his, recoverable. I fear
'Tis deepest winter in Lord Timon's purse.

And the ingratitude of the recipients of his bounty will now determine that for Timon his spring cannot return, that his sun cannot rise as before.

“Men shut their doors against a setting sun,” Apemantus unpleasantly but prophetically remarks during the masque (I.ii.141). His words are reminiscent of another proverb: “The rising, not the setting sun is worshiped by most men.”48 And there is also an echo of the Fool's advice in King Lear (II.iv.71-74): “Let go thy hold when a great wheel runs down a hill … but the great one that goes upward, let him draw thee after.” Lear's wicked daughters indeed literally do shut their doors against their unfortunate father, while Timon's “mouth-friends” only close their fists.

Cicero notes “how greevous and how painfull do manye thinke it, to be partakers of others calamaties and miseries: whereunto there is none lightly found, that will willinglye entre,” and quotes Ennius: “A sure Frend is tryed in Adversitye.”49 When Fortune frowns, however, we see Timon failing to find a single constant friend among all the flatterers who had filled his house and accepted his riches. The man who has sat at his side and has broken his bread with him instead “is the readiest man to kill him” (I.ii.46-49). Like Richard II, Timon could complain of his betrayal by large numbers of betrayers (“Did they not sometime cry ‘All hail!’ to me? / So Judas did to Christ; but he, in twelve, / Found truth in all but one” [Richard II IV.i.167-171]). Hence Shakespeare now displays a parody of the Last Supper as Timon bids farewell to his Judas-friends: the broken community of friendship is given ritual expression in the meal which is no communion. Quite in keeping with the presence of the Judas archetype in the play, Timon will later issue an invitation to his former friends and fellow Athenians to hang themselves on his tree before he cuts it down (V.i.204-211). Judases ought to end their lives like the archetypal betrayer, who is said to have “hanged him self” (Matthew xxvii.5).

Timon, who has seemed like a glorious “phoenix” in the midst of his “prodigal course,” will in his evil days have the remaining feathers of his wealth plucked away by his creditors; thus he “will be left a naked gull” (II.i.30-32). The phoenix, that unique Arabian bird “dedicated unto the sun,”50 is a permanent symbol of redemptive good.51 Timon, however, has actually allowed himself to be victimized in the manner of the Elizabethan “gull.” Once he understands the unpleasant truth about how he has been duped, he will undergo a transformation in earnest. “His comfortable temper has forsook him,” Servilius explains (III.iv.70); indeed, his sanguine temperament has been converted to anger and hatred directed against the whole of mankind.

“I am Misanthropos,” Timon proclaims to the vengeful Alcibiades (IV.iii.54). From the heights of illusory friendship, Timon has fallen to the depths of a hatred directed irrationally toward every member of the human race. In a sense, it appears that Shakespeare was thinking of him in terms of the iconography of Icarus, for Icarus also had “with mountinge up alofte” in the sky “Came headlonge downe, and fell into the Sea” when the sun melted away the feathers fixed by wax to his artificial wings.52 According to E. A. Armstrong, the associated images of wax, sea, and Icarus were in Shakespeare's mind when he wrote the Poet's speech at Act I.i.45-50;53 furthermore, Icarus' loss of wing feathers may also lie behind the suggestion at II.i.30-32 that Timon will be transformed from “phoenix” to “gull” when his borrowed feathers are returned to their source. Once he has completed his fall, however, Timon's hatred of mankind is as total as Lucifer's (a fact which is significant when it is realized that Lucifer's fall and Icarus' were often held to be analogous in the Renaissance). “For my part,” Timon tells Alcibiades, “I do wish thou wert a dog, / That I might love thee something” (IV.iii.55-56). Indeed, he becomes as much reduced to the bare symbol as Spenser's Malbecco, who ultimately “Forgot he was a man, and Gealosie is hight.”54 Thus is Timon at last merely Misanthropy personified, for he has totally forgotten his humanity.

The source of such thorough misanthropy may be identified phenomenologically in terms of the food which, fed to the envious parasites earlier in the play, has been converted to poisonous substance. Timon's servant comments, “This slave unto his honor / Has my lord's meat in him: / Why should it thrive and turn to nutriment / When he is turn'd to poison?” (III.i.56-59). And Apemantus had said, “We make ourselves fools, to disport ourselves, / And spend our flatteries to drink those men / Upon whose age we void it up again / With poisonous spite and envy” (I.ii.132-135). As in Coriolanus, the covetous belly is cause of disorder: the food of Timon's feast, vomited up by the flatterers, becomes most sour and poisonous. Timon prays at IV.i.30-32 that this same poison might affect them physically as well as morally: “Breath infect breath, / That their society, as their friendship, may / Be merely poison!” The milk of human kindness, represented by the overly generous Timon of the beginning of the play, has thoroughly curdled. His Steward explains that the “kind lord” has “flung in range from this ingrateful seat / Of monstrous friends” (IV.ii.44-46). The parasites are unnatural creatures who convert milk to gall, but so also is Timon unnatural in his terrible rejection of mankind.

For Timon, the total depravity of man is much deeper than even the most pessimistic Calvinist theology would allow. He sees no value, no good in anyone. “There's nothing level in our cursed natures / But direct villainy,” he insists (IV.iii.19-20). Thus community and friendship seem not possible; hence Timon will abhor “All feasts, societies, and throngs of men!” (IV.iii.20-21). The only proper reward which men truly deserve is death: “Destruction fang mankind!” (IV.iii.23). Timon's verdict is much stronger than the Elizabethan Homilies, which describe man's “blinded” state after the fall as a time when “almost all the world” turned from “the only eternal living God” to “their own fantasies.”55 According to such theology, the lack of Christian faith and the spiritual blindness of the pagan world are matters of great seriousness, for they will subject that world to an everlasting damnation. But Timon's pessimism and his curses are more terrible, since he judges Athenian society from the depths of the total emptiness of his own despair for the race.

Athens is the image of a city whose citizens have forgot their responsibilities; they have exceeded the proper limits of behavior. For, as Luciana says in The Comedy of Errors (II.i.16-17), “There's nothing situated under heaven's eye / But hath his bounds.” Men are to be responsible masters over the world of plants and beasts, over their wives, and over their own unruly wills. Reason, of course, provides a bridle for men's acts as well as the square or standard by which they may rightly be judged. When rational behavior, loyalty between friends and relatives, and decorous social patterns are violated, men become indistinguishable from beasts. To go beyond the limits of loyalty as these are naturally set down is to reduce men to less than their rightful humanity. Thus the Athenians, who are fallen and faithless pagans, will be revealed to be like “beasts.”

As vile Apemantus tells a misanthropic Timon, “the commonwealth of Athens is become a forest of beasts” (IV.iii.349-350). The iconography is significant. The quantity and quality of the beast imagery introduced into the story by Shakespeare almost in the end overwhelms the play.56 Timon himself goes to the “woods,” finds himself a cave, digs for roots like a wild man, and hopes then to “find / Th' unkindest beast more kinder than mankind” (IV.i.35-36). But in the forests near Athens, there apparently are no happy beasts for Timon to discover. He certainly does not find beasts living a more natural, and hence more satisfactory existence than men. Not even the bestial condition is really free from the vicious conflicts and anxieties of life. Instead, animal nature as described by Timon (IV.iii.328-345) is red in tooth and claw. To be a beast might thus be even worse than to remain a man!

Yet it may be argued that the animals Timon has named in his speech will not flatter him for their personal gain. And, as the last book of Gulliver's Travels suggests, only man is so foolish as to be corrupted by love of gold. For Timon, however, gold now has lost its utility. Since he has cut himself off from the community of men, he has no use for the wealth which he discovers while digging for roots to devour. Gold is not edible. He is like a beast with need of nothing other than food and shelter. Ironically, as Timon is distributing the wholly useless fortune he has found, the reader is made to wonder whether man indeed is no more than such a poor, bare, forked creature as this—i.e., a creature needing no more than the essential minimum that will sustain bare life.

In Act IV.iii, a tableau shows Timon giving lavishly to Alcibiades to help him meet his military payroll: “There's gold to pay thy soldiers; / Make large confusion; and thy fury spent, / Confounded be thyself.” Of course, when they see the gold, Alcibiades' whores want “more” (IV.iii.134); they will “do anything for gold” (IV.iii.152). These “beagles” are slaves and worshipers of gold; they are no less devoted to their god than Ben Jonson's Volpone, whose adoration of Mammon in Volpone I.i is so unforgettable. Later Timon asks, “What a god's gold, / That he is worshipp'd in a baser temple / Than where swine feed?” (V.i.46-47). Timon, however, is “no idle votarist” (V.iii.27). In the midst of his malice, the qualities of this misanthropic man, living a bestial existence, nevertheless impress us as somehow preferable to the false appearances, the hypocrisy, and the acquisitiveness in the society he has left.

Timon, who is “sick of this false world,” says that he “will love nought / But even the mere necessities upon't” (IV.iii.378-379). Obviously, human society is not one of the “mere necessities.” As Painter's version of the Timon story describes him, “he shewed how like a beast (in deede) he was: for he could not abide any other man, beinge not able to suffer the company of him, which was of like nature.”57 Thus Timon, eating a rude root, will not allow Apemantus to “mend” his “feast”: “First mend my company,” says the misanthrope, “take away thyself” (IV.iii.284-285). The refusal by Timon of all communion with other men is, of course, an extreme but not unpredictable reaction to the failure of his ideal friendship earlier in the play. Nevertheless, as we see him amidst great wealth but loving no one, we can hardly feel very comfortable with him. He has cut himself off not only from a healthy life of the emotions, but also from trust, from piety, from meaning in his life. His language near the end of the play at times even approximates the subhuman speech of the wild man Caliban. As on one level he has become the image of Misanthropos, so on another he is an icon of the bestial man, characterized by his separation from those qualities which are most particularly human. In his alienation, Timon the bestial man has even proudly assumed a pose of cantankerous and despairing madness. It is a madness which can only lead to one woeful conclusion.

For Timon's fall into misanthropy involves a whole series of disturbing inversions: love to hate, excess to defect, life to death. In the final analysis, such a stance as Timon's cannot resolve the conflict in his soul. His despair about the human condition, like Gulliver's at the end of the Travels, so sets him off from other men that “reconcilement” seems impossible. There appears to be at last absolutely no hope which might sustain him and give him some reason for continuing to live. Such aversion to life itself leads at last to what he says when we hear his voice for the final time in the play:

Graves only be men's works and death their gain;
Sun, hide thy beams, Timon hath done his reign.


Now there is only his epitaph, along with the message which is apparently attached to his tomb and which is read by the soldier at Act V.iii.3-4. Despite the invitation of his epitaph for us to curse Timon's corpse, however, Shakespeare at the last wishes to draw from his audience some belated sympathy for his protagonist as he once was. The man who “all living men did hate” (V.iv.72) was once “noble,” and, through our “memory” of his nobility, we are indirectly invited by Alcibiades to join our tears with the drops wept by Neptune over his “low grave” (V.iv.77-80). Through a study of the iconography of the play, we have seen the failure of an ideal through human fault. Its failure does not, however, prove that this ideal—friendship—must always thus fail.


  1. Bridget Gellert Lyons, Voices of Melancholy (New York, 1971), pp. 77-112.

  2. Clifford Davidson, “Death in His Court: Iconography in Shakespeare's Tragedies,” Studies in Iconography, 1 (1975), 77-79. For further attention to iconography in this play, see Clifford Davidson, The Primrose Way (Conesville, Ia., 1970), passim.

  3. Glynne Wickham, Early English Stages 1300 to 1660 (London, 1963), II, Pt. I, 155. Quotations from the play under consideration are from the New Arden edition, ed. H. J. Oliver (London, 1963).

  4. The Elizabethan interest in “the evils of flattery” has been noted in connection with Timon of Athens by Willard Farnham, Shakespeare's Tragic Frontier (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1950), p. 72. See also Laurens J. Mills, One Soul in Bodies Twain: Friendship in Tudor Literature and Stuart Drama (Bloomington, 1937), p. 282 et passim. The major classical treatment of the ideal of friendship is Cicero's De Amicitia, first translated into English by John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester. The translation consulted here, however, is by Thomas Marshe, contained in Cicero, Foure Severall Treatises: Conteyninge Discourses of Frendshippe, Old Age, Paradoxes and Scipio His Dreame (London, 1577), which has been compared with the modern text and translation in the Loeb Library edition. A useful Elizabethan treatise on the subject of true and false friendship is M. B., The Triall of True Friendship; or, A Perfit Mirror, Whereby to Discerne a Trustie Friend from a Flattering Parasite (London, 1596).

  5. Cesare Ripa, Iconologia, Eng. trans. (London, 1709), p. 62 (for quotations); Rome, 1603, p. 413; Padua, 1630, Pt. 2, p. 590 (sig. Pp3v).

  6. Ripa, Iconologia (1603), p. 176; (1630), Pt. 1, p. 219 (sig. O2r): Pt. 1, p. 279 (sig. R8r).

  7. Plutarch, “Life of Marcus Antonius,” in New Arden ed., p. 141; see also the slightly shorter selection from the same source in Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, VI, 251.

  8. Montaigne, The Essayes, trans. John Florio (London, 1898), II, 230. See also Farnham, Shakespeare's Tragic Frontier, pp. 65-66.

  9. M. C. Bradbrook, in her lecture, The Tragic Pageant of “Timon of Athens” (Cambridge, Eng., 1966), p. 19, notes that Erasmus' translation was “used as a school text.”

  10. Lucian, Misanthropos; or, The Man-Hater [Timon], in Pleasant Dialogues, and Dramma's, trans. Thomas Heywood, ed. W. Bang, Materialien zur Kunde des älteren Englischen Dramas (Louvain, 1903), p. 60. See also Bullough's translation from the Italian version of N. da Lonigo (1536) in Narrative and Dramatic Sources, VI, 263-277.

  11. Lucian, trans. Heywood, pp. 60-61.

  12. The Faerie Queene, Bk. IV, Proem.

  13. Cicero, Foure Severall Treatises, fol. 37r.

  14. Cicero, Foure Severall Treatises, fol. 11r.

  15. Cicero, Foure Severall Treatises, fol. 23r.

  16. Cicero, Foure Severall Treatises, fol. 23r.

  17. Cicero, Foure Severall Treatises, fol. 9v.

  18. See Eric Partridge, Shakespeare's Bawdy, rev. ed. (New York, 1969), p. 187.

  19. Geneva gloss at Luke xv.13.

  20. Baroque and Rococo Pictorial Imagery: The 1758-60 Hertel Edition of Ripa's Iconologia (New York, 1971), No. 64.

  21. Ripa, Iconologia 1603 ed., pp. 413, 401; 1630 ed., Pt. 2, p. 590 (sig. Pp3v), Pt. 2, p. 571 (sig.Oo2r).

  22. Sir Thomas Wyatt, Collected Poems, ed. Kenneth Muir (Cambridge, Mass., 1950), p. 191.

  23. See, e.g., MS. Laud Misc. 740, fol. 69r; Spenser, Faerie Queene I.iv.10; the engraving of Superbia in the series of the Seven Deadly Sins published by Jerome Cock in 1558 and formerly attributed to Brueghel.

  24. See III.iv.90.

  25. For dogs as representative of faithfulness, see the treatment of the motto Fidei canum exemplum in Joannes Sambucus, Emblemata (Stuttgart, n.d.), as cited in Arthur Henkel and Albrecht Schöne, Emblemata: Handbuch zur Sinnbildkunst des XVI. und XVII. Jahrhunderts (Stuttgart, 1967), col. 556. See also Philemon Holland's translation of Pliny's Natural History, ed. Paul Turner (Carbondale, 1962). p. 97.

  26. For example of dogs as symbolic of ingratitude, see ill. of the motto Ingratitudo summum vitium in Mathias Holzwart, Emblemata Tyrocinia (Strassburg, 1581), as cited in Henkel and Schöne, col. 560. For example of dogs as emblematic of flattery, see Henry Peacham, Minerva Britanna (London, 1612), pp. 206-207.

  27. Tilley D459 and W327.

  28. Caroline Spurgeon, Shakespeare's Imagery (1935; rpt. Boston, 1958), pp. 195-199.

  29. Ripa, Iconologia, Hertel ed., No. 128.

  30. See Don Cameron Allen, Mysteriously Meant (Baltimore, 1970), pp. 173, 243. As Allen (p. 173) explains, Pierre Bersuire's moralization of Ovid gives both a positive and a negative meaning to the Actacon story: “In malo Actaeon is a usurer; in bono he is Christ.”

  31. Lucian, p. 60.

  32. Cicero, Foure Severall Treatises, fol. 28r.

  33. James Sanforde, The Garden of Pleasure (1573), fol. 99r, as quoted by Farnham, p. 72.

  34. Peacham, p. 198.

  35. Lucian, p. 68; see also Geoffrey Whitney, A Choice of Emblemes (1586), p. 12.

  36. Abraham Fraunce, The Third Part of the Countesse of Pembrokes Yuychurch (London, 1592), fol. 26.

  37. Francis Bacon, Works, ed. J. Spedding et al. (1861; rpt. Stuttgart, 1963), VI, 254.

  38. Cicero, Foure Severall Treatises, fol. 16v.

  39. Cicero, Foure Severall Treatises, fol. 39r.

  40. Cicero, Foure Severall Treatises, fol. 39r.

  41. Tilley F729; cf. Erasmus' Amicorum communia omnia, which is placed at the beginning of his Adagia. See Margaret Mann Phillips, The ‘Adages’ of Erasmus: A Study with Translations (Cambridge, Eng., 1964), pp. 12-13.

  42. Cicero, Foure Severall Treatises, fol. 27r.

  43. See, e.g., Shakespeare's Sonnet 36, which begins: “Let me confess that we two must be twain, / Although our undivided loves are one.”

  44. See Richmond Noble, Shakespeare's Biblical Knowledge (1935), pp. 103-104.

  45. John Doebler accurately connects Timon's feasts with the idea of the Banquet of Sense; see his Shakespeare's Speaking Pictures (Albuquerque, 1974), pp. 150-151.

  46. Ripa, Iconologia, Hertel ed., No. 52.

  47. Tilley S1026.

  48. Tilley S979, as quoted in New Arden ed., p. 28.

  49. Cicero, Foure Severall Treatises, fol. 28v.

  50. Pliny, Natural History, pp. 111-112.

  51. See Peacham, p. 19; Whitney, p. 177.

  52. Whitney, p. 28.

  53. Edward A. Armstrong, Shakespeare's Imagination, rev. ed. (Lincoln, Nebr., 1963), p. 37.

  54. The Faerie Queene III.x.60.

  55. Homilies Appointed to Be Read in Churches in the Time of Queen Elizabeth, 4th ed. (Oxford, 1816), pp. 41-42.

  56. On the beast imagery, see Farnham, pp. 68-74.

  57. The Palace of Pleasure, as quoted in Narrative and Dramatic Sources, VI, 294.

Zvi Jagendorf (essay date 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 standard and remind us with talk of bed, and of Nerissa's ring and thing that lovers in comedies are meant to end up between the sheets untying more interesting things than the knots of a comic plot.

Sex is for servants, a cynic might say; money is what interests the gentlefolk in this play. This is an exaggeration, yet there is truth in it; for clearly the search for money and the quest for love are the twin poles which sustain the world of the play and any interpretation has to deal with their interplay—indeed the commerce between them.

When Jane Austen writes, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” she is both mocking and affirming, through her cunning balance of possession against want, the market relations on the basis of which marriages were arranged in the society portrayed in Pride and Prejudice. Love does get mentioned in that memorable opening conversation, but it is Mrs. Bennet, “a woman of mean understanding,” who brings this in: “But it is very likely that he may fall in love with one of them.” Thus the trivial, hysterical mother utters the romantic piety and does obeisance to the totem worshipped by mothers and daughters in the teeth of observation and experience. The fact that Jane Austen still makes love the credible foundation of a good fortune is one of the pleasures of reading her but unfortunately not the subject of this essay. Yet her lucidity on the embarrassment of genteel poverty and the necessity of falling in love with four or five thousand a year might well serve as a bench mark for an interpretation of the much less lucid, more paradoxical and sexually troubled Shakespearean inversion of the topic in our play, where the opening situation might be stated as follows: It is a truth equally universally acknowledged that a single man not in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a rich wife.

The unspoken word is again love, also first mentioned in the play by a trivial person, Solanio, whose “Why then you are in love” (I.i.46), is an attempt to find a cause for the merchant's inexplicable melancholy. Antonio's strange reply, “Fie, fie!”, as if love were some disease, is the first sign of trouble to come.

The ethos of love and the need for money, kept in such judicious balance by Jane Austen's prose, cannot be balanced so gracefully in the antagonistically violent, linguistically explosive and paradoxical world of poetic drama. On the Shakespearean stage the controlled perspective which keeps money and love in steady focus is less apparent than the pressure and anxiety which force them together, creating the unexpected combinations and reversals which are germane to all drama but are at the very heart of The Merchant of Venice.

In spite of the traditional Christian praise of poverty and suspicion, to say the least, of riches, and the influential Aristotelian notion of gold as sterile when set against the natural fecundity of the body, the languages of wealth and love have always been interdependent. The question “How much do you love me?” illustrates such contact in the most banal way. That is what Antony seems to think when he counters Cleopatra's opening question in Antony and Cleopatra with a challenge to the very notion of quantity as demeaning:

There's beggary in the love that can be reckon'd.


We may instinctively assent to his brave contempt for measure but the question how much, though it smells of the market and the counting house, cannot be excluded from love's discourse.

In the Song of Songs it appears as a strange turn in a passage which speaks of the power of love to withstand immense material weight and mass:

Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it.


In this figure of fire against water, the single flame (love) outlives the onslaught of what is by grammatical character plural in Hebrew (mayyim). So the multiplication of waters fails to put out the flame and quantity surrenders to intensity. But the same verse, in a movement closely parallel to what happens at the opening of Antony and Cleopatra, goes on to note the social penalty to be paid when love's extreme demands are met in terms of property:

if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would utterly be condemned.

Contempt, we remember, is what Philo has for Antony; who is transformed by his dotage from “the triple pillar of the world” into “a strumpet's fool.” On the one hand, then, love is unmeasurable, on the other a social measure of the extreme actions love provokes finds that the price the lover pays is excessive. All your wealth for love? A third of all the world for a strumpet? Is it worth it? Can love be reckoned after all?

Obviously, the question “how much?” is not at all out of place in the rhetoric of love. Ideally love is a simple and economically innocent exchange or barter: my love is mine and I am his. But as soon as this is sophisticated and subjected to analysis or more pertinently, when the intimate exchange of feeling is given a social setting, say in the context of an economy (London, Venice) where value is dependent on the market, then anxiety about numbers becomes apparent. When Portia confesses to Bassanio:

One half of me is yours, the other half yours
Mine own, I would say;


she would dismiss calculation; she means to give herself entirely. But her language is caught up in the web of number, laboriously so, even dangerously when we remember that she is an heiress and the goal of Bassanio's voyage is her fortune, not half but the whole of it. Once love is thought of as a kind of sophisticated exchange, then notions of measure and quantity become pertinent, together with the language of debt and credit, borrowing and lending, even investment and return. When Falstaff answers Hal's “Sirrah do I owe you a thousand pound?” with

A thousand pound, Hal? a million, thy love is worth a million; thou owest me thy love


he like Portia is measuring and defying measure at the same time. Speaking as someone who is chronically in debt, he clearly wants to turn the prince's love into realizable assets (a million). His hopes of riches and influence depend on such convertibility. At the same time a million, to a poor man, stands for infinity, and Hal's love is therefore beyond reckoning. The specifics of financial calculation and the bravado of its dismissal are copresent here and we do not find it grotesque to see moneybags on one side of the scale and on the other the old man's vital claim to the prince's debt of love. There's beggary in the love that can be reckoned, implies Falstaff, yet he uses the astounding number theatrically, the way a reckless gambler does, as a spell to defy ill luck and keep sober reality at bay.

If the language of how much colours the speech of Antony, the rich man, and Falstaff, the poor man, in plays which do not focus particularly on the workings of money, we would expect its presence to be doubly and insistently noticeable in The Merchant which tracks the quest for love on a map busy with the flow of goods and money. Clearly the trajectories on this map must cross each other at many points, crossings which we may take to be invitations to interpretation.

One of the most rewarding of such points is Bassanio's request for money from Antonio to finance his quest for Portia and her golden fleece. This is the point from which the play's lines of desire and indebtedness are projected. One trajectory leads from Antonio to Bassanio and to Portia, the other interpolates Shylock between Antonio and Bassanio. The first line is complicated by the implied competition between homosexual love, characterised by debt, and heterosexual love, which releases treasure. The second line is complicated by the unpleasant involvement of Jewish usury as a catalyst and go-between in the amorous commerce between both men and women.

It has always seemed to me one of the more intriguing weaknessess of the play that Bassanio, patently a prodigal and a fortune hunter, should be proposed apparently without irony for the part of beau ideal, ephebe, scholar and Christian gentleman. While Shakespeare's darker comedies offer curious studies of shadowy, fallible young men of doubtful character but handsome looks (like Bertram in All's Well) who are chosen as love objects by strong and energetic young women, The Merchant is different in its apparent acceptance of Bassanio on his own terms. We know what a Jonsonian treatment of a Bassanio would be like. He would have given us a desperate, sexually ambiguous, cynical and misogynistic fortune hunter living off his wits and his sex in the manner of Truewit and Dauphine in The Silent Woman. In that play the young men's hunger for money and even for food is blatant as they struggle to survive in London society. It gives their wit a harsh, barking quality and it strips them of all pretense in our eyes just as they strip their victims to the bone with their savage analysis of every physical, mental and social defect.

Bassanio is saved the fate of his Jacobean cousins because he is a protagonist in an apparently romantic fiction in which the golden cheese falls into the handsome fox cub's mouth because of his good breeding and healthy complexion. There is such a guarded flatness about Shakespeare's characterization of the young man that we might suspect the poet of defending him from suspicious enquiry. It is as if he is saying, leave the boy alone, he's only a breeder, a key to Portia's treasure chest. Bassanio's blandness is in fact the cause of desire in others, notably in Antonio and even in Portia, while the Jew's involvement sharpens and displaces the libidinal energy by directing it towards the suffering body of love's true victim, the merchant, Antonio. The play's strange, almost strangled sexuality may then be approached through the young man whose blandness is the negative heart at the centre of a series of positive desires. Neither wholly a man's erotic friend, nor truly a husband to a wife, he moves between them, entangling both in the consequences of his debt with which the play starts.

Bassanio's initial request for money from Antonio bears close analysis because it goes to the erotic/economic heart of the play and conceals beneath the proclaimed innocence of its rhetoric a strong analogy between debt and its return and the homosexual bond. The young man is not in a good position at the beginning of the play. He is a profligate borrower asking his benefactor to throw good money after bad; like the commonest of gamblers caught in a losing streak, all he needs is enough money for one last throw which will make him rich and redeem all his debts. The first thing one notices about the way he leads up to his actual request is its blurred and circuitous parlance:

'Tis not unknown to you, Antonio,
How much I have disabled mine estate,
By something showing a more swelling port
Than my faint means would grant continuance.
Nor do I now make moan to be abridg'd
From such a noble rate, but my chief care
Is to come fairly off from the great debts
Wherein my time something too prodigal
Hath left me gag'd.


This follows the prattle of the Venetians Salerio, Gratianio and Solario, whose comic descriptions of social stereotypes and various hypothetical business disasters are aimed at filling the void of Antonio's undiagnosed melancholy. If their energetic babble makes Bassanio's speech sound dull that is because it is. And it is so because he is trying to describe the plight of a prodigal antiseptically, without using any of the wounding caustic language of traditional moral assault on wastrels. The result is that Bassanio sounds like a mealy-mouthed lawyer speaking in defence of his good-for-nothing client whose desperate state he is trying to camouflage. We are meant to decipher the code of a proper young gentleman: the understatement, the good intentions, the stiff upper lip. Prodigality is made to look like a minor carelessness, a gentlemanly oversight, like not paying one's tailor. Yet the cosmetic phrasing cannot hide the cruel request at the heart of the speech:

                                                  To you, Antonio,
I owe the most in money and love,
And from your love I have a warranty
To unburthen all my plots and purposes
How to get clear of all the debts I owe.


In other words he needs more of Antonio's money in order to be free of Antonio's love. This is not a perverse reading, given the consistent and unresolved tension in the play between the love of men and the love of women, the former characterised by debt and sacrifice, the latter by treasure and its release.

Antonio's answer to Bassanio forces us, even if we have evaded it up to now, to contemplate the erotic aspect of debt:

My purse, my person, my extremest means
Lie all unlock'd to your occasions.


The assonance and alliteration could not be more assertive in this declaration of availability. “My purse, my person,” which echoed in Shylock's “my ducats and my daughter” can sound so grotesquely wrong in its juxtaposition of flesh and blood with gold, is when spoken by Antonio darkly dangerous in its blurring of the borders between the offering of gold and the offering of self. The prone openness of the unlocked, metonymic purse is embarrassingly linked with a defencelessness of person, making the availability of a sum of money a dangerous criterion for the vulnerability of a life.

We must remember Bassanio's request still has not been made. This is all foreplay. When it does come, it is with his meditation on the caskets, his most important speech in the play. And compared with that safely orthodox reflection on lead and its virtues, it is as close to self-revelation as this bland character can be allowed to come. Like many important texts it is full of redundancy. It overloads the channels of communication for the message: lend me more money could have been easily understood without the parable of the arrows. Even the sympathetic Antonio is made uneasy by its evasiveness and criticizes its unnecessary rhetoric:

You know me well, and herein spend but time
To wind about my love with circumstance.


What, we may ask, is this winding all about? Uncharacteristically Bassanio speaks here in a kind of parable. He tells an exemplary story and then interprets it in case his friend has missed the point.

In my school-days, when I had lost one shaft,
I shot his fellow of the self-same flight
The self-same way with more advised watch
To find the other forth, and by adventuring both
I oft found both: I urge this childhood proof,
Because what follows is pure innocence.
I owe you much, and like a wilful youth
That which I owe is lost, but if you please
To shoot another arrow that self way
Which you did shoot the first, I do not doubt,
As I will watch the aim, or to find both
Or bring your latter hazard back again,
And thankfully rest debtor for the first.


This tale of two arrows aims at setting before the older man a picture of a pre-sexual boyish game in which money is child's play and debt innocent and, like Peter Pan, never grows.2 It is an argument for lending without profit or increase and, in a more secret way it is an allegory of homosexual commerce. The arrows whose flight the story tells are identical (“self-same”); they seek each other out through the air like the separated twins at the beginning of The Comedy of Errors. In the rhetoric of child's play the loss of the first arrow is hardly a fault. It is something that happens in a game and the remedy is at hand in the second shaft. The languages of play and commerce meet at the key word “adventuring” which is what boys do for fun and merchants for profit, unless they make a loss. The wiliness of the tale becomes apparent when Bassanio interprets it in “pure innocence” and shifts the identity of the archer from the wilful boy (Bassanio) to the merchant. It is no longer I (Bassanio) who do the shooting but you (Antonio) who will shoot sums of money after each other while I cast myself in the responsible role of watcher and retriever of at least some of the debt.

Antonio is irritated by these rhetorical flights, the only moment in the whole play when he shows impatience towards his young friend. He finds all this talk circuitous and wasteful and he counters Bassanio's fiction of innocence with a statement of adult commitment devastating in its lack of reserve:

                                        you do me now more wrong
In making question of my uttermost
Than if you had made waste of all I have.


How much, Antonio is saying, is not a question even for a merchant when love is concerned. The two arrows with their implied calculation of debt and its repayment are swept aside by a lover's impatient extremism which would rather imagine disaster and sacrifice than weigh profit and loss. There's beggary in the love that can be reckoned.

Given the transparency, indeed the redundancy of Bassanio's parable as a strategy of raising money, it is nevertheless interpretable in a more subversive way as an allegory of male friendship and sexual identity, placed at a point in the play where a male economy of indebtedness is about to give way to a female economy based on unlocked treasure. How then does Bassanio's tale speak of sexual identity? Essentially by stressing the sameness of the arrows in build, flight and direction. Difference has no place in this story because that would prevent the arrows finding each other. Sameness on the other hand is stressed and overstressed by the doubling of “self-same,” the trebling of “self,” the chiming repetition of both, and even, to a reader, by the way FEL in “fellow” plays against ELF in “self-same.” The arrows' sameness is an essential part of the boyish world of play which can be called innocent because undisturbed as yet by the difference of women. An analogy from The Winter's Tale will bear this out. That play also begins with two friends, and when one of them, Polixenes, describes the boyhood he and Leontes shared, he talks of a paradisal state of innocence, an idyllic pastoral in which the boys are compared to

                                        twinned lambs that did frisk i' th' sun,
And bleat the one at th' other.


There too the sameness of a pair of boys is the basis for a masculine Eden secure and sealed off in its closed circle by the exclusion of women. It is a world of play before sin in which sexual identity allows for the purest and simplest kind of exchange or barter:

                                        What we chang'd
Was innocence for innocence.


It is of course women who introduce temptation into this paradise and lead the boys out into the dangerous world of sexual difference, experience and the fathering of children.

Bassanio's tale of the twinned arrows does not posit the innocent game on the absence of women but it colours the borrowing and spending of money in a prelapsarian glow, economically and sexually. As well as ruling out disaster and loss, Bassanio's parable rules out interest and profit, or in other words increase. And that is where women and Jews come in.

Enter Shylock, whose apologia for interest as increase in I.iii. is aggressively, even bestially, sexual in ways which create specific and pointed contrasts with Bassanio's celibate arrows. If we juxtapose Bassanio's apologia for lending with Shylock's for interest, we contemplate a play of categories which holds true throughout the play. It is an opposition between innocence and experience, the former Christian, the latter Jewish, the one dependent on sexual similarity and profitless exchange, the other on sexual difference, breeding and increase. Although the opposition is familiar, seen as a crux where money and sexuality meet, it moves our interpretation a step forward.3

Like Bassanio's tale Shylock's is a parable, it has a lesson, although he, unlike the young Christian, does not bother to spell it out.4 Its design on its audience (Antonio and Bassanio) is to defend interest by citing Biblical precedent, and perhaps also to offend Christian propriety by drawing an overly graphic picture of animal sexuality. Bassanio's tale, we will remember, was noteworthy for its denial of evil. Shylock's tale of Jacob's resourceful breeding methods is set in a web of tricks and stratagems, aimed at amassing property and wealth by taking them away from others. Thus we know, though Shylock does not say so, that Jacob is the “third possessor” only because he tricked his father. We also know that Jacob's device of the sticks and the breeding ewes is a counter-stratagem to foil Laban's plan to send him away with nothing:

When Laban and himself were compremis'd,
That all the eanlings which were streak'd and pied
Should fall as Jacob's hire, the ewes being rank
In end of autumn turned to the rams,
And when the work of generation was
Between these woolly breeders in the act
The skilful shepherd pill'd me certain wands,
And in the doing of the deed of kind,
He stuck them up before the fulsome ewes,
Who then conceiving did in eaning time
Fall parti-color'd lambs, and those were Jacob's.
This was a way to thrive, and he was blest;
And thrift is blessing if men steal it not.


Shylock's grotesque pastoral sexualises interest as a kind of breeding and challenges with its farmyard realism and its subtext of cheating the prettified pastoral of the Christian.5 The Jew's story smells of dung. Although the Bible does not tell him this, he knows that the ewes were in heat at the end of autumn and he talks approvingly as a farmer would of the work of generation. An active participant in this work is Jacob, whom we imagine moving among the woolly breeders, wielding his wands with an energy for profit every bit as avid as the rams' for propagation.

The peeled wands are Shylock's version of the boyish arrows. Whereas those fly in pursuit of each other and can mirror each other but not reproduce, the wands are props in a scene of procreation. They are witnesses to conception but not passive ones, for they effect conception by controlling the colour of the offspring. In the Bible the significance of the peeled branches is clear. In Shakespeare's version, because of the contrast with Bassanio something less obvious may be understood. Bassanio's arrows are of a piece; innocent, unreproductive male identity is their message. Jacob's rods, on the other hand, are marked by and create difference. They are motley, white peeping through black and pied like the breed they induce. They are therefore sexualised, not only by being part of a scene of procreation but in bearing the marks of contrast, the cuts and slashes that make for difference. They are therefore a factor in increase and generation and a figure for the energetic breeding of kind and money for which the Jew stands but which the gentiles (or at least Bassanio and Antonio) profess to find unnatural.6

The connection between the flight of arrows and deep friendship between young men is at the heart of a Biblical episode very different from Shylock's but analogous to Bassanio's tale. The episode of Jonathan and David, the arrows and the anger of Saul (1 Samuel 20) is the Bible's most poignant and detailed account of friendship between men. The episode has been the subject of much analysis and it is not my purpose here to attempt more commentary on its art. I just want to consider the arrows. Unlike Bassanio's they are not “innocent,” even though they are shot in sport. They are part of a stratagem and aim to deliver a message from Jonathan to the hidden David: flee or come back. While Bassanio's shafts are about the flight and return of money, Jonathan's mark the tragic divide between friendship and separation. They do not stand for the love between men—this is openly and directly expressed in the story—but they elaborate its peripety as it is posed between closeness and separation. Finding the arrows, for Bassanio, means the return of debts and the justification of friendship. In 1 Samuel 20 the return of the arrows signals the dispersion of the friends. The boy who gathers them does not know this but Jonathan does; the hidden David does and so does the reader. In the Biblical story, then, the arrows are not a figure of the friendship and its fate, but they bear a message which it might be too dangerous to speak face to face. They are an authenticating detail because they make it possible for Jonathan to leave his father's house to practise archery in a rural scene where David can hide. Yet the true beauty of the arrows lies in their retreat from foreground to background when the message they bear cannot contain the emotional pressure of the love between friends and David comes out of hiding to embrace Jonathan and bid him farewell:

And as soon as the lad was gone, David arose out of a place toward the south and fell on his face to the ground, and bowed himself three times; and they kissed one another, and wept one with the other, until David exceeded.


In their role as a rhetorical device, Bassanio's arrows trace out a message he chooses not to speak directly, a request for more interest-free credit, coloured by an ambience of innocent male friendship. Both stories occur at the separation of the ways for two loving friends. Between David and Jonathan stands the jealousy and anger of the violent father and king. Between Antonio and Bassanio comes the lady of Belmont whose treasure, once opened, makes the noble yet sterile love-debt of friendship recede into the background. It can hold its own neither financially nor erotically against heterosexual wealth and procreation.

Yet procreation is apparently not as simple for Christians as it is for rams and ewes. All kinds of things get in the way. One of the severest conditions of the law of the father in Portia's Belmont condemns choosers of wrong caskets to refrain from marriage for the rest of their lives, which translating from the language of romance is the doom of castration. The Prince of Morocco seems to realise this as he droops off the stage:

Cold indeed, and labour lost:
Then farewell heat, and welcome frost!


In the Italian novella Il Pecorone, a probable source of Shakespeare's play, the Portia figure, a rich widow who can only be reached by sea, inverts the Shakespearean order. In The Merchant the wrong choice of casket leads to enforced celibacy; in Il Pecorone the widow demands proof of manhood before choosing the lucky suitor. Impotence on the crucial night costs the candidate not only his reputation but whatever wealth he has brought with him on his quest. Needless to say the lady drugs the candidates with a doctored potion before they retire and remains so to speak impregnable until the Bassanio figure, after two defeats and heavy loss of merchandise, tumbles to the stratagem, with the help of a maid, encounters the lady and wins the prize. Both in Shakespeare and in the Italian tale loss of manhood and loss of wealth are linked. In the more primitive version the phallic performance is the test; in the politer version the test is an apparently ethical one but failure unmans the suitor just as it denies him Portia's treasure.

The pleasant fiction of Shakespeare's play, that love releases money and makes children, is a way of imagining a profit motive that is legitimate, Christian and natural as opposed to the Jew's unnatural ways with ewes and money. Portia's use of a rhetoric of multiplication when she dedicates herself to Bassanio after his successful choice is an unashamed embrace of number and market value as valid criteria of worth as well as integrity and virtue:

                                        yet for you,
I would be trebled twenty times myself,
A thousand times more fair, ten thousand times more rich
That only to stand high in your account,
I might in virtues, beauties, livings, friends
Exceed account.


When the Lord said be fruitful and multiply he was probably not thinking of the profit motive, yet marrying money is a way of combining God's word with sound business practice. Increase is what the sex drive and the profit motive have in common, and the play labours hard to keep clear the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate increase while, in the background, lurks the example of homosexual love which, valuing identity, offers neither profit nor increase, only debt and sacrifice.

Gratiano, Bassanio's buffoonish friend, spells out the simplest way to profit in the direct and bawdy way unavailable to polite people. He is also getting married in Act III, not to money but to money's maid, Nerissa, and true to Venetian mores he turns the conventional coincidence into a money-making proposition:

We'll play with them the first boy for a thousand ducats.
What, and stake down?
No, we shall ne'er win at that sport, and stake down.


Getting a male child is the goal in a competition and a gamble, a game which is played not only for pleasure but also for profit. This is neither the innocent play of boyish arrows nor the aggressive hubristic interventionism of Jacob's peeled wands. It is a hazard (a word much used in the play), something like setting a merchant vessel on its journey without insurance, and for security all Gratiano has is what every Christian merchant should have: faith in God and confidence in one's upright stake. But that, as we know from the traditions of comedy, is easier for servants, and in our play consummation is delayed by more than two acts as both Antonio and the Jew intrude the obligations of friendship and debt into the space between the bride and bridegroom.

The dependence of the happy end on the Jew's claim for his bond is a major feature of the play's closing action and has been the subject of much commentary. My purpose in taking another look is to reconsider the all-important erotic/financial triangle which now comes into clear focus, and weigh the implications of the intriguingly similar threesome who play out a plot of love, power and debt in Sonnet 134.

When we listen to Bassanio telling Portia the bad news in the letter from Venice, we realise with a shock that these are the first passionate and urgent words we have heard from him in the whole casket scene:

                                        Here is a letter, lady,
The paper as the body of my friend,
And every word in it a gaping wound
Issuing life-blood.


The subjection of his friend's very life to Bassanio's success gives the young man's speech a physical immediacy that was never apparent in the formal phrases he spoke as Portia's suitor. That was the language of literary love; this merges word and paper with a suffering, dying body. It substitutes a real sacrifice for the very literary one that Portia imagined herself enacting in the tense moment before Bassanio's choice.

I stand for sacrifice


she says, comparing Bassanio to Hercules and herself to the captive Trojan maiden of the legend. Antonio's body bleeding his debt is in no legend; it is going to happen and every minute brings the sacrifice nearer.

No one can doubt the emotion the play invests in the relationship between the older merchant and his young kinsman. What is intriguing is the position of Portia vis-à-vis the two male points of the triangle. In the plot she is the saviour of Antonio and the releaser of his bond. But the sad fate she succeeds in preventing bears a strong emotional emphasis. Antonio's sacrifice would be a liebestod or a martyrdom, a lover's willing acceptance of the mortal debt which proves his love's worth and raises it above the love of women. This is what Antonio's farewell speech in court to Bassanio implies:

Commend me to your honourable wife,
Tell her the process of Antonio's end,
Say how I lov'd you, speak me fair in death;
And when the tale is told, bid her be judge
Whether Bassanio had not once a love.


When Portia intervenes to make the happy end possible, she robs the male romance of its only possible public consummation—the shedding of blood, for Shylock's cut would have fulfilled Antonio's tragic promise of purse and person to his friend. Here then as in a tragedy the boast of the hero, his willingness to go to the extreme, would become the cruel reality which vindicates his spirit and his integrity and his love even as it breaks his body. But a tragedy this is not.

As chief agent of the comic plot which is committed to happy endings, marriage beds and the release of large sums of money, Portia does her job well. But she is not only an agent of resolution; for if we put the plot of friendship in the foreground, she begins to look more like one of Frye's blocking characters whose function in comedy is to frustrate desire. Because of her, Antonio's love will not be remembered among the great love stories but will decline into a marginality best summed up by the merchant's pronounced singleness among the wedded couples who exit at the end.

The thoughts of this man so miraculously saved from death and penury but denied the enjoyment of his love cannot be put into words in the play. The enigma of the first scene's melancholy is never solved. But a reading of Sonnet 134 together with the play's closing movement offers a way of putting into words the feelings of the necessary loser in the struggle over the young man's love. If we think of the voice in the sonnet as Antonio's, we may go on to say that he is addressing someone who is a composite of both his rivals, a woman and usurer.

So now I have confess'd that he is thine,
And I my self am mortgaged to thy will,
Myself I'll forfeit, so that other mine,
Thou wilt restore to be my comfort still:
But thou wilt not, nor he will not be free,
For thou art covetous, and he is kind;
He learn'd but surety-like to write for me
Under that bond that him as fast doth bind.
The statute of thy beauty thou wilt take,
Thou usurer, that puts forth all to use,
And sue a friend came debtor for my sake,
So him I lose through my unkind abuse.
          Him have I lost, thou hast both him and me,
          He pays the whole, and yet I am not free.

The sonnet's woman is an exaggerated Portia seen through the eyes of a defeated rival. She is a powerful woman who has the formidable assets of beauty, money and the law at her command to wield in unequal battle against the loser, the weaker, poorer less resourceful male.7 In the sonnet the woman's sexuality and wealth, kept apart decorously in the play (but not in Il Pecorone), coalesce in predatory and unacceptable ways. Like Shylock, she does not play by the gentile rules of business but invests herself in erotic transactions which bring her profit and power, seemingly without risk. There is much anger in the “all” of “Thou usurer, that puts forth all to use” because it points to the available sexuality of a woman who can exploit it for her profit in the market place, as opposed to the inhibited sexuality of a man whose all in the love for a friend can only mean the surrender of everything in death, Antonio's total commitment of purse and person for Bassanio put forth all but expected no use. Giving up his life for his friend's debt would place Antonio in an act of exchange which belongs to the symbolic pattern of the arrows. There can be no profit; either the two find each other and rest content with a doubleness that can produce no increase, or one is lost and a debt remains. When profit is impossible loss is more than likely.

The financial and sexual battle is lost and not even the last desperate move of a bankrupt—“Myself I'll forfeit”—will achieve its purpose. The woman's wealth and sex give her complete control over the men who are clients for her services. Unlike Shylock's bond, her statute of beauty is lawyer proof, for there is no appeal to any judge or legal precedent to restrain the reach of her sex.8 She will take whatever its power incites her to take, and the language of law in the sonnet is sarcastic because eros will have nothing to do with the rules and codes of society.

While the analogy between poem and play holds as long as we hear the resigned male voice of loss and the image it creates of the predatory, profiteering woman/usurer, his rival in business and love, yet it becomes harder to maintain when we consider the position in the erotic triangle of the younger man, that “other self” with whose loss the sonnet tries to come to terms. Like the play's Bassanio, the young man here is something of a cipher. He is passive to the woman's predatory desire. She is “covetous” while he is merely “kind”; instead of willing something positively he “will not be free”; essentially, therefore, he is possessed, and to the discomfort of the speaker, acquiesces in this his slavish state.

The one aspect of the young man that contradicts his passivity is his activity as a go-between in the interest of his friend, an action which creates the entanglement in which he is content to rest. The language the speaker in the sonnet uses to describe this going-between, words like debt, bond, surety, is the language of Antonio's erotic/financial commitment in the play. In the play the debt and the bond put the merchant at the mercy of the Jew usurer; in the sonnet they put the young man in the power of the woman usurer. Both men bind themselves out of friendship and are trapped by statute and law. But in substituting the law of sex and beauty for the legal practices of Venice, the sonnet dramatises the necessary defeat of Antonio, for the power of the covetous woman, limited by no rules, is also based on the willingness of her victim. He will not be free because being bound to a woman is kind (remember Shylock's description of Jacob's sheep engaged in “doing of the deed of kind”), or in other words the nature of sexual relations as God intended them. In the trial scene of the play it is Bassanio who declares his willingness to “pay the whole” (Portia's money of course) but is still not able to free Antonio from Shylock's grasp. In the sonnet what is imagined is not just an offer, as in the play, but the young man's actual payment of the whole which in the transactions of sex means the placing of his body at the service of a beautiful usurer.9 Yet as the last line says so explicitly, such a payment frees no one, which is what we might imagine to be the subtext of Antonio contemplating, in a jaundiced way, the union of Bassanio and Portia at the end of the play.

By postulating this hybrid Jewoman, part Portia, part Shylock, Antonio's loss of Bassanio to the heiress of Belmont, inevitable and natural in the plot of romantic comedy, becomes darker and more painful. The convention of the happy ending would have us believe that the characters have been freed of the threat of ruin and death, the burdens of poverty and the unnatural state of virginity. The sonnet prompts us to view things differently. By twinning full payment of the debt with the continuation of bondage, the sonnet tells the adult story that hides behind the fairy tale. Profit in love always involves some loss. Love is not the equal exchange of either the homosexual paradise or the heterosexual innocence of “my love is mine and I am his.” Rather it is a matter of debt and possession, lending and repayment with interest out of which the stronger party emerges possessing everything. The combination of usury and beauty is devastating because the risk is always the suitor's, never the creditor's.

In the play's last scene Portia plays the Jew as well as the woman when the riddle of the rings is posed and the almost tragic entanglements of the past are recapitulated. When the impasse of the missing rings is at its crisis and everything hangs on Portia's lips, Antonio takes the action back to its very beginning, the forfeit of his body to the Jew in order to obtain credit for his friend. Seeking a way out of the impasse, Antonio proposes repeating his catastrophic gesture by binding himself once again, this time to Portia, for Bassanio's welfare:

I once did lend my body for his wealth,
Which, but for him that had your husband's ring
Had quite miscarried. I dare be bound again,
My soul upon the forfeit, that your lord
Will never more break faith advisedly.


Read one way this gallant gesture, a form of words rather than a sinister contract, is a symbolic act of healing. It replaces the evil corporal bond to Shylock with a fortunate binding of soul. Portia's act of forgiveness and Bassanio's faithfulness as a husband will ensure that this forfeit is never brought to court. Yet despite the obvious differences, Antonio's replay of his fatal move places Portia firmly in the position once occupied by Shylock, even as Antonio, “the unhappy subject of these quarrels,” comes once again between the young couple and the consummation of their marriage. On the surface this is not his wish, though it has been the case since the arrival of his troubled letter in Act III. On the surface of it Antonio's credit is what enables Bassanio to undertake his venture in the first place. But beneath the surface, the radical stance of Antonio's commitment, his talk of “extremest means,” his offer of everything, would reach its unnatural but logical conclusion in the surrender of his body for Bassanio and his consequent usurpation of Portia's place as true lover.

So the benign if melancholic Antonio of the plot may be offset by the darker Antonio, the lover whose necessarily unrequited love can only find release and expression in death. It is this voice that speaks in the sonnet, offering to tie himself in debt to the sexwealth of a ruthless beauty, but asking desperately for the young man, the quid pro quo that Antonio could never mention in the play. For a moment at the end of the play when he turns to Portia with his new offer of forfeit, Antonio could have quoted the sonnet:

Him have I lost, thou hast both him and me.

Even in the final tableau, when he has won back his wealth, he is, in the sonnet's words, still “not free.” For his release from sacrifice is an anti-climax. He has nowhere to go. So although wealth is spread around liberally, like manna, at the end it is the unfinished business between the merchant and Bassanio that occupies the mind.

Because this business provides the only selfless motive in the play, and because its burden is the only unrequited and unrequitable love, it sets up the contrasts between profit and sacrifice, interest and love, as contrasts not only between Jew and gentile but between woman and man. Both Jews and women are profiteers whose treasure grows with use, whereas the merchant can only give his purse and his person and hope for no return. Is it any wonder then that this figure, who begins his part in the play by taking refuge in ignorance:

In sooth, I know not why I am so sad

approaches its end by taking refuge in silence:

I am dumb.


  1. All Shakespeare citations are to the Riverside edition, Boston 1974.

  2. Auden in his essay on the play accepts Bassanio's rhetoric of innocence with no reservations. Bassanio, writes Auden, “is one of those people whose attitude towards money is that of a child; it will somehow always appear by magic when really needed” (232).

  3. This conjunction is placed in its economic setting by Lars Engle. Engle sees that “A Christian merchant, preserving homosocial connection to a lord, cannot afford to understand the parable of economic relations offered by the Jew” (32). But he fails to draw a precise parallel between the rival parables. For a thorough attempt to place the play in a historical, Venetian economic and legal context (without emphasis on sexuality) see Walter Cohen's article.

  4. It is interesting to note how the economic implications of the Biblical text so transparent to contemporary critics were of minimal importance to a scholar like Barbara K. Lewalski, who in a comprehensive article gives little attention to the Laban/Jacob episode, seeing it as a move in an essentially moral conflict between Christian venture (good) and Jewish thrift (bad).

  5. Yet as Ruth Nevo points out (1980, 127), the contrast is also between Jacob and Bassanio as different kinds of suitors. For all his cunning Jacob labours for the hand of his bride. Bassanio, like the other young Venetians, is born into idleness. That is why he needs Portia.

  6. The unnaturalness of the juxtaposition of friendship and breeding together with the undertone of barrenness (as a natural feature of friendship as well as an ideological feature of metal) is apparent in the scornful way Antonio challenges Shylock to lend him money: “… lend it not / As to thy friends for when did friendship take / A breed for barren metal of his friend?” (I.iii.128-29)

  7. Writing about the sexual triangle in the sonnets, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wishes that the sonnets were a novel so that the reader could seek refuge from their self-reflexive language in a fully rendered and described set of social and sexual relations (46). She wants to know just who these people are. My analogy with the play does not give an answer but helps to characterise the social and sexual scene.

  8. But see the discussion of the sonnet in Booth's edition, pp. 463-6. In his commentary on “statute” (l. 9) Booth gives equal weight to the language of legal rights and limitations and that of sexual bondage.

  9. Joel Fineman, discussing the sonnet (285-6), argues that the pun whole/hole links the sex of the young man and the woman with the emptiness or disjunction within the poet and his project of writing sonnets. Fineman's point about the sound of “whole” as “pure languageness” which denies the univocity of traditional poetic language is finely made but his fierce emphasis on the rhetoric leaves the financial and legal language largely uninterpreted.


Auden, W. H. “Brothers and Others.” In The Dyer's Hand. New York: Vintage Books, 1968, pp. 218-237.

Booth, Stephen. Ed. Shakespeare's Sonnets. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1980.

Cohen, Walter. “The Merchant of Venice and the Possibilities of Historical Criticism.” ELH 49 (1982), 765-89.

Engle, Lars. “‘Thrift is Blessing’: Exchange and Explanation in The Merchant of Venice.Shakespeare Quarterly 37 (1986), 20-37.

Evans, G. B. et al. Eds. The Riverside Shakespeare. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.

Fineman, Joel. Shakespeare's Perjured Eye. Berkeley: U of California P, 1986.

Lewalski, Barbara K. “Biblical Allusion and Allegory in The Merchant of Venice.Shakespeare Quarterly 13 (1962), 327-343.

Nevo, Ruth. Comic Transformations in Shakespeare. London and New York: Methuen, 1980.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia UP, 1985.

Jan H. Blits (essay date September 1981)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 their view of their humanity when, bemoaning Rome's acquiescence to Caesar, he says,

But, woe the while! our fathers' minds are dead,
And we are govern'd with our mothers' spirits;
Our yoke and sufferance show us womanish.


Rome is a man's world. No one in Caesar has a good word for women. Even Portia, Brutus' noble wife, is a misogynist. Even she, ashamed of her woman's heart, insists that the best human qualities neither come from nor belong to women.2 If a woman like herself happens to show them, she does so in spite of her sex. She is “stronger than [her] sex” (II.i.296); she is manly.

That a woman must somehow overcome her nature to show the highest virtue points to the close correlation in Caesar between manliness and rising up or rising above the common or merely human things. Throughout the play men's activities and ambitions are repeatedly expressed in terms of standing, rising, climbing to new heights, “soar[ing] above the view of men” (I.i.74), and reaching “the upmost round” (II.i.24) while scorning everything below; and their defects and defeats expressed in the contrary terms of bending, bowing, lying, crouching, fawning, falling, sinking, kneeling, shaking, trembling, and melting.3 The manly is associated with the firm, the brilliant, the cold, the independent, the high and the noble; the womanish, with the soft, the dull, the warm, the dependent, the low and the lowly. The manly is the outstanding; the womanish, the obscure. The manly both contains and confers distinctions. The womanish does neither. Like the body, it is the great equalizer. It tends to level all important differences.4

Shakespeare shows that the manly love of distinction engenders a characteristic attitude towards the world. It is one of resisting and overcoming all the things that threaten to drag a man down or overshadow him. This fundamental Roman stance is reflected in part by the great importance attached to wakefulness. Early on the ides of March, Brutus tells the other conspirators that he has been “awake all night” (II.i.88). Indeed,

Since Cassius first did whet me against Caesar,
I have not slept.

(ll. 61-62)

His servant, Lucius, can “Enjoy the honey-heavy dew of slumber,” because, as Brutus says, the boy has none of the “busy care[s]” that occupy “the brains of men” (ll. 230, 232). But the conspirators and Caesar alike have been kept awake by just such cares. Only those outside the political realm belong in bed. Thus Brutus sends Lucius back to bed soon after awakening him and, shortly afterwards, tells Portia, too, to “go to bed” when she complains of his having left “his wholesome bed” (ll. 237ff.). But he himself is aroused to act against Caesar by Cassius' anonymous note accusing him of sleeping and urging him to awake (ll. 46ff.); and then, arguing that they need nothing but their Roman cause to “prick” them to action, he spurs his co-conspirators on by associating “The melting spirits of women”—in contrast to “th' insuppressive mettle of our spirits”—with each man returning “to his idle bed” (ll. 114ff.).5 It is not going too far to say that from the Roman point of view nothing very interesting ever happens in bed.6

Brutus and the others understand the private world to be destructive of manliness. As he indicates at Sardis shortly before the decisive battle of Philippi, to succumb to sleep is to succumb to necessity. Brutus finally puts his work aside and prepares for bed only because “nature must obey necessity” (IV.iii.226). Natural necessity, he implies, is not part of his nature. His noble nature is to oppose necessity. So while women and children “look for a time of rest” (l. 261), Brutus “will niggard” sleep with only “a little rest” (l. 227). He opposes “murd'rous slumber” (l. 266) because he opposes any form of obscurity. Men like him resist all forms of reclining because to recline is to surrender one's standing in the world. Their characteristic opposition to the earth's downward pull is well expressed by Alexander the Great's remark that, more than anything else, sleep and sex reminded him he was not a god.7

The specific character of manly virtue is indicated by Portia, who gashes herself in the thigh to prove that she is strong enough to keep Brutus' secret plans in confidence. The important difference between the sexes, she seems to believe, is that men are stronger than their bodies but women are not. Women are inconstant because they are weaker than bodily fears and pains.8 One might therefore suppose that their characteristic trait is concern with necessary rather than with noble things. But Portia's subsequent actions reveal something she herself fails to see. The self-inflicted wound she calls “strong proof of my constancy” (II.i.299) turns out to be no proof at all. As soon as Brutus leaves, she is overwhelmed by anxious fears for his welfare, and her strong “patience” (l. 301) and manly endurance quickly vanish. There are evidently worse tortures for her than bodily pains and even death. Love for her husband makes her more a woman than the superiority to her body makes her a man. If, as she says, “The heart of woman” is a “weak thing” (II.iv.39-40), its weakness, her actions seem to show, stems not from fear but from affection, from loving another more than herself.

While manliness no doubt sustains a timocracy like the Roman republic, such an honor-loving regime is often praised for fostering fraternity. Its citizens, bound together by a common ancestry and upbringing, are free and equal; they respect the mutual claims to rule that only manly virtue can enforce. It is therefore fitting that only “man” is mentioned in Caesar more often than “love” or “friendship”9 and the most elaborated friendship in the play is that of the leaders of the republican faction. In fact, Brutus and Cassius call each other “brother” as many as eight times10 although Shakespeare never explains that they are brothers-in-law.11 Shakespeare's silence is appropriately misleading. Brutus and Cassius' fraternal form of address seems entirely elective and a sign of the sort of friendship nurtured by the manly regime under which they live and which they die defending.12 Their friendship does, I think, epitomize the republic, but not as just suggested or usually understood.

The implications of the Roman view of virtue are strikingly revealed when the tensions inherent in Brutus and Cassius' friendship surface in their ugly quarrel at Sardis late in the play. Indeed, manliness and friendship are the express themes of the quarrel. Two principal threads, closely tied, run through the scene: 1) presuming upon Cassius' expressed love, Brutus challenges his manliness and, in particular, demeans and taunts his proud anger (esp. IV.iii.38-50); and 2) he refuses to confess any love until Cassius shames himself by announcing that he utterly despairs of Brutus' contempt and will do anything to have his love (ll. 92-106). What is perhaps most telling, however, occurs not during the quarrel itself but during their apparent reconciliation (ll. 106ff.). Cassius' previous conciliatory efforts notwithstanding, Brutus still makes him solicit an explicit admission of love and forces him to plead for it, moreover, by accepting Brutus' degrading characterization of his anger as the effect of an irritable, unmanly disposition (ll. 39-50, 106-112). Thus Cassius, apologizing for having gotten angry in the first place, diffidently asks,

Have not you love enough to bear with me,
When that rash humour which my mother gave me
Makes me forgetful?

And Brutus answers with only a meager “Yes,” to which he quickly adds, sealing Cassius' disgrace,

                                                                      … and from henceforth
When you are over-earnest with your Brutus,
He'll think your mother chides, and leave you so.

(ll. 118-122)

Brutus confesses only to having enough love to overlook Cassius' womanish spirit. He shall excuse his “over-earnestness” because he shall regard such fits of temper as the chiding of Cassius' mother rather than the spirited anger proper to a man.

Men such as Brutus are ambitious for love. They wish to be loved rather than to love because being loved closely resembles being honored.13 Both are tributes of esteem. Love between such men is therefore jealous; like honor, it is ardently sought and only begrudgingly given. Unrequited “shows of love” (I.ii.33,46) therefore amount to confessions of envy. A Roman, moreover, is a man's man. He admires manly men and seeks love from men he himself could love. The erotic Antony is disparaged by his own men in Antony and Cleopatra not simply because he flees battle to pursue Cleopatra but more generally because he fights bravely chiefly to impress a woman and win her love. As one of his officers complains, “so our leader's led, / And we are women's men” (Ant., III.vii.69-70). The republican contest for love, however, is a contest in manliness for the love of other manly men. Moments before the quarrel, Brutus, anticipating the heart of the quarrel, contrasts true and false friends. The difference turns wholly on manly strength. Using a metaphor from war to describe what constitutes a false friend, he says,

But hollow men, like horses hot at hand,
Make gallant show and promise of their mettle;
But when they should endure the bloody spur,
They fall their crests, and like deceitful jades
Sink in the trial.


False friends are hollow warriors. They lack the dauntless strength they pretend to have. The quarrel brings out the significance of this view of virtue and friendship: the manly contest for love issues finally in a struggle to crush a friend by unmanning his proud heart. Love is not an end in itself, but rather a means to win victory in the defeat and shame of a friend.14

Manliness is a contentious virtue. It is a “virtue” that “cannot live / Out of the teeth of emulation” (II.iii.11-12). Untempered, it is hungry, devouring, and finally self-consuming. Nothing could lower Cassius more in Brutus' esteem than his swallowing his repeated abuse and openly confessing that he is “Hated by one he loves; brav'd by his brother” (IV.iii.95). But manly love is spirited, not affectionate. It does not aim at collapsing the distance between men into intimacy but rather at expanding that distance to the point where friendship finally becomes impossible, as Caesar himself most vividly demonstrates. As manliness is displayed primarily in battle, so the combat between warriors does not stop at the city's walls. It pervades their loves as well as their enmities. Rome's civil strife seems to be Roman friendship writ large.

Antony, the major counterexample, is in many ways the exception who confirms the rule. No one can doubt that his love is spirited and has an ambitious quality. But his sought-for victory in love is altogether different from Brutus'. Just as he declares at the outset of Antony and Cleopatra that the “nobleness of life” is for lovers to embrace

                                                                      … when such a mutual pair
And such a twain can do't, in which I bind,
On pain of punishment, the world to weet
We stand up peerless.


so too, when he thinks Cleopatra has killed herself for him, he wishes to end his own life so that, reunited in death, they can win even greater acknowledgment as a matchless pair:

Eros!—I come, my queen: Eros!—Stay for me,
Where souls do couch on flowers, we'll hand in hand,
And with our sprightly port make the ghosts gaze:
Dido, and her Aeneas, shall want troops,
And all the haunt be ours.


Antony wants to out-love all other great lovers and be recognized as the greatest lover the world has ever known. The achievement he imagines may imply the defeat of all other heroic lovers, but his victory would in no sense be the defeat of his own lover. He does not seek to win another's “hot” love (JC, IV.ii.19) while coldly withholding his own. On the contrary, his envisaged triumph is shared by Cleopatra and is, moreover, their shared glory as a singular couple. Indeed, it rests on the wished-for prospect that nothing at all, not even their bodies, will ever again separate their souls. It is the victory of the utmost devotion and intimacy between “a mutual pair.”

Antony neither resents Caesar's domination like Cassius, nor seeks to dominate other men's hearts like Brutus. Yet, while having great love for Caesar, he never presumes an equality with him. His ready submission may therefore seem to foreshadow the Empire where the Emperor has no equals and all citizens are reduced to private men subject to his will.16 But Antony loves Caesar solely for his superlative nobility and not for his favors. To him, Caesar was “the noblest man / That ever lived in the tide of times” (III.i.256-257). Antony's heart is ruled, as Cassius correctly fears, by “the ingrafted love he bears to Caesar” (II.i.184), a love which Caesar's murder turns into the most savage desire for revenge. It is not hard to see that what Antony gives to Cleopatra, or gives up for her, is meant to measure his love.17 Not only his giving her “realms and islands” so bounteously that they are like small change “dropp'd from his pocket” (V.ii.92), but also, and even more importantly, the battles he loses or, more exactly, the losses he actively pursues, the “Kingdoms and provinces” he “kiss[es] away” (III.x.7-8), and most of all his self-inflicted death—all this is meant to measure his overflowing love.18 The same is true of his ferocious vengeance for Caesar's assassination. However cruel and even inhuman, the vengeance is, above all, an act of giving, not of taking. Its indiscriminate savagery is intended to prove “That I did love thee, Caesar, O, 'tis true!” (III.i.194). It shows that he will spare nothing—that he will even sink to the level of a beast and scourge all human or humane feeling from the innocent as well as the guilty (III.i.254-275)—for his love. As different as they appear, Antony's terrible vengeance for Caesar is of a piece with his lavish gifts and enormous sacrifices for Cleopatra. It manifests a heart that will give up everything dear for his “strucken” “deer” (III.i.209). This “Herculean Roman” (Ant., I.iii.84) is nothing if not a thoroughly immoderate lover.

In contrast to Antony, “lean and hungry” Cassius is austere and unerotic, often petty and envious, and never playful.19 No one in Caesar speaks of the shame of unmanliness as much or as vehemently as he. Yet, notwithstanding his ardent wish to be entirely spirited and always manly, Cassius is the leading republican example of the tension between manliness and womanliness. If Brutus is lately “with himself at war” (I.ii.45) because of his conflicting loves for Rome and Caesar, Cassius is always at war with himself because of the conflicting sides of his mixed but unstable nature—a womanly side drawing him towards others and a manly one pulling him back or away. Although he is unquestionably shrewder than Brutus, Cassius' temper is much more volatile and his passions far less restrained. Despite his strong self-contempt for any real or imagined trace of softness, his affection is stirred as easily by sorrow as his manly resentment is provoked by envy, and he often shows solicitous care for others, even his equals. He alone shows deep feeling at the news of Cicero's murder; and in sharp contrast to Brutus, who boasts that “No man bears sorrow better” and then feigns ignorance of his wife's death to impress other men with his Stoic endurance, he is willing to let others see how much he takes to heart the “insupportable and touching loss” of Portia. Cassius may have “in art” as much manly patience as Brutus to endure Portia's suicide “like a Roman,” “But yet my nature,” he realizes or perhaps confesses, “could not bear it so” (IV.iii.143-194). If he appears more concerned than Brutus with manliness, he does so, paradoxically, precisely because he lacks Brutus' manly constancy and reserve.

The man Cassius calls his “best friend” is his lieutenant Titinius (V.iii.35). Their friendship is probably the nearest example in Caesar of the sort the republic claims to foster and Brutus suggests when he describes “hearts / Of brothers' temper” as sharing “all kind love, good thoughts, and reverence” (III.i.174-176). Cassius and Titinius do indeed have mutual regard and good will. Yet their friendship is not altogether unlike Brutus and Cassius'. It too demonstrates, though in a different way, that manliness separates honor-loving men. Appropriately, the scene at Philippi depicting their friendship also presents their deaths. Each kills himself, blaming himself at least in part for the other's death. Their suicides, however, are not the same. Whereas Titinius can feel great sorrow and affection for his commander without losing pride in his Romanness (V.iii.51-90), Cassius cannot wish to die for love of another without feeling shame at his own unmanliness. During the battle, Cassius, appealing expressly to Titinius' love for him, asks him to take his (Cassius') horse and ride to where he can tell whether certain troops are friend or enemy; and, moments later, learning that Titinius has been encircled by horsemen shouting for joy, he jumps to the wrong conclusion. Deciding then to kill himself, he says in disgust,

O, coward that I am, to live so long,
To see my best friend ta'en before my face.


The qualities surrounding Cassius' death are considered unmanly by all the major figures in the play. Rashness and a fatalistic despair, born of weariness and melancholic self-doubt, lead to his mistake, and his own imagined cowardice determines his act. Yet whatever else it is—and it certainly is many things20—Cassius' suicide is an act of friendship. Because his manliness is partly tempered by its opposite, he can wish to die for another man who soon returns the tribute in kind. But, importantly, Cassius tries to stifle his fond wish. Ashamed of all his unmanly qualities, he intends his suicide to repudiate the side of his nature that allows him to choose death thinking of anything but his honor. Ruled by his spirited heart, he kills himself, ultimately, more out of manly pride or shame than love or sorrow. The fundamentally Roman quality of his friendship with Titinius is indicated both by his suppression of his own affection and by the way each man emulates the other's brave death. But it is pointed up most of all by the more basic fact that Cassius' “best friend,” though a nobleman, is not his equal. Whatever closeness there may be between them depends decisively on the distance their unmistakable inequality preserves.

As Cassius' suicide points to the limits of closeness among Roman men, so Portia's shows the limits of sharing within a Roman marriage. It marks the unattainability of the intimacy she desires from a virtuous marriage. Portia's attempt to persuade Brutus to confide in her contains the play's only expression of intimate, erotic love. Calling herself “your self, your half,” she tries to “charm” him

                                                  … by my once commended beauty,
By all your vows of love, and that great vow
Which did incorporate and make us one.


Love's desire or goal seems to inspire love's own special language. Lovers speak as if nothing at all separated them. Love not only makes or shows them equals, but even incorporates them and makes them indistinguishable parts of “one.” Yet Portia makes this plea upon her knees. She says she would not have to kneel if Brutus were gentle. His customary gentleness, she suggests, implies or presupposes mutual respect. We see for ourselves, however, that Brutus is in fact much gentler with unequals than equals, and gentlest of all with his servant boy, Lucius. Portia nevertheless associates his recent ungentleness with his reticence and distance. “Within the bond of marriage,” she continues, “tell me, Brutus,”

Is it excepted I should know no secrets
That appertain to you? Am I your self
But, as it were, in sort or limitation,
To keep with you at meals, comfort your bed,
And talk to you sometimes? Dwell I but in the suburbs
Of your good pleasure? If it be no more,
Portia is Brutus' harlot, not his wife.

(ll. 280-287)

But because she is “his wife,” Portia is indeed Brutus' “self / But, as it were, in sort or limitation.” And her metaphor of “suburbs” as well as her subsequent self-inflicted wound tells us why. “You are my true and honourable wife,” Brutus assures her,

As dear to me as are the ruddy drops
That visit my sad heart.

(ll. 288-290)

Portia may be “dear” to him,21 but Brutus' manly virtue rests on his valuing his heart more than his blood, his public life more than his marriage. As her own metaphor of “suburbs” ironically anticipates, Portia only “visits” Brutus' heart; she does not “dwell” there. The love of fame and honor does.

Portia wishes her conjugal plea would succeed, that Brutus would tell her what “by the right and virtue of my place / I ought to know of” (ll. 269-270). Yet, as her having already taken steps to prove herself “stronger than [her] sex” (l. 296) indicates, she never really expected it would. Recognizing that Brutus could never consider a woman his equal, she thinks she must prove herself a man to win his confidence. She realizes that, to the extent she is a woman, Brutus will never give her his trust. She fails to realize, however, that, to the extent she proves herself a man, he can no more unfold himself to her than to any other man (cf. I.ii.38-40). Since honor requires him to hide his weakness from everyone he respects and whose respect he seeks, her manly proof can succeed no better than her conjugal plea. Although Brutus at last promises to reveal his secrets, he in fact leaves home just moments later and does not return before Caesar's assassination.22 Portia's self-inflicted wound succeeds only in shaming him to bear his troubles with greater manly patience. It inspires his prayer to be worthy of such a “noble wife” (ll. 302-303).23

Portia does not really understand the virtue she tries to emulate. She has too exalted a view of manliness to see its limitations. She recognizes that manliness involves the sort of strength that makes one superior to bodily pains and pleasures, but not that at the same time and for the same reason it also tends to make one superior to personal affection and sorrow. She is drawn to Brutus because of his virtue and imagines he would be drawn to her because of the same. Believing manliness the highest virtue, she also believes it supports or gives rise to every excellent human quality as well. She does not, or perhaps cannot, see that the virtue she most admires resists the sharing she desires as it strives for noble distinction, that it distances men from one another as it distances them from their own bodies. In both a literal and a figurative sense, the distance between Portia and Brutus leads to her death. Her suicide, which closely parallels her sudden loss of constancy when Brutus leaves home after her manly proof, is the piteous culmination of the madness caused by her extreme “impatience” for his return from the war and her desperate “grief” over the growing power of his Caesarian foes (IV.iii.151-155). Her touching death shows just how much her happiness and even her life depend on the closeness and well-being of the man she loves. Portia is the only character in Caesar to die solely for the love of another. Despite her real shame at the weakness of a woman's heart, hers is the only suicide not meant to prove manly strength.

No suicide is less like Portia's than Brutus'. Everyone understands his, quite properly, to have been a manly, death-defying act.24 By killing himself in high Roman fashion, Brutus deprives his enemies of the honor of killing or capturing him. In another sense as well, however, “no man else hath honor by his death” (V.v.57). Brutus, like Caesar, dies tasting his unshared glory. The very last time he mentions Cassius is when he comes upon his and Titinius' corpses:

Are yet two Romans living such as these?
The last of all the Romans, fare thee well!
It is impossible that ever Rome
Should breed thy fellow. Friends, I owe moe tears
To this dead man than you shall see me pay.
I shall find time, Cassius, I shall find time.


Acknowledging the republican cause has been lost, Brutus praises Cassius in a way befitting what the republic had always stood for. He praises him and Titinius in the same breath. He praises them, in other words, as equals, as fellow citizens, as sons of Rome (cf. V.iii.63). For himself, however, Brutus seeks preeminent distinction, not republican equality. Just as he never again mentions Portia (even in soliloquy) after stoically bidding her farewell at Sardis (IV.iii.189-191), so he forgets Cassius entirely when, about to kill himself, he envisions the glory he shall win for his life:

My heart doth joy that yet in all my life
I found no man but he was true to me.
I shall have glory by this losing day
More than Octavius and Mark Antony
By this vile conquest shall attain unto.
So fare you well at once; for Brutus' tongue
Hath almost ended his life's history.
Night hangs upon mine eyes; my bones would rest,
That have but labour'd to attain this hour.


Brutus' thoughts center on himself. He imagines his fame and glory as his alone, neither blurred nor obscured by any fellow Roman. More importantly and surprisingly, however, he sees his personal victory undiminished and perhaps even enhanced by his country's collapse. His “life's history” somehow stands above or apart from Rome. Brutus had of course claimed to be guided only by his country's good. “I know no personal cause to spurn at him,” he had said of Caesar, “but for the general” (II.i.11-12). Indeed, Caesar's slaying, he had argued, was a personal sacrifice: “Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more” (III.ii.22-23). Moreover, as the sacrifice of a dear friend was proof of his fully public-spirited virtue, so too was his declared willingness to kill himself if necessary for the good of Rome: “as I slew my best lover for the good of Rome,” he had pledged at Caesar's funeral, “I have the same dagger for myself, when it shall please my country to need my death” (III.ii.46-48).25 Yet, when Brutus does finally turn his sword upon himself, Rome's welfare is absent from his thoughts. He speaks proudly of his personal “joy” and “glory,” but while in effect eulogizing himself, he says not a word in praise of the republic or to lament its passing.26 Indeed, his only allusion to Rome is that he shall have more glory than her conquerors.27 His personal triumph eclipses the “vile conquest” of Rome herself.

Brutus sees his end as epitomizing and completing his virtuous life. He regards his death as far more than a last-ditch effort to salvage some honor from defeat, even while he understands suicide as the only honorable choice left to him (V.v.23-25; see also V.i.98-113). His end is his crowning conquest in manly love. Just as Lucilius bravely risks his own disgrace and death for the sake of defending Brutus' manly honor (V.iv.12-25; see also V.v.58-59), so, likewise, the refusal of Brutus' “poor remains of friends” to kill him when he asks them to fills his heart with joy because he understands their reluctance to spring from love (V.v.1-42).28 Brutus believes the personal loyalty and sacrifices of his loving admirers and friends serve to show how, to the last, he is held in esteem by Rome. In more than the most obvious way, his death is Caesar's fitting revenge. For in Brutus' own eyes the ultimate measure of his fame and glory is not his public-spirited devotion to his country but his countrymen's personal devotion to him.29 In the end, the virtue of the “Soul of Rome” (II.i.321) shows itself as manliness, not patriotism. The Roman love of distinction, spurring him to master other men's hearts, separates Brutus finally not only from his friends and family, but even, or perhaps especially, from Rome herself.

Brutus does of course win singular praise and glory. Antony, who calls him “the noblest Roman of them all,” says,

His life was gentle, and all the elements
So mix'd in him, that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, “This was a man!”


In spite of Antony's generous praise, or rather precisely because of the ambiguity of “a man,” the untempered affirmation of manliness seems ultimately to issue in the repudiation of one's “mix'd” nature. Even in “gentle Brutus,” the Roman view of excellence encourages the desire to have all of the manly and none of the womanly qualities. Stressing hardness, distance, and assertiveness, it teaches men a willingness to risk simple cruelty and callousness in order to avoid all signs of softness, dependence, and weakness. Brutus, we saw, describes “hearts / Of brothers' temper” as sharing “all kind love, good thoughts, and reverence.” But his own actions, particularly in the quarrel with his “brother” Cassius, remind us that while Rome was founded by a pair of brothers, even her own traditional accounts depict her sacred origins as lying not in fraternity but fratricide.30 Moreover, just as Shakespeare frequently reminds us of the literal meaning of Brutus' name,31 so he also reminds us that those same Roman accounts say Romulus was nurtured by a she-wolf.32 Shakespeare, I think, truly admires Roman virtue. In Caesar he shows that such excellence does indeed involve more than human strength. But Shakespeare's appreciation of manly virtue is by no means unqualified. His portrayal of Rome, like Rome's own traditional accounts of her foundations, suggests that the Romans ultimately debase the human in order to elevate the man.


  1. References are to the Arden editions of Julius Caesar, ed. T. S. Dorsch, and Antony and Cleopatra, ed. M. R. Ridley (London: Methuen, 1964).

  2. II.i.292ff.; II.iv.6-9, 39-40. For the Roman patriots' disparaging their maternal origins as much as they revere their paternal origins, see I.ii.111-114, 156-159; I.iii.80-84; II.i.294-297; IV.iii.118-122; V.iii.67-71; V.iv.1-11. Note also that “ancestor(s)” always refers only to men: I.ii.111, I.iii.80-84, II.i.53-54, III.ii.51. For the fact that “virtue” derives from the Latin word for “man,” see Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, II.43.

  3. E.g., I.i.72-75; I.ii.99-136; II.i.21-27, 118, 142, 167; III.i.31-77, 122-137, 148-150, 204-210; IV.ii.23-27; IV.iii.38-50, 66-69; V.i.41-44; V.iii.57-64.

  4. I.ii.268-272; I.iii.80-84; II.i.122, 292-297; IV.iv.6-10, 39-40.

  5. See also I.iii.164, II.i.98-99; and cf. in context IV.iii.92ff. For Lucius, see further IV.iii.235-271. And for Caesar's estimation of “such men as sleep a-nights,” see I.ii.189f. Also, note II.ii.116-117.

  6. Just as the possibility of a Roman woman warrior like Antony's wife Fulvia is totally suppressed in Caesar (see Ant., I.ii.85-91; II.i.40; II.ii.42-44, 61-66, 94-98; also I.i.20, 28-32; I.ii.101-106), so too is Caesar's erotic interest in a woman like Cleopatra (see ibid., I.v.29-31, 66-75; II.ii.226-228;; III.xiii.116-117; cf. JC, I.ii.1-11.

  7. Plutarch, Alexander the Great, 22.3.

  8. For the importance of constancy, see Caesar's claim to divinity at III.i.31-77, esp. 58-73.

  9. “Man” (including its variants) appears 148 times; “love,” 51 times; “friend,” 53 times. By comparison, “Rome” occurs 38, “Roman” and “Romans” together 35 times. Only Caesar's name is mentioned more often than “man.”

  10. IV.ii.37, 39; IV.iii.95, 211, 232, 236, 247, 303; see also II.i.70.

  11. See Plutarch, Brutus, 6.1-2.

  12. Shakespeare's silence also has the effect of concealing that Cassius is married, thus making him appear a fully spirited or public man.

  13. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1159a13-15.

  14. See esp. IV.iii.41-50.

  15. Cf. Cassius' mention of Aeneas (I.ii.111-114).

  16. Paul A. Cantor, Shakespeare's Rome (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1976) 129f.

  17. Ibid., 148-156.

  18. Antony of course insists that his love is too great to be measured: “There's beggary in the love that can be reckon'd” (I.i.15).

  19. See esp. I.ii.189-207. See also note 12 above.

  20. Cassius' last words (V.iii.45-46), like Brutus' (V.v.50-51), acknowledge Caesar's personal victory, in the former case as a matter of revenge, in the latter as a matter of love.

  21. Note that Brutus never actually says he loves Portia, though he speaks often of love.

  22. Brutus cannot have returned home after II.i. When he leaves with Ligarius, he says he will reveal his plans “to thee, as we are going / To whom it must be done” (II.i.330-331); and soon afterwards they arrive together at Caesar's house to escort him to the Capitol (II.ii.108ff.). Yet there is no inconsistency in Portia's knowing in II.iv what she asks to be told in II.i. She knows as much when she asks Brutus' secret as she does later when she almost blurts it out. Whether or not she has overheard the conspirators (who leave almost immediately before she enters), it is clear from what she says and does in the earlier scene that she knows that what troubles Brutus is political and involves him in dangerous clandestine nighttime meetings. It would not require much for her to imagine the rest. Shakespeare's point, I think, is not that Portia wants to know Brutus' secret; rather, she wants him to “Tell me your counsels” (II.i.298) on the grounds that she is worthy of his trust.

  23. For a contrary view of Portia and Brutus, see Mungo MacCallum, Shakespeare's Roman Plays and Their Background (London: Macmillan and Company, 1967) 235f., 272f., and Allan Bloom, Shakespeare's Politics (New York: Basic Books, 1964) 101-103. See also Jay L. Halio, “Harmartia, Brutus, and the Failure of Personal Confrontation,” The Personalist, Vol. 48, No. 1 (Winter 1967) 51-52.

  24. V.v.52ff.; cf. V.i.98-113, V.iv. passim, V.v.23-25. By contrast, only Titinius calls the dead Cassius “brave” (V.iii.80); despite everything, his death is seen by others as womanish (see V.iii.58ff.). It is perhaps not surprising that no one mentions Cassius in the last two scenes of the play.

  25. See also I.ii.81-88.

  26. Compare Brutus' silence here with what he says in the corresponding speech in Plutarch (Brutus, 52.2-3): “It rejoiceth my heart,” he begins, “that not one of my friends hath failed me at my need, and I do not complain of my fortune, but only for my country's sake. …” Shakespeare's Plutarch, ed. W. W. Skeat (London: Macmillan and Company, 1875) 151.

  27. The last time Brutus mentions Rome is also the last time he mentions Cassius.

  28. MacCallum, 271.

  29. This spirit of personalism allows Octavius to take into service those whom he says “serv'd Brutus” (V.v.60)—he does not say, “serv'd Rome under Brutus”—and who are recommended to him on the basis of their personal devotion. Note that even Massala speaks of Brutus as “my master” (V.v.52, 64-67). For a discussion of the spirit of personalism in Caesar, see Jan H. Blits, “Caesarism and the End of Republican Rome,” The Journal of Politics, Vol. 43, No. 1 (Feb. 1981) 40-55.

  30. It is striking and revealing that all eight of Brutus' and Cassius' references to each other as “brother” occur in the scene at Sardis and in the context of a contest of wills. The first occurs literally in the opening words of their quarrel; the second when Brutus, answering Cassius' angry charge, demands to know how he should wrong “a brother” if he does not wrong even his enemies (IV.ii.37-39). The third reference occurs when Cassius, “aweary of the world,” despairingly shames himself by acknowledging he is “Hated by one he loves; brav'd by his brother” (IV.iii.95); and the fourth not long after the quarrel itself when Cassius, commanding “Hear me, good brother” (l. 211), tries (but fails) to counter Brutus' willful overruling of his more prudent battle plans and then is forced for the first time to defer explicitly to his will (ll. 223-224). The next two references seem, by contrast, to stress reconciliation and even amity. Just a moment or so later, Cassius, taking leave, begs his “dear brother” not to let “such division” ever come “'tween our souls” again; and Brutus, assuring him that everything is well, bids “Good night, good brother” (ll. 232-236). Despite one's first impression, however, Brutus' use of “good brother” does not reflect a restored equality or mutual respect between him and Cassius. Coming in the general wake of their quarrel and less than a dozen lines after Cassius explicitly submits to his will, his use of the phrase springs from the generosity of a conqueror, not the manly esteem of an equal. Brutus can afford to show Cassius greater friendliness and even praise him more highly than ever before (l. 231) precisely because Cassius, having been forced to acknowledge the inequality in their friendship, can no longer threaten his domination. Indeed, Brutus' valediction “Good night, good brother” comes in direct response to Cassius' valediction “Good night, my lord” (l. 236). At no other time does Cassius ever call anyone his “lord.” In accordance with all this, the last two references to “brother” both involve Brutus' issuing Cassius military orders (ll. 247, 303). The only other time either man is spoken of as the other's “brother” (II.i.70) directly precedes the meeting of conspirators when Brutus, forcing Cassius to bow to his moral domination, supplants him as the conspiracy's leader.

  31. Most esp. at III.i.77.

  32. I.ii.1-11; for the connection between the Lupercal race and the story of Romulus, see Plutarch, Romulus 21.3-8, and Ovid, Fasti II.381ff.

Robert C. Evans (essay date spring 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 tragedy.3Hamlet seems at least in part a play that is very much about friendship: a play about finding, making, losing, and keeping friends. It explores, from numerous perspectives, one of the most significant and inherently complex of human relationships—a relationship particularly fascinating to Renaissance thinkers, for many of whom friendship (in the words of Clifford Davidson) “is not only a radiant ideal but is also an expression of a most necessary kind of good will that makes society cohesive.”4


The play's concern with friendship is sounded at once: “Who's there?” (1.1.1).5 Quite literally, Barnardo wants to know not only who is there (whether the unseen figure is a friend or foe) but also why he is there (whether his intentions are friendly). This opening epitomizes the entire play and particularly Hamlet's position at court: surrounded by darkness, a lone figure needs to recognize his friends. Most humans can relate to this need, and the play probably exercises such strong psychological appeal partly because we all, to one degree or another, resemble Barnardo and Hamlet in wanting to know whether the persons nearest us are persons we can trust. Determining one's friends is only one dilemma the tragedy portrays and confronts, but it seems to be a dilemma immediately and forcefully relevant to most human lives.6

Barnardo's nervous question is answered by an apparently unfriendly and certainly formal challenge (1.1.2), which in turn elicits an equally formal, impersonal response that is also a pledge of public allegiance or political friendship (1.1.3). Only when Francisco uses a familiar personal name (1.1.4) do tensions relax: we realize, precisely when they do, that these men already know each other and perhaps are even friends. This intuition seems confirmed when Barnardo solicitously urges Francisco to get to bed (and thus to peace, quiet, and comfort). Like so much else in this play, however, these apparently caring words can also be interpreted in another way: as a calculated maneuver to dismiss Francisco before the ghost appears. Neither reading need (or perhaps can) have priority: here as elsewhere in Hamlet, exchanges even between apparent friends can have multiple significations, and just as it is sometimes hard but important to interpret the precise nuances of our own friends' speech, so it is usually difficult in Hamlet for either us or the characters to make absolutely unambiguous sense of anything said, not said, or implied. The play fascinates partly for this reason.

Further evidence of friendship between Barnardo and Francisco comes in the latter's response to the suggestion that he head to bed (1.1.8-9). Francisco's immediate willingness (once he knows he is speaking to a friend) to share not only his physical but especially his deepest emotional feelings seems significant in a play whose central character finds it so difficult to share true feelings openly, except in soliloquy. Francisco is lonely, cold, and sick at heart, but he at least has a comrade to whom he can confess these thoughts. Hamlet, at first, has no one with whom he can openly speak except the crowd of strangers who sit or stand off-stage.

As Francisco leaves, Barnardo bids him a solicitous “good night” (1.1.12) and asks him to urge his “rivals” to “make haste” (1.1.13-14). Here, with nice irony, the word “rivals” means not “foes” but “partners”—just one of many subtle touches of paradox in an immensely paradoxical play. Having briefly provided friendly relief to Francisco, Barnardo now seeks such comfort himself: throughout the play, the fear and danger of being left literally or metaphorically alone is stressed. In this work, many characters will eventually find themselves suddenly isolated.

Hearing Horatio and Marcellus approaching, Francisco now repeats Barnardo's earlier demand: “Who is there?” (1.1.15). It hardly seems an accident that Horatio's very first words are “Friends to this ground” (1.1.16). Horatio will later prove one of the play's best examples of friendship; his first word thus quite literally reflects his essential character. At this point, though, he uses the word “friends” more in a political than personal sense, thereby helping to remind us how the connotations of the term have evolved since the Renaissance. Today the word mainly refers to an inherently personal relation. In Shakespeare's time, however, it often carried associations of political or social allegiance. If a person was politically important, his “friends” were often his allies or followers, his dependents or entourage, his loyal citizens. Horatio, however, is a “friend to this ground” in more ways than one. Throughout the play, he seeks not only what is best for Hamlet as a person and prince but also what is best for Denmark. His opening words help make it seem entirely appropriate that at the very end of the play he becomes the designated spokesman not only for Hamlet but also for the entire Danish nation.

Marcellus echoes and endorses his friend's explanation by announcing that he and Horatio are “liegemen to the Dane” (1.1.16), although it seems subtly fitting that he (not Horatio) is the first to mention Claudius, the great rival of Horatio's future friend, the prince. It seems appropriate, too, that Marcellus uses a word (“liegemen”) whose connotations are subtly formal and legalistic rather than intensely personal, for by the end of the play Claudius, although surrounded by friends in a superficial, political sense, will finally be abandoned by them all. Both Hamlet and Claudius lose friends during the course of the play, but in the final analysis Claudius is by far the more lonely and isolated figure.

The mutual solicitude all four men show in this opening scene helps establish an air of comradeship and community that not only helps counteract the very opening emphasis on isolation and fear but that also helps prepare, by contrast, for our later sense of Hamlet's isolation at court. Yet the small community no sooner forms than it begins to disintegrate: Francisco is eager to be gone, and his first words to Horatio and Marcellus (1.1.17) are at once a greeting and farewell. Even as he leaves he is bid adieu with conspicuously friendly words (1.1.18), while the heavy emphasis here on what seem to be first names also helps enhance the tone of friendship. Marcellus calls for “Barnardo,” and Barnardo also seems already familiar with the man he addresses as “Horatio” (1.1.20-21). Horatio, in turn, adds to the friendly atmosphere by making a self-deprecating joke: to a question by Barnardo—“is Horatio there?”—he responds, “A piece of him,” thereby telegraphing immediately his informality, his sense of humor, his tendency not to take either himself or situations too seriously, and also his ability to express personal discomfort without focusing excessive attention on himself (1.1.21-22). All these qualities would (and do) help make him an excellent friend, not only to these men but also, later, to Hamlet. Barnardo's enthusiastic greeting of the visitors, moreover, expresses more than merely formal courtesy: obviously he is sincerely glad that his friends have now arrived.

Horatio's first reference to the ghost as “this thing” (1.1.24) can be read in several complementary ways, all relevant to the friendship theme. The word “thing” already implies, perhaps, some slightly haughty skepticism, some gentle teasing and chiding. Horatio may already know Marcellus and Barnardo, but he is clearly not so close a friend that he is willing to take their mere testimony as absolute proof of the ghost's existence. His skepticism implies his mental distance, but his slightly mocking tone also suggests, paradoxically, that he feels comfortable enough to tease them. His question, then, establishes him as an outsider to their present bond, but also as someone capable of bonding. By calling the ghost a “thing,” moreover, he suggests (unintentionally, perhaps) that it is the ultimate outsider, the ultimate “other”: non-human, alien, and incapable (almost by definition) of normal friendship.

For the moment, then, Horatio stands apart from Marcellus and Barnardo. Like many friendships, theirs is rooted in a shared experience—one Horatio knows only by report. Perhaps there is wounded rebuke in Marcellus's comment that “Horatio says 'tis but our fantasy, / And will not let belief take hold of him, / Touching this dreaded sight twice seen of us” (1.1.26-28). It is as if Horatio even doubted their rationality, perversely rejecting their testimony even though they have twice witnessed the ghost together. Thus the ghost plays even here the double role it fulfills throughout the play: it simultaneously unites and divides. It binds Marcellus and Barnardo but separates them from Horatio, just as it will later bond Horatio and Hamlet while separating them from the court at large. The ghost proves a potent catalyst of both friendship and enmity.

Barnardo's invitation to sit (1.1.33) partly signals a relaxation of tension, an opportunity for physical comfort and psychological bonding. The guards' willingness to tell Horatio their story already implies their trust and respect (as does his willingness to listen). Even as the trio relax, however, an undercurrent of probably gentle enmity pervades Barnardo's request that Horatio should “let us once again assail your ears, / That are so fortified against our story, / What we have two nights seen” (1.1.34-36). Barnardo implies that Horatio willfully rejects reliable testimony. Horatio responds with patient diplomacy: “Well, sit we down. And let us hear Barnardo speak of this” (1.1.36-37). His willingness to listen once more to a story he knows but doubts shows that his friends are more important than his comfort, time, or sleep; by merely listening, he affirms and repairs their slightly threatened bond.

Barnardo's leisurely, painstaking opening itself presumes patient, well-disposed listeners, but his narrative soon crumbles when the “thing” appears. Here as elsewhere, the ghost intrudes on genuine exchange, shattering a previously defined community. Marcellus's abrupt interruption of Barnardo (1.1.43) might normally seem rude, but here it signals both real friendship and narrow self-concern. There are, perhaps, touches of both triumphant sarcasm and genuine respect in Marcellus's injunction, “Thou art a scholar, speak to it, Horatio” (1.1.45), just as there seem both smug assurance and profound wonder when Barnardo asks, “Looks a not like the King? Mark it, Horatio” (1.1.46). The two friends are having both their worst fears and their personal veracity confirmed, and they cannot help feeling satisfied terror. Horatio, meanwhile, cements a new and deeper bond with them by confessing his own terror (1.1.47). Such ability to share so openly an emotion one might normally hide is often the sign or start of friendly relations.

When Barnardo and Marcellus urge Horatio to address the ghost, they acknowledge their fear, confess their own incapacity, and show respect for their educated friend. At the same time, Horatio's prompt willingness to challenge the ghost shows that he deserves their respect; this is one of the bravest acts in the play—an act soon repeated by Hamlet himself, and therefore one that helps establish Horatio's fitness as Hamlet's future friend. Perhaps Horatio feels specially obliged to confront the ghost because he had previously doubted his companions' word: his willingness to speak helps him make amends by retracting his earlier skepticism. Likewise, his speech may also help alleviate his friends' fear: he dares, quite literally, to stand between them and “this thing” (1.1.24), whom he now addresses with the respectful, familiar “thee” and “thou” (1.1.49, 52). Such potentially friendly phrasing is balanced, though, by his implication that the “thing” is lawless (“What art thou that usurp'st …” [1.1.49]), while his final words can be read either as an invocation of a shared ideal or as a threatening command: “By heaven, I charge thee speak!” (1.1.52). Horatio (like Hamlet later) cannot know whether the ghost is a friend or foe, and so he addresses it (to some degree) as both. In this sense the ghost symbolizes one of the play's most important issues: the difficulties of interpreting others' intentions and conduct. Horatio confronts a question we all, like Hamlet, repeatedly face: what exactly are the motives of this other being standing before me? Is this “other” a potential friend or not?

As so often happens in life, Horatio (like Hamlet later) must wait for an answer. The ghost stalks off. Marcellus thinks it “offended” (1.1.53)—a remark which may reflect either the ghost's sensitivity, Horatio's lack thereof, or both. Horatio responds with words perhaps motivated by fear, courage, desperation, wounded pride, apologetic humility, or all these feelings at once: “Speak, speak, speak, I charge thee speak!” (1.1.54). As elsewhere, such phrasing can be interpreted as a command and/or a plea. Although Barnardo cannot help teasing and chiding Horatio for his present fear and earlier skepticism (1.1.56-57), such mockery actually signals the beginnings of a deeper friendship among the astonished trio.

Horatio is now part of the fellowship of Barnardo and Marcellus because he has now shared the strange experience which earlier bound the other men together. In a sense, his experience is also ours, and, just as he now feels tied to the two guards in a way he didn't earlier, so do we. Here as so often, Horatio functions (in Bert States' clever phrase)7 as “our man at Elsinore”—as a surrogate member of the audience, whose reactions guide and mirror our own. We trust him almost as much as Hamlet does, and so do many others. Barnardo, for instance, no sooner chides Horatio than he earnestly seeks the latter's honest opinion (1.1.58), and Horatio, like a true friend, answers without equivocation, in effect confessing his earlier error as he moves from real skepticism to total belief (1.1.59-67).

As Horatio recollects old King Hamlet (whose ghost has apparently just appeared), he emphasizes how the deceased monarch had once “th'ambitious Norway combated” and how he once “smote the sledded Polacks on the ice” (1.1.64, 66). Here as throughout, references to political alliances and national warfare help reinforce the play's parallel focus on private friendship and personal enmity. Indeed, because of their political roles,8 neither old nor young Hamlet was (or is) capable of enjoying truly private relationships. All their connections are tinged by politics—which is one reason why Horatio, who seems almost totally uninterested in courtly power or large affairs of state, will attract Hamlet so much. He seems to treat Hamlet less as a prince than as a person. Little wonder that Hamlet will find Horatio himself so appealing.

The modesty of both Horatio and Marcellus (1.1.70-82) once again shows their capacity for real friendship, and the friendship theme is indirectly reinforced as Horatio recounts the foreign conflicts faced by “our last King” (1.1.83), who had been challenged to combat by the Norwegian monarch, Fortinbras. Such an open challenge meant treating even an enemy with a certain friendly honor (and therefore contrasts strongly with the secret, treacherous death King Hamlet later suffered at the hands of Claudius). Once again Shakespeare subtly lulls both his characters and us into a relaxed, comfortable mood, even while making Horatio describe such serious and open conflict. As Horatio ends, we know much not only about the old king but also about the currently unfriendly relations between young Fortinbras and the Danes. When the ghost suddenly reappears, he seems (thanks to Horatio's exposition) a less alien, more sympathetic figure, and Horatio addresses him as such. He offers to treat the ghost as a friend (1.1.133-35) and seems willing to assume that the spirit itself may be motivated either by friendly intents (1.1.136-38) or by a sincerely troubled conscience (1.1.139-42). Yet when the ghost fails to respond and begins to leave, he shouts (in either a command or a plea), “Stop it, Marcellus” (1.1.142), and when Marcellus asks whether he should strike the ghost, Horatio responds with poised, balanced reason: “Do if it will not stand” (1.1.144). In seconds, his treatment of the ghost has gone from hostile (1.1.130) to solicitous (1.1.131-42) to a complex blend of both (1.1.142-44).

Horatio does not disagree when Marcellus says, “We do it wrong, being so majestical, / To offer it the show of violence” (1.1.148-49). This comment can be read either as an implicit rebuke of Horatio for having urged him to strike or as the kind of frank, unembarrassed self-criticism (implicating them all) of which good friends are capable. Marcellus's troubled conscience in fact shows another aspect of his capacity for friendship, while his comment also reveals how much (in his mind) the ghost now seems sympathetic. Horatio, typically, reasserts balance by suggesting that it may yet prove a “guilty thing” (1.1.53), while Marcellus's subsequent reference to “our Saviour's birth” suggests another tie—common faith—that binds these friends (1.1.164). As the scene closes, in fact, Shakespeare strongly emphasizes their new bond. Horatio urges, “Break we our watch up, and by my advice, / Let us impart what we have seen tonight, / Unto young Hamlet” (1.1.173-75). He speaks of them as a trio, advises (rather than dictates) their next step, and even asks explicitly whether the others approve his suggestion (1.1.177-78).

Here, as throughout the play, Horatio demonstrates his capacity as a true friend. By the same token, Shakespeare in this opening scene has already introduced, often quite subtly, many nuances of the friendship theme that will later become far more explicit. In this scene we have witnessed a lone, lonely man approached first by one friend and then by two others. We have witnessed the newly assembled group begin to bond and then watched their disturbed, distressed reaction when surprised by an alien “thing.” We have witnessed one of the men bravely confront the thing, seen the thing depart, and then seen how the shared experience binds the group (and particularly two of them) even more tightly together. We have witnessed, in short, a detailed preview of what will happen when these men seek and find Hamlet himself.


Our own first glimpse of the prince occurs at the court of Claudius, who clearly holds center stage. Having just witnessed an old king who seemed silent, lonely, isolated, offended, frightening, and perhaps even frightened, we now see a new king who seems confident, voluble, friendly, and surrounded by personal and political friends. Here is the consummate politician, the man skilled at compliments, thanks, and hearty farewells (1.2.15-16, 41), an imposing glad-hander who knows all the social graces. But here, too, is Hamlet—standing aside, dressed in black, and immediately speaking the sardonic, biting, ambiguous language one never uses with truly friendly intent (1.2.65, 66, 74). Hamlet speaks like a person who feels threatened but who cannot lash out; his ambiguity both concedes and mocks his enemy's power. He speaks a private language, its true meanings known only to himself—a dialect at odds with the frank, friendly conversations of the play's first scene. That scene opened with our glimpse of a man alone and frightened in the literal darkness; the present scene shows Hamlet isolated in metaphorical darkness, though presumably surrounded by much literal light. His very first words may be an aside (1.2.65)—a technique that establishes his distance from the court while implying a connection with us. This aside (if that is what it is) thus foreshadows the great soliloquies, in which he will seem to speak to himself but will in fact bind himself ever more tightly in sympathetic friendship with the audience, winning our concern by privately baring his soul.

It is Hamlet's mother who first explicitly introduces the word “friend” here by urging Hamlet to “cast thy nighted colour off, / And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark” (1.2.69-70). Here as so often, Shakespeare squeezes maximum meaning from a few words, particularly (in this case) “like.” The effect would differ if Gertrude had asked Hamlet to “be” a friend to Claudius; all she is asking, instead, is that he be “like” a friend. And even that, of course, is not the limit of her words' complexity. If she had asked Hamlet to “be” Claudius's friend, she would be implying that she knows he now isn't such a friend; instead, by asking him to look on Claudius “like” a friend, she may be suggesting that he merely needs to show more obviously the friendship she expects he inwardly and naturally feels. Yet her words are open to still other interpretations, since in saying “look like a friend on Denmark” she can be taken to mean, “look upon Claudius as your friend—realize that he is friendly toward you.” And, if “Denmark” is taken to refer not simply to the king but to the whole country, her words can be understood to suggest either that Hamlet should treat his nation with friendship (by abandoning his self-absorption) or that he should realize the friendship his countrymen feel for him, or both of these meanings together. Ironically, all these possible meanings only help emphasize Hamlet's bitter isolation. He feels neither friendly towards Claudius nor genuinely befriended by him; and at the moment he feels no great affection toward (or from) his fellow Danes, who have so eagerly embraced the new king. Gertrude's soothing words (especially coming from Gertrude) only enhance his profound alienation. This feeling, in turn, is intensified by his realization that he cannot even fully express, at least outwardly, the true depth of his emotions (1.2.76-86).

Paradoxically, after delivering one of the most famous, powerful, and eloquent soliloquies in all of Western literature, Hamlet cautions himself to “hold [his] tongue” (1.2.159), and he says this just before the entrance of the man who will shortly become his closest friend and confidant, the future boon companion with whom he will finally be able to share some of his deepest concerns and most thoughtful ruminations. When Horatio does arrive, he greets Hamlet with decorous formality, and although the prince replies magnanimously, obviously he isn't at first sure whether he correctly remembers Horatio's identity (1.2.160-61). We first witness the pair, then, before their real friendship properly begins, and, just as the play will trace the steady growth of their connection, so it will trace the parallel decline of Hamlet's links with much older friends.

It is Hamlet, in fact, who first calls Horatio his “good friend” (1.2.163), but the words here imply just about everything except their usual meaning. Horatio is not, at this stage, Hamlet's “good friend”: he seems at most an acquaintance. Yet Hamlet's willingness to call Horatio his “good friend” reflects well on the prince: in one deft phrase he cuts through layers of rank, reaching out to the humble inferior who has just called himself Hamlet's “poor servant” (1.2.162) and thereby showing genuine concern for the other's feelings. If the preceding soliloquy showed Hamlet depressed and self-absorbed, his conduct here seems graciously thoughtful. His gesture of friendship to Horatio—though perhaps at this point merely a gesture—shows him capable of a warmth, kindness, and fellowship hitherto lacking in our sense of him. Immediately after expressing his own deep pain in his bitter soliloquy, he can nonetheless reach out to others, putting them at ease when he himself is in turmoil. His words, moreover, may also suggest his own deep need at this point for friendship; perhaps he can reach out so magnanimously to Horatio because he now feels so totally isolated.

It is also possible, however, that Hamlet is so gracious to Horatio precisely because he knows that Horatio is both his social inferior and a relative stranger. Horatio, in short, poses no present or even potential threat; he can be welcomed as a friend because he is not a possible enemy. His distance from Claudius's court, in fact, probably makes him attractive to the prince. All in all, then, when Hamlet offers to exchange the “name” of “good friend” with Horatio (1.2.163), we cannot be sure whether the prince is motivated by mere courtesy or by potentially deeper feelings. Here as so often elsewhere in the play (and in our own social relations), we are left with possibilities to interpret, with ambiguous clues and unclear signals which we must struggle to read correctly, even when no single “correct” reading is probably possible.

The friendship theme is sounded explicitly again when Hamlet says he would be unwilling to hear even Horatio's “enemy” accuse him of a “truant disposition” (1.2.169-70). Both Horatio's humility and Hamlet's solicitous compliment show their potential as friends to themselves and others, while Horatio's brief and tactful comment about Gertrude's quick remarriage (1.2.179) shows at once his intelligence, discretion, moderation, and reasonableness—all qualities valuable in a good friend. Meanwhile, the friendship theme is reiterated when Hamlet mentions the possibility of confronting his “dearest foe” in heaven (1.2.182), while our sense of Horatio's fitness as a friend is reinforced when he recounts how Barnardo and Marcellus were willing to share with him “In dreadful secrecy” their original vision of the ghost (1.2.207). Similarly, Hamlet's request that all three of them keep the vision a secret (1.2.248) suggests that he has already begun to treat them as friends, yet once again this request also illustrates the uncertain status of numerous speech-acts in the play. Hamlet seems to speak as a friend, but since he is their prince his request also amounts to a command. Yet the fact that he does request (rather than order) their silence might seem, once again, to show his magnanimity. This rosy interpretation, though, is complicated by the fact that Hamlet is now dependent on these men—who may be potential friends, who are certainly social inferiors, but who also possess secret information that gives them power over him. His request for their silence, therefore, may demonstrate both graciousness and dependence, just as his promise to “requite [their] loves” (1.2.251) may indicate both generosity and power (including perhaps his financial superiority) and vulnerable need. Hamlet explicitly seeks their “loves” rather than the “duty” they offer (1.2.253-54), thereby suggesting a desire for an intimate rather than merely legalistic bond. He wants (and has apparently already to some degree achieved) their friendship rather than their simple political loyalty, and in less than three hundred lines we have seen him move from painful isolation to secret comradeship. He now heads a small community of seemingly trusting, trusted friends.


Friendship of a different sort is emphasized next. Laertes and Ophelia seem so attractive partly because they seem as much friends as brother and sister. Apparently they understand one another completely: they amiably tease, showing little sibling rivalry (1.3.1-52). Laertes shows real concern for Ophelia by warning her that Hamlet, because of his status, can never be a true friend or lover in the usual sense (once again underscoring Hamlet's special isolation). This advice also increases our respect for Laertes: a different kind of brother might seek to profit from his sister's closeness to the prince, but Laertes apparently values Ophelia more than any personal ambition. Meanwhile, Polonius's own friendly advice to his son (1.3.52-87) introduces some of the play's most explicit commentary on the friendship theme. Indeed, the fact that the father emphasizes friendship so much in these parting comments implies its crucial importance. He warns Laertes to beware of enemies who twist one's words; he counsels him to behave (as we have just seen Hamlet behaving) in ways that are familiar but not vulgar, since the excessive familiarity designed to win friends can often turn them away; he urges Laertes to be loyal to old and trusted friends and not abandon them for new friendships rooted in mere pleasure; and he advises his son about proper ways to conduct a quarrel (ironic advice in light of Laertes's later conflict with Hamlet). Nearly everything Polonius says here is relevant to dealings with friends, and nearly everything also implies the potential danger inherent in those relations. Ironically, even (or perhaps especially) the son of a powerful man needed to fear what and to whom he might speak and how he might behave, and Polonius's speech merely articulates many truisms of standard Renaissance friendship doctrines. (This fact makes it unlikely that Shakespeare intended Polonius here to seem merely ridiculous, as is sometimes suggested.) Much of his wisdom boils down to the standard teaching that one must first be a good friend to oneself in order to attract good friends and be one to others. As his son departs, Polonius implicitly concedes what any parent must: that a child's welfare depends as much on his friends as on his family.

After Laertes leaves, Polonius turns to Ophelia, seconding her brother's advice about becoming too friendly with “Lord Hamlet” (1.3.89, 123). Someone (a friend?) has warned Polonius of their connection. That Hamlet reaches out to this (non-threatening) woman just after his father's death and his mother's remarriage once again emphasizes his special need now for intimacy and affection,9 and if Polonius were indeed an arch-courtier, he might see Hamlet's attentions as a splendid opportunity to promote his own fortunes. Instead, like his son, he speaks to Ophelia as a friend might, warning her to mistrust deceptive appearances and Hamlet's apparently amiable overtures. Here, as in speaking with Laertes, he stresses the potential danger of apparent friendships. Personal ambition seems less important to him than Ophelia's welfare—although here, as so often, we can never be sure of the full complexity of a character's motives. Polonius may realize the dangers of too close a connection with royal power, especially given the current tensions between Claudius and Hamlet. His advice, in some ways so apparently non-political, may also be quite politic indeed. His concern for another may also imply self-concern—a paradox which would only make him typically human.

When Hamlet soon reappears, he is accompanied by his friends Marcellus and Horatio. The trio's relative isolation is emphasized not only by their discomfort but by the noise made by Claudius and his abundant friends of pleasure, whose revels trouble Hamlet far more than the cold. Such carryings-on, he feels, will not win respect for Denmark but will damage the nation's reputation, just as an individual may fail to win friends because of a single private (but publicly known) defect. As Hamlet explains this point, however, the ghost appears, although it seems not to trust the friendly intentions of Hamlet's companions enough to share its secrets with them. It seeks, through “courteous action,” a private conference (1.4.60), and although the attempt by Hamlet's friends to restrain him might ordinarily seem highly unfriendly and disrespectful, in this case their willingness to risk such uncourteous action signals deep affection. Horatio's words “You shall not go, my lord” (1.4.80) can seem both a command and plea, while Hamlet's reply (1.4.84) can seem the same. His words are polite but forceful, while his willingness to threaten them shows not genuine enmity but rather his desperation to satisfy both his curiosity and the demands of a relation even more important than friendship. By the same token, their decision to disregard his explicit order (1.4.88) shows no lack of respect but the depth of their affection.

The friendship theme appears again when Hamlet finally confers with the ghost, who reveals how he was poisoned with a potion holding “an enmity with blood of man” (1.5.65). Hamlet seems particularly disgusted that Claudius can pervert an obvious token of friendly feelings—smiling—while acting with such hypocritical hatred (1.5.106-08). When Horatio and Marcellus eventually find the prince, he shows himself his father's son by being unwilling to trust them with his newly discovered secrets—such trust being a conventional sign of true friendship. Ironically, and with typical ambiguity, Hamlet twice addresses Horatio and Marcellus as “friends” (perhaps with a tinge of sarcasm?) precisely while refusing to trust them (1.5.145-46) but also while requesting that they not reveal the little that they do now know.

Here again Hamlet is paradoxically more powerful than, but actually quite vulnerable to, his new friends. Both his real need and his probably genuine affection help explain why he humbles himself by making “one poor request” of them (1.5.148), but the fact that he swears them to secrecy also shows a lack of trust. He wants their public commitment to himself, each other, God, and even the ghost, knowing that to break such a public vow would reveal their unfitness for friendship, one of the chief private virtues. His use of his sword to confirm the vow is nicely ambiguous, for although it resembles a cross (thus symbolizing the religious dimensions of their oath), it is a sword, thus symbolizing an implicitly violent punishment if the oath is broken. The sword, often an emblem and instrument of hatred, here betokens one of the deepest possible bonds: violating this oath would make one an enemy not only to Hamlet but to God.

Ironically, although Hamlet himself plans to be (and already is) ambiguous in his own language, he makes his friends swear to avoid ambiguous hinting at court about what they already know (1.5.181-88). In short, he paradoxically urges them to be deceptive by acting and speaking as if they had nothing to hide. After they have sworn to all his conditions, he again tenders them his “love,” but he immediately follows this emotional gesture with the promise of perhaps more practical rewards (1.5.191-94). Once more his complex position as a friend is implied: he is, after all, not “poor” or powerless, and so can handsomely reward these friends if they do remain loyal. If, however, one of them violates their vows and tells Claudius about the ghost and about Hamlet's plans, then the prince would indeed suddenly be far more vulnerable (or “poor”). Because of his relative isolation, Hamlet desperately wants friends, but now he also desperately needs them—facts which give added resonance to such words as “Let us go in together. / And still your fingers on your lips, I pray” (1.5.194-95). Hamlet needs these friends to consider him a friend if he hopes to keep his secret, and for that reason he needs to convince them of his own sincerely friendly feelings. Thus the word “pray” may be simultaneously a subtle command, a superior's magnanimous request, and a needy man's genuine hope. Similarly complicated are the famous lines, “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right. / Nay, come, let's go together” (1.5.196-98). Once again Shakespeare juxtaposes Hamlet's desire for companionship with his political, social, and metaphysical isolation. These lines show both his need for friends and his realization of being, in the deepest senses, utterly alone.


The friendship theme seems especially prominent in act 2. It is emphasized, for instance, when Polonius talks with Reynaldo about Laertes's Parisian friends (2.1.6-15). He instructs Reynaldo to portray Laertes as attracted by frivolous pleasures, hoping thereby to detect whether Laertes is indeed associating with the wrong people. Concerns with friendship become even more prominent, though, when we meet Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of Hamlet's oldest and dearest chums (2.2.10-18). Just as Polonius seeks to monitor his son by deceiving his son's companions, so Claudius seeks information about his nephew by employing friends of Hamlet's youth. Yet whereas Polonius is motivated by genuine concern for his son, Claudius's motives are far less benign. Incapable of genuine friendship, Claudius instead constantly seeks “to use” others as instruments (2.2.3). He urges Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to “draw [Hamlet] on to pleasures” and thus solicit information (2.2.15), but such phrasing already (ironically) suggests the standard Renaissance distinction between true friends (joined by a love of good) and temporary friends (united by an ephemeral love of pleasure). Gertrude, meanwhile, speaks with similarly unintended irony when she says she is “sure” that “two men there is not living / To whom [Hamlet] more adheres” (2.2.20-21). She cannot know, of course, that by this point his main allegiance is not to these friends of his youth but to an elderly dead man—the ghost.

Although Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are often criticized as ambitious, time-serving lackeys incapable of true friendship, such a reading seems too simplistic. Shakespeare, after all, makes even his obvious villain—Claudius—exhibit some real moral complexity (particularly in the prayer scene [3.3.36-98]), and his depiction of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is arguably far more subtle and sympathetic than is often supposed. Even their tendency to speak (and be spoken to) as a unit (e.g., 2.2.26-34) can be read not as mockery but as evidence of their close bond and mutual comfort: they know each other's minds and willingly share the spotlight.10 Neither lords it over the other (as might be expected if ambition were their main motive). Instead they seem genuinely friendly and capable of serving as Hamlet's true friends. One minor tragedy of this great tragic play, in fact, is that their ancient friendship with him is soon ruined.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are another pair (like Barnardo and Francisco in 1.1, or Ophelia and Laertes in 1.3, or Horatio and Marcellus in 1.4, or Voltemand and Cornelius in 2.2, or Claudius and Gertrude throughout) whose very pairing helps emphasize Hamlet's isolation. They would need to be scheming hypocrites indeed if Guildenstern's closing words to Claudius are self-consciously ironic: “Heavens make our presence and our practices / Pleasant and helpful to [Hamlet]” (2.2.38-39). Such words (like Rosencrantz's later comment to Polonius, “God save you, sir” [2.2.221]) suggest instead the relative sincerity of this pair in a play in which sincerity, ironically, is a trait Hamlet especially prizes. Of course, the fact that their motives have been so much disputed illustrates a central problem the play raises and confronts: the problem of ever being able to interpret another's intentions and behavior precisely, even when (or perhaps especially when) that person seems to be a friend. Hamlet himself never quite seems sure of his old friends' true intents, although he eventually chooses—wrongly, it would seem—to treat them as enemies (or at least as dispensably inconvenient). Paradoxically, one of the most unsettling aspects of Hamlet's own character is his easy dispatch of his two old friends and especially the relish with which he regards their eternal suffering (5.2.47). It is precisely his former friendship that makes his final hatred so intense—but to say this, of course, is to jump too far ahead.

Hamlet's first encounter with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is one of the longest and most interesting scenes in the entire play; especially in its bearing on the friendship theme.11 Already Shakespeare begins to distinguish subtly between them: Rosencrantz seems closer to Hamlet, a distinction implied by the pair's first words. Guildenstern calls Hamlet his “honoured lord,” whereas Rosencrantz terms the prince his “most dear lord” (2.2.222-23). Hamlet immediately greets them as his “excellent good friends” and as “Good lads,” words echoed when Rosencrantz describes them as “indifferent children of the earth” (2.2.224-27). Such language not only subtly underscores their childhood connections with the prince but also becomes increasingly ironic. If Rosencrantz and Guildenstern really are ambitious hypocrites, then emphasizing their childhood links with Hamlet makes them seem true schemers who betray both their friend and their former innocence. If, on the other hand, their motives are sincere and they thus retain some of their youthful idealism, then Hamlet's own later treatment of them seems shockingly brutal. In either case their relationship with him will now no longer be what it once was, as soon becomes clear.

The trio's easy, light-hearted banter implies the age and intimacy of their friendship, but their jokes about Fortune already introduce a darker note. Meanwhile, their bawdry (2.2.228-36) implies a friendship ultimately rooted in ephemeral pleasures and thus lacking the serious substance of Hamlet's new connection with Horatio. The off-hand allusion to the rarity of honesty (2.2.237-38) helps remind us that honesty is especially prized in a friend, but the reference also seems ironic since dishonesty is precisely what Hamlet will come to suspect in (and even display toward) his old friends. Meanwhile, Hamlet's description of Denmark as a “prison” (2.2.241) helps stress his isolation, since a prison deprives one (almost by definition) not only of freedom but of true friends. Once again Hamlet's alienation is emphasized by the closeness of the pair he addresses: their intimacy is implied even in Rosencrantz's simple disagreement with an opinion Hamlet has just expressed: “We think not so, my lord” (2.2.248). Rosencrantz can confidently assume that he knows his companion's mind; Hamlet can rarely feel confident enough to assume this about anyone (except, perhaps, Horatio).

Hamlet's growing separation from his erstwhile friends is subtly emphasized by his pronouns when he responds to the comment just cited: “Why, then 'tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. To me [Denmark] is a prison” (2.2.249-51). Rosencrantz's rejoinder—“Why, then your ambition makes it one; 'tis too narrow for your mind,” 2.2.252])—tries playfully to echo Hamlet's syntax and phrasing, but it introduces the topic of ambition in a way that inevitably seems ironic. Ambition, after all, is the flaw Hamlet later suspects in them. If his suspicion is wrong, then it seems doubly ironic that Rosencrantz should here falsely (if jokingly) accuse Hamlet of the fault. If, however, Hamlet's suspicion is correct, then it seems ironically smug, daring, and/or foolhardy for Rosencrantz to accuse Hamlet. Indeed, the fact that Rosencrantz can accuse another so comfortably of ambition suggests that ambition is not one of this pair's major motives. There is, of course, another possibility: that by raising the issue, he seeks to trap Hamlet into confessing his own aspirations—in which case Rosencrantz would paradoxically be demonstrating his own ambitiousness. (The multiple ways in which even this one brief exchange might be read illustrates the difficulty of making clear, unambiguous interpretations of others' motives—a difficulty quite relevant to the friendship theme.) In any case, this exchange helps remind us that although shared ambitions can cement a friendship, conflicting ones can help tear it apart.

By playfully debating Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seek the kind of amiable disagreement and conflict that often, ironically, build or reveal friendship. Their banter shows how well they know him—how much older friends they are with him than is Horatio. It is almost as if (in this scene) we witness them reenact old routines. Of course, the visitors completely miss (at least at first) the more serious implications of Hamlet's words: while they play an old game, he has left such play behind. The trio converse but do not really communicate, and although Hamlet rejects considering them his “servants” and insists on calling them “friends” (2.2.267-74), treating them as true friends is precisely what he refuses to do.12 Indeed, his claim that he is “most dreadfully attended” may even be a sarcastic gibe, in which case his claim to speak “like an honest man” is itself a bit dishonest, and perhaps also sarcastic (2.2.267-70). Sarcasm, of course, is complicated: it expresses contempt but perhaps also fear, superiority but perhaps also weakness, hostile aggression but perhaps also a hope for reform. It may insult (by mocking the target's dull imperception) but may also pay understated tribute to the target's ability to take a subtle hint. Sarcasm can prick a target without severing a relationship completely. Once again, the problem of correctly determining precise motives in ostensible friends becomes apparent here.

This problem surfaces again when Hamlet bluntly asks his visitors to tell him, “in the beaten way of friendship, what make you at Elsinore?” (2.2.269-70). Rosencrantz blatantly lies (2.2.271), although his response is less easy to judge or condemn than it might at first seem. It raises the difficult issue of whether it can ever be right to lie to a friend, especially if motivated by sincere concern for the friend's welfare. Hamlet's visitors may truly believe, after all, that they can help him by discovering his secret13—although they obviously know, too, that such a discovery will also please Claudius and Gertrude. Once again Shakespeare refuses to simplify, especially when dealing with friends. Particularly resonant, for instance, is Hamlet's response to the lie: “Beggar that I am, I am even poor in thanks, but I thank you. And sure, dear friends, my thanks are too dear a halfpenny” (2.2.272-74). If this is sarcastic, then his true meaning is precisely the opposite of what he seems to say. The claim of inferiority and poverty would then mask his strong sense of moral superiority and of greater political power, and his apparent graciousness would barely disguise his growing frustration and anger.

Hamlet's elaborate self-depreciation is immediately followed by blunt, plain words that may simultaneously express a hostile challenge, impatient contempt, and a genuinely heartfelt, even pained plea to old, beloved comrades: “Were you not sent for? Is it your own inclining? Is it a free visitation? Come, come, deal justly with me. Come, come. Nay, speak” (2.2.274-76). Critics who see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as practiced, hypocritical courtiers pay insufficient attention to Hamlet's own immediately ensuing admission that “there is a kind of confession in your looks, which your modesties have not craft enough to colour” (2.2.279-80). He seems to concede that they are too innately honest to lie effectively to a friend. The visitors seem richer, truer characters (and less like cardboard stereotypes) if we see them as true but cornered friends: do they continue to lie (thus seeking to help Hamlet) but thereby destroy their friendship with him, or do they confess and thus jeopardize assisting him (while also betraying their obligations to the king and queen)? They are trapped between duty and friendship, and, to complicate matters even more, their own self-interests are inevitably involved. If they alienate the prince, they lose not only a friend but a powerful ally; if they disappoint the king and queen, they not only fail in a serious obligation but also risk angering the royal couple. As always, Shakespeare makes things difficult—or rather, he imitates the complexities of real human dilemmas. It is precisely this refusal to simplify that makes his plays—and his treatment of the friendship theme—so rich.

In a moment that echoes Horatio and Marcellus's earlier being forced to swear secrecy on Hamlet's sword, the prince now forces Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to swear openness by “conjur[ing]” them “by the rights of our fellowship, by the consonancy of our youth, by the obligation of our ever-preserved love, and by what more dear a better proposer can charge you withal, [to] be even and direct with me whether you were sent for or no” (2.2.283-88). The anaphora is ringingly effective, and Hamlet's words can imply both strength and vulnerability, both power and weakness. He speaks as he would be spoken to: with directness. He abandons subtle sarcasm, and although his words still seem full of suppressed anger, they may also express a pained and deeply injured plea. When his visitors hesitate, Hamlet himself says, “Nay, then I have an eye of you. If you love me, hold not off” (2.2.290-91). The first sentence has been read either as an aside or as direct address, and the difference shows how even slightly altering one apparently simple phrase can complicate interpretation, especially in exchanges between friends. If Hamlet does here speak an aside, then that decision already suggests his distance from (and even contempt for) his old friends. If, however, he speaks directly to them, then he once more shows a friendly, open willingness to appeal to their good natures and “ever preserved love” (2.2.285-86). Guildenstern's brief, monosyllabic reply—“My lord, we were sent for” (2.2.292)—is wonderfully, paradoxically eloquent, implying at once reluctance, shame, sincerity, and reticence. It is just the kind of simple but complicated language one friend might use to another.

Hamlet's offer to explain why they have been sent for (2.2.293-95) can be seen as contemptuous, solicitous, or both, since he anticipates their discomfort with telling the reasons themselves. Significantly, he then shuts off any genuine discussion of his own feelings, telling them he doesn't know precisely why he has lost his earlier mirth (2.2.295-97)—although in saying so he obviously lies. Having just urged them to be honest, he is now dishonest himself, but only because he suspects them of possible dishonesty: as always, motives and their interpretation are complex, especially between friends. Paradoxically, he describes with supreme effectiveness earthly wonders he claims he can no longer even recognize, and his image of earth as a “sterile promontory” is particularly relevant to the friendship theme, implying isolation amidst vast surrounding space (2.2.297-303). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are treated to another small soliloquy: Hamlet has not yet completely shut them out or off, and although he refuses to share his chief secret with them, he does share some of his deepest, sincerest feelings (2.2.303-310).

The visitors even seem comforted by Hamlet's willingness to share his gloom. Certainly the earlier tension now begins to subside—a change signaled by Rosencrantz's smile (2.2.310). Hamlet interprets the smile as a reversion to their earlier youthful bawdry (2.2.309-10). Rosencrantz's insistence, however, that Hamlet has misinterpreted his reaction (2.2.311) simply raises once more a chief theme: whether we can ever really know another's motives, even a friend's. Yet the smiling and the shift of topic, following Hamlet's profound and eloquent words, may also suggest that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern simply cannot operate on the prince's intellectual or spiritual level, that they cannot truly comprehend him, that they haven't really been listening. Rosencrantz's very smile, which seems to signal a resumption of their earlier friendly relations, may instead suggest that these men are now too shallow (or rather that Hamlet, having been chastened by his father's death and the ghost's visit, is now too deep) for the trio ever to resume a real friendship. Alternatively, the smile may perhaps indicate some real subtlety and perceptiveness in Rosencrantz. Perhaps, recognizing the prince's deep pain, he solicitously seeks to change the subject, to brighten the mood, to give his old friend happier things to think about.


Significantly, when Rosencrantz tells Hamlet of the players' approach, he says that they travel partly because they have been abandoned by city audiences. Once again unstable friendship is implied, especially since the players have been rejected for a competing children's group. Hamlet explicitly likens the disloyal audiences to the fickle courtiers who once mocked but now flatter Claudius. All this behavior, of course, is relevant to the friendship theme—a theme also reiterated when the prince finally welcomes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, even offering them his hands (2.2.366-71). The trio's old friendship seems momentarily restored, as does Hamlet's mood, but even this moment is ambiguous. Some critics see Hamlet's gesture here as just that: a gesture, not a real reconciliation, and his famously puzzling comment that he can distinguish “a hawk from a handsaw” (2.2.375) can be read as warning, threat, friendly advice, or all three at once. His friendship with his old chums is, like so much else in the play, continually open to interpretation. Ironically, however, Hamlet and his two old friends (now positioned at each ear) do seem united by contempt for Polonius. Rosencrantz even joins Hamlet in mocking the old man (2.2.376-81)—neatly illustrating the aggression latent in friendship, the way friends can bond by turning on someone else. The irony, of course, is that Hamlet will eventually also turn on these two and eventually kill both them and Polonius. The trio's current alliance will not last.

Toward the players, however, Hamlet seems immediately and unfailingly friendly—though even this moment is complex, since he had earlier said he planned to greet them with a zeal therefore partly planned (2.2.368-71). Yet there seems real warmth in his words “Welcome, good friends” and “O, old friend” (2.2.418-19) and in his playful demeanor. His warmth seems particularly striking after his coldness toward Polonius (and, before that, toward Rosencrantz and Guildenstern). Indeed, perhaps these encounters with possibly false friends help make his feeling for the players so enthusiastic. Although the actors, paradoxically, are professional deceivers, to Hamlet they seem more trustworthy than almost anyone else. Their relative powerlessness and dependence means that he can also comfortably treat them as friends: like Horatio, they are too impotent to pose any threat, so he can relax with them in ways he can't with most others. He can even joke with them about their not being friends (2.2.420), while his generally friendly treatment of them, and particularly his teasing of the younger players, winningly demonstrates his underlying capacity for real affection and generosity. In such scenes, as in those with Horatio, we glimpse Hamlet's normal character. We see who he has been (and is capable of being) when unburdened. We see a Hamlet whose capacity for affection makes him seem, in turn, eminently lovable.

Another reason Hamlet can relax with the players is that they are openly suitors. They obviously seek favor and money, without hidden motives. Paradoxically, he can welcome them as friends partly because he knows they need employment, and their abandonment by their own former friends (and paying customers) makes them even more dependent on friendly patrons. Given the actors' importance to the larger friendship theme, therefore, it hardly seems surprising that the chief player's speech deals so explicitly with open hatred (2.2.464-514).14 The familiar lines stir tearful compassion even in the actor, and his empathy with the sufferings of long-dead, fictional persons seems particularly striking when ironically followed by Polonius's smug intention to treat the players “according to their desert” (2.2.523). Hamlet's wonderful response—“God's bodkin, man, much better. Use every man after his desert, and who shall scape whipping? Use them after your own honour and dignity …” (2.2.524-25)—memorably encapsulates two chief principles of true friendship: charity and the Golden Rule. Yet Hamlet's rebuke of Polonius for being insufficiently friendly also constitutes (as he seems to realize) an implicit rebuke to himself. Thus, having mercilessly mocked the old man earlier, he now cautions the players, “look you mock him not” (2.2.539). These words, like the explicit references to friendship with which this interlude concludes (2.2.530-31, 540), help emphasize once more a crucial theme.

2.2, one of the play's longest and most interesting scenes, is in fact particularly significant to the friendship theme, which is soon sounded again. As Hamlet commences another lonely soliloquy, he upbraids himself for being incapable (unlike the player) of true compassion for another's sufferings, especially those of his own father. Yet he also reveals one reason he has not already avenged his father's death: he is not yet sure whether the ghost is a true friend or a tempting foe (2.2.594-600). Like all of us, in short, he confronts the problem of interpretation, of trying to determine whether another's apparently beneficent motives are truly friendly or not.


Just as friendship had surfaced explicitly in 2.2, so it arises again in 3.3, when the long-absent Horatio reenters. Significantly, he appears just as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (whom Hamlet now considers false friends) are leaving (3.2.52). This juxtaposition seems deliberate: Shakespeare faced no need to bring Rosencrantz and Guildenstern back so briefly (especially with Polonius, whom Hamlet also considers no friend) unless to contrast them with Horatio, whom the prince greets enthusiastically. He is answered, in turn, with more obvious affection and less formality than Horatio has previously used (3.2.52-55). Clearly their friendship has deepened, as Hamlet confirms in a speech centrally important to the friendship theme.15 Horatio has humbly offered “service” (3.2.53), but Hamlet instead extols him as being “e'en as just a man / As e'er my conversation cop'd withal” (3.2.54-55). “Just” can imply that Horatio is not only personally ideal and well-balanced16 but is also a perfect human. In all these senses Hamlet's praise looks back both to his earlier commendation of mankind (at 2.2.303-08) and to the moderation he had just been celebrating when instructing an actor (3.2.1-45). Like the ideal man Hamlet had earlier called “the paragon of animals” (2.2.307) and also like the ideal actor who never oversteps “the modesty of nature” (3.2.19), Horatio strikes just the right proportion and balance—qualities Hamlet himself may feel he now lacks (although this very speech shows how much he still possesses them and how much they remain his ideals).

When Horatio tries to demur, Hamlet cuts him off (3.2.56), but the interruption isn't rude. Instead, Hamlet protects both his and Horatio's dignity by claiming he doesn't flatter: why, he asks, should he flatter the poor? The question might normally seem ungracious, insulting, or condescending, but Hamlet's mere asking of it shows how comfortable he feels with Horatio, how much he trusts Horatio's perception. That Hamlet can mention Horatio's relative poverty so blatantly shows how little he prizes such matters, how much he values Horatio for better qualities than wealth or power. Although a cynic might note that Horatio is in fact far from totally powerless (because apparently only he knows the full secret)17, and that Hamlet therefore has some reason to “flatter” him (3.2.56), this exchange mainly shows Hamlet's mutual confidence in himself and his friend. What might normally seem awkward or impolite instead illustrates their easy friendship. The very blatantness with which Hamlet risks insulting Horatio instead helps guarantee the sincerity of the enthusiastic commendation that now follows.

Hamlet's extended praise of Horatio amounts, in effect, to another soliloquy. It thus helps intensify (almost as much by form as content) our sense of Horatio as Hamlet's true friend, a man with whom (and to whom) he can speak frankly. To no one else has Hamlet earlier spoken so intensely, for so long, about matters so obviously important—except to himself. His praise of Horatio even recalls the soliloquy in which he had wondered whether it was “nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune …” (3.1.57-58).18 Here he extols Horatio as one who, “in suff'ring all, … suffers nothing, / A man that Fortune's buffets and rewards / hast ta'en with equal thanks” (3.2.66-68). As elsewhere, this speech links—while implicitly contrasting—friendship with Fortune. True friendship is Fortune's opposite: a true friend is as stable, trustworthy, and certain as Fortune is not. A true friend is not “a pipe for Fortune's finger, / To sound what stop she please” (3.2.70-71), and Horatio is just such a friend. But before Hamlet continues, he abruptly stops himself (3.2.74). Perhaps he ends so suddenly for fear of embarrassing Horatio; perhaps he stops because both understand that deep friendship need not be verbalized; or perhaps he stops partly because he realizes he is slipping into self-absorption—that even his praise is falling into monologue. Whatever his reason for stopping, his words clearly reflect well on himself; by commending Horatio,19 he wins our own respect. And the fact that he has apparently shared with Horatio his deepest secret—the ghost's allegation against Claudius—shows that Hamlet's trust is more than merely verbal.

The play's tendency to link friendship and fortune is reflected also in Hamlet's Mousetrap. Thus the Player King observes how love fluctuates with fortune, and how “The great man down, you mark his favourite flies” while “The poor advanc'd makes friends of enemies,” so that “who not needs shall never lack a friend, / And who in want a hollow friend doth try / Directly seasons him his enemy” (3.2.195-204; italics in original). The taut syntax mimics the quick mutability it describes, while the sudden shifts between total opposites imply how superficial such changes are. Similarly intriguing is the ambiguity of “needs”: in one sense the word suggests that the highly fortunate will never lack friends, but in another sense it implies that whoever doesn't need a friend will always have one. The latter meaning suggests superficiality on both sides—as if friendship were merely a matter of need. Here as in other respects, the language of the play-within seems more subtle than we might first suspect. Thus “hollow” nicely suggests an inner emptiness invisible from without, while “seasons” perverts the normally pleasant associations of that word. When false friendship is the topic, even the language used to discuss it seems perverse.

Ambiguity of a different sort arises when, after the play upsets Claudius, Hamlet exults with Horatio, whom he calls his “Damon dear” (3.2.275). When editors gloss the reference at all, they usually assume that “Damon” alludes to a shepherd from conventional pastoral literature. Even this meaning would suggest a close friendship between Hamlet and Horatio, but another possibility is that “Damon” might also suggest the legend of Damon and Pythias, two of the most famous classical friends.20 They united against a tyrant—a detail that gives the possible allusion all the more relevance to Hamlet.21 Indeed, just when the prince links Horatio with Damon, Horatio offers a clear (if typically subtle) criticism of Claudius by sarcastically implying that the new king is an “ass” (3.2.279). And immediately after Hamlet and Horatio reaffirm their bond by agreeing about Claudius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (whom Hamlet now considers false friends) appear. As before, Shakespeare here juxtaposes the true friend with the alleged imposters, thereby enhancing our awareness of both.

Significantly, Hamlet converses mostly here with Guildenstern, from whom the prince has always seemed more distant than from Rosencrantz. Their quick, staccato, back-and-forth exchange underscores their mutual impatience, and Guildenstern soon feels Hamlet's contempt. Twice, seeking better treatment, he utters either a plea or a demand or both (3.2.300-01, 306-10). Yet because he and Rosencrantz represent Hamlet's mother, the unfriendly treatment they receive also amounts, in part, to sublimated rage at Gertrude. They, of course, cannot know this, and there seems genuine hurt in Rosencrantz's stung comment, “My lord, you once did love me” (3.2.326). He now (ironically) shares the same emotions as Ophelia, and his plain-spoken sentence comes with all the more force after all the earlier edgy ambiguity. His comment can be read as pained, defiant, or both; it can seem at once an assertion of dignity, dependence, and protest. Although Hamlet offers his hand, this normally friendly gesture can now seem either empty or contemptuous. Likewise, Rosencrantz's request that Hamlet share his “griefs” with his “friend” (3.2.330) can seem either genuinely solicitous (and therefore all the more generous, especially if he does feel rejected and insulted) or as dishonestly prying and probing. Hamlet, of course, is willing to share his griefs with his friend—but that friend is now Horatio.

Just as Hamlet's earlier praise of Horatio had echoed the “to be or not to be” soliloquy, so his rebuke of Guildenstern echoes the speech to Horatio. (The allusion is especially significant if Horatio hears it: Hamlet thus implicitly commends the true friend before the allegedly false.) The prince had earlier praised Horatio for not being “a pipe for Fortune's finger” (3.2.70). Now, after offering Guildenstern a recorder, Hamlet accuses him of treating the prince himself as a pipe (3.2.355-56). Normally the offer of the instrument would seem friendly; here, though, it seems muted physical aggression that concretizes the very metaphor Hamlet now explains. His repeated emphasis on pronouns such as “you,” “me,” and “my” (3.2.354-63) underscores his new distance from his former friends, while his closing request (or command—“Leave me, friends” (3.2.378)—nicely illustrates the complex ambiguity of the key word, since “friends” here presumably includes not only Rosencrantz and Guildenstern but also Horatio. Hamlet, at this moment, is surrounded by “friends,” but to him only one seems a friend in the deepest sense.


Friendship remains important in the rest of act 3 and throughout act 4. Thus Hamlet no sooner departs than his chief enemy enters, flanked by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Claudius' first words—“I like him not” (3.3.1)—can refer to Hamlet's recent conduct, the prince himself, or both, just as Guildenstern's concern to “keep those many bodies safe / That live and feed upon your Majesty” (3.3.9-10) can seem public-spirited, self-serving, or a combination. Rosencrantz (predictably) echoes his friend (3.3.11-23), and although their words can be seen as merely parasitic, what they say is also simply true: threats to kings can threaten commonwealths. As usual, Shakespeare leaves his characters' motives unclear, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can indeed be seen as acting as sincere friends to Claudius, Denmark, Hamlet, and themselves—all at once. Their willingness to accompany Hamlet to England after his obvious recent hostility suggests that self-concern is not their only motive, though of course they inevitably now recognize that if Hamlet defeats Claudius they will also likely lose. They exemplify the peculiar instability of friends to the powerful: as Hamlet's intimates, they once stood to gain the friendship of many others. Now, as men he deems enemies, they risk losing the friendship of many—except for Claudius and Claudius's friends. Friendship, normally thought a buffer against the world's uncertainties, here seems to be just the opposite, no matter which perspective they adopt.

Similar ambiguities arise in act 4. There Claudius, learning that Hamlet has killed Polonius, addresses Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as friends (4.1.33), although—as usual—it isn't clear whether he thus shows diplomacy, real certainty of their loyalty, desperate need, or a combination thereof. Likewise, when he says he plans to consult his “wisest friends” (4.1.38), he can seem motivated by heartfelt need and/or clever cunning, especially since, by consulting them, he hopes to head off potential enemies who may include the “friends” themselves (4.1.40-45). Meanwhile, further ambiguity seems inherent in Hamlet's ensuing treatment of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, especially when he calls the former a “sponge” (4.2.11). Obviously the word expresses contempt, but in explaining it Hamlet may also be warning his former intimate about Claudius's true motives (4.2.14-20).22 And Rosencrantz's uncertain reaction to the accusation (4.2.13) can seem either pained, indignant, or both.

Claudius must deal cautiously with Hamlet partly because the latter has too many friends among the people (4.3.4), and so, speaking with the prince, he uses friendly diction to disguise unfriendly motives (4.3.40-46). Ironically, he calls Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Hamlet's “associates” (although they are now more nearly his; 4.3.35), and he plans to rely on his friendship (or “love”) with “England” (4.3.61) to help eliminate the prince. Many paradoxes inherent in the friendship theme are implied here: “England” is not merely the country but the brother king—a friend whom Claudius hopes he can count on. Yet their connection is not merely one of friendship but of intimidating “power” (4.3.62), and Claudius's hope for Hamlet's death—“Do it, England” (4.3.68)—can seem both a demand and a desperate plea. Such political dimensions of friendship are then immediately reinforced when we see Fortinbras—who started the play as Claudius's enemy—seeking the Dane's friendship so he can attack the Poles, his new foes (4.4.1-6). Juxtaposed with this, however, are Rosencrantz's gentle words urging the prince to board ship: “Will't please you go, my lord?” (4.4.30). This question can seem tenderly solicitous, calculatedly ingratiating, cautiously diplomatic, or some combination of these. Even in such simple words Shakespeare captures the complexities of dealings between (former?) friends.

Politics and friendship intersect again near the end of act 4, when Claudius fears that “buzzers” will “infect” the newly returned Laertes' “ear” with slander against the King (4.5.90). Although “buzzers” implies that such people are true friends neither to Laertes, Claudius, nor the state, Claudius is obviously motivated less by concern for Laertes or Denmark than for himself, and it is indeed Claudius who will soon pose as Laertes' friend and “infect” his “ear.” When Laertes bursts in with a mob whom he courteously treats as friends (4.5.112-15), Gertrude and Claudius themselves respond with friendship that seems partly genuine though mostly fake (4.5.116, 122, 125-27, 129, 137, 139). Had the King responded with anger or force (as he might if Laertes had not come with so many friends), he probably would only have stirred up enmity. Instead, by responding with apparently calm friendship, he disarms his potential rival. He cautions Laertes not to allow intended revenge to harm “both friend and foe,” thereby prompting the young man to say that he seeks only his father's “enemies” and will welcome and reward his father's “friends” (4.5.142-47). Later Claudius asks Laertes to put him “in your heart for friend” (4.6.2)—words that can seem deceptively hypocritical or that may reveal a genuine desire and need. When Claudius appeals to Laertes' “conscience” (a valuable quality in a friend) he implies that he has one, too (4.6.1), while his nervous reference to Hamlet's many friends (4.6.16-24) seems particularly ironic since it was (and is?) a similar concern that determined his treatment of Laertes. Claudius now seems to share his secrets, worries, and even his self-love with Laertes (4.6.30-35). Normally such openness would characterize a good friend, but his apparent frankness is part of a ruse. Likewise, his willingness to praise Hamlet as “Most generous, and free from all contriving” (4.6.134) seems ironic in more senses than one. His praise may be sincere; or it may be calculated; but (as we will soon learn from Hamlet's own mouth) it may also be naive.


Act 5 opens with the famous exchange between the two grave-digging clowns, who seem to be old friends or at the very least old acquaintances. Their easy barbs suggest, ironically, their amity. Soon they are confronted by another pair of friends (Horatio and Hamlet). As the latter inspects a nearby skull, he even imagines it as having once been a false friend or flatterer (5.1.81-85). The grave-digger, appropriately, speaks with neither false friendship nor flattery; instead, he addresses his social superior with the same insouciance he had just used toward his associate. Shakespeare thus underlines the ultimate lack of human distinctions (a main theme of this scene): the clown treats the prince as little more than another man (and thus as a potential friend). A similar familiarity now also characterizes Hamlet's relations with Horatio (whom he addresses frequently here by his first name), although Shakespeare effectively contrasts the banter between the clowns (and between the clown and Hamlet) with the more thoughtful conversation between this other pair of comrades. Indeed, Horatio's willingness here even to criticize Hamlet's thinking (5.1.199) implies their present closeness: as he will demonstrate repeatedly in this final act, Horatio is often willing to disagree with his companion—a willingness which often signals true friendship.

The ensuing fight between Hamlet and Laertes in the grave emphasizes the friendship theme in a different way: these men who might have (and ultimately will be) friends (5.1.217) battle to show who bears greater affection for Ophelia. Yet Hamlet is also angry because he feels wrongly accused by the man he earlier considered a friend: “Hear you, sir, / What is the reason that you use me thus? / I lov'd you ever” (5.1.283-85). For Hamlet, the shock of Ophelia's death is intensified by the shock of Laertes' hatred. Oddly enough, he cannot seem to imagine why Laertes is so unfriendly. Ironically, however, the very circumstance that might have united these men (the shared loss of beloved fathers at the hands of killers) prevents their friendship.

When Hamlet reappears in 5.2 with Horatio, he is recounting a different battle against different former friends—Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He reports how, having stolen the secret death-warrant they carried to the English king, he forged a substitute letter, full of friendly phrasing (5.2.39-42) but ordering that his two old chums be “put to sudden death, / Not shriving-time allow'd” (5.2.46-47). Horatio's response—“So Guildenstern and Rosencrantz go to 't (5.2.56)—is wonderfully cryptic and can, of course, be interpreted in varying and contradictory ways.23 It seems to register shock, especially when we realize that Hamlet has now treated his two old friends precisely as Claudius treated his murdered brother. Hamlet himself seems to interpret Horatio's comment as an implied criticism, or perhaps his conscience is bothered even though he claims it isn't (5.2.58). If the first interpretation is correct, then Horatio seems to be a good friend by being willing to question his friend's behavior; if the second interpretation makes more sense, then Hamlet demonstrates a continuing capacity for friendship by showing that he is not completely ruthless. Although he claims his conscience is untroubled, his very need to claim this may paradoxically suggest the opposite. In any case, he at least feels a need to explain to Horatio, who in a sense functions (here and elsewhere) as the play's embodied conscience. Curiously, Horatio never directly responds to Hamlet's self-justification but instead shifts subjects (5.2.62). Perhaps he realizes that there is no point in arguing (the deed, after all, is done); perhaps he is afraid to argue; perhaps he even approves the prince's conduct. Shakespeare wisely leaves all options open: Horatio's reticence adds to the rich ambiguity of the drama. If Horatio had openly approved the killings, he might seem less a friend than a today. By instead keeping him relatively silent, Shakespeare here (as usual) gives us plenty to think about.

As if to see how and why Horatio is not a toady, we now meet the real thing: Osric. He appears just after Hamlet has regretted quarreling with Laertes and expressed his intent to “court” the latter's “favours” (5.2.78). Osric, however, is a courtier in the more obvious sense and thus serves as a foil to both the prince and Horatio. His pliability helps emphasize, by contrast, Horatio's plain-spokenness, and Hamlet's playfully contemptuous treatment of the fop is, in part, a show staged to amuse his comrade. Uncharacteristically, Horatio even joins the mockery (5.2.129-30, 152-53, 183), although he seems rather to tease Hamlet than openly torment Osric. Such intellectual and verbal fencing (not only Horatio's with Hamlet but also Hamlet's with the unarmed Osric) ironically precedes the real fencing in 5.3, and by lampooning Osric Hamlet implies at once his ideals of friendship, his capacity for friendship, but also his continuing capacity for aggression. The fact that courtiers such as Osric are now generally doted on (5.2.184-91) makes Hamlet's choice of Horatio as a friend seem all the more worthy. His own character is implied by the friend he selects.

Hamlet's decision to fight Laertes before the court shows, paradoxically, his public respect for the other man and willingness to treat him as an equal; their fencing will potentially help renew their bond. By dueling with Laertes, Hamlet seeks to make amends for their earlier public confrontation; at the same time, of course, by accepting the challenge he also helps display his self-respect and protect (and repair) his reputation. Disciplined swordplay will ideally function, for both of them, as ritualized atonement (to each other and the court) for their earlier chaotic fight. Gertrude even wants Hamlet to offer Laertes an open show of friendship before they fight, and Hamlet's willingness to do so shows his own capacity for amity—both to her and to Laertes (5.2.202-04). Horatio, meanwhile, speaks with a true friend's bluntness when he unflatteringly predicts that Hamlet will lose the duel (5.2.205),24 but he can have no idea, of course, just how prophetic he is. Similarly, Hamlet shows his trust in and comfort with his friend when he confesses misgivings about the fight (5.2.208-12), while Horatio's willingness to lie for Hamlet (5.2.213-14) shows that he values his private friend more than the public truth.

When Claudius places Laertes' hand into Hamlet's before the duel, he perverts one of the most symbolic gestures of friendship. This act becomes an emblem of his role as corrupt mediator between the younger men. Hamlet's public apology to Laertes, meanwhile, sounds almost too glib to strike Laertes as sincere, however sincerely Hamlet may have intended it. Once more the potential for misinterpreting even truly friendly gestures arises: we have reason to believe (from the recent exchange with Horatio) that Hamlet does genuinely want to make amends with Laertes; but to Laertes, Hamlet's words may sound either ironic (“Was't Hamlet wrong'd Laertes? Never Hamlet”) or sardonic (“Hamlet is of the faction that is wrong'd; His madness is poor Hamlet's enemy,” 5.2.229, 234-35). This public apology is inherently ambiguous: by speaking before the court, Hamlet can be seen either as seeking to make truly open amends or as engaging in public relations (or both). Little wonder that Laertes seems unsure about how to respond until he consults some trusted friends (5.2.244). In the meantime, he is willing to receive Hamlet's “offer'd love like love / And will not wrong it” (5.2.247-48). This whole exchange shows the complications that result when private friendships are negotiated in public.

No sooner do Hamlet and Laertes reach apparent accord, in fact, than the latter suspects the former of mocking him (5.2.252-55), while the apparently friendly words between Hamlet and Claudius can be seen either as a brief cessation of hostilities or as disguised verbal jousting (5.2.256-60). Meanwhile, once the real fighting begins, Laertes' eventual willingness to confess to being hit (5.2.288) seems to show a capacity for honor and friendship even in the thick of combat. This appearance is complicated, though, by our knowledge that he is Claudius's willing instrument, yet we begin to doubt our doubts when Laertes confesses (in an aside) to a troubled conscience—just before he nonetheless strikes the fatal blow (5.2.300). Shakespeare thus goes out of his way to make Laertes (and nearly all the characters) difficult to judge simply: instead, they easily seem as complex as our own friends or ourselves. Ironically, the final reconciliation between Hamlet and Laertes is preceded by apparently real hatred (5.2.306), but in his dying moments Laertes shows himself capable of real friendship not only by forgiving Hamlet (and seeking Hamlet's forgiveness) but also by accusing himself (5.2.332-36). His self-condemnation paradoxically functions as self-praise: the more he denounces his own “treachery” (5.2.313), the more worthy he seems. One aspect of the play's tragedy, indeed, is that these young men feel a kind of friendship just when real friendship between them becomes impossible.25

Meanwhile, although “friends” is almost Claudius's final word (5.2.329), such phrasing seems wonderfully ironic. The king appeals to friends to defend him, yet no one moves: instead, he is now almost completely friendless. The man who sought to win, keep, and manipulate friends dies alone, even though surrounded by fellow-revelers and erstwhile drinking companions. Their final disloyalty is no surprise: they are largely friends of pleasure. Openly denounced by his co-conspirator and recognized as a murderer by his dying wife, Claudius dies suddenly, his throat flooded by wine, no shriving time allowed. Hamlet, in contrast, dies a slower death that allows him to speak final friendly words to Laertes, his dead mother, the court, and especially Horatio (5.2.337-45). Horatio's desperate effort to act as a true friend by dying with Hamlet is prevented by the prince himself, who claims to interpet the apparently selfless gesture as a sign of selfish weakness. Ironically, one of Hamlet's last physical acts is to duel with his friend for possession of the poisoned cup (5.2.347-48). From Hamlet's perspective, Horatio's willingness to suffer the pain of living, not any willingness to end pain by death, will truly show him a friend (5.2.351-54).

This final conflict between Hamlet and Horatio paradoxically signals the depth of their mutual love, but it also shows the extent of Hamlet's dependence. He needs Horatio now more than ever, and he needs him particularly to help Hamlet win and keep friends even after the prince is dead: “O God, Horatio, what wounded name, / Things standing thus unknown, shall I leave behind me” (5.2.349-50). Even as he leaves the world, Hamlet is concerned with his worldly reputation—with having friends, with being well regarded and truly respected. He therefore implicitly challenges the sincerity of Horatio's friendship (thereby, ironically, showing his real trust in it): “If ever thou didst hold me in thy heart, / Absent thee from felicity awhile” (5.2.351-52). Hamlet is now a totally dependent and vulnerable friend, and Horatio now, unusually, has nearly total (but not total) power in their relationship. Even as he dies, Hamlet tries to control his friend's future words, conduct, and status. He publicly appoints Horatio his spokesman, just as he publicly nominates Fortinbras (once an enemy) as the new king. Although physically weak, Hamlet still wields power, particularly over his once and future friends.

Horatio's famous words (“Good night, sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest”; 5.2.364-65) are ironically juxtaposed with sounds of drums. These might normally signal war but now symbolize a kind of peace. The very brevity of Horatio's reaction to Hamlet's death makes it seem more powerfully heartfelt and sincere than any long, rhetorical speech could be, while the adjective “sweet” suggests how their friendship has ripened into love. Horatio's last image of Hamlet depicts the prince surrounded by true spiritual friends who will properly appreciate and love him and who, almost by definition, are incapable of doing him any harm. This image of ministering angels, though, is soon contrasted by Fortinbras's image of “proud Death” as an enemy feasting on the scattered bodies (5.2.369-72). And that image is complicated, in turn, when the English ambassadors appear, expecting friendly welcome (and reward?) for announcing the deaths of Hamlet's old chums, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

The ambassadors' arrival and their news might seem an odd distraction or an obvious bit of irony, but perhaps this touch is Shakespeare's way of emphasizing, one last time, the theme of friendship and the enormous complexities that theme often involves. The closing reference to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern helps complicate any simple judgments we might wish to make. If we think of them as wronged friends, we must also think of them as Claudius's inadvertent tools. If we think of them as Hamlet's victims, we must also think of them as victims of Claudius and of fate. If we think of them as disposable fools whose deaths finally do not matter, we probably cheapen the play. We view Hamlet as a victim just as we hear of the old friends he has helped victimize. In this play, few matters (including friendship) are ever simple.

Horatio, the one-time outsider, now takes partial charge and also center stage. As Hamlet's friend and as the only survivor who knows the whole truth, he is now positioned to serve as a friend both to Denmark (by explaining truly what has happened) and to Fortinbras (by legitimating the new ruler's claim to power). By acting as Hamlet's voice, Horatio will win friends for the new king and may even, ironically, become one of the new ruler's closest Danish advisors. Fortinbras, meanwhile, speaks words of friendly tribute to Hamlet (5.2.400-05)—words which, like so many other friendly words in this play, can seem merely politic, truly sincere, or both at once. Even in these final lines Shakespeare refuses to simplify the friendship theme. The play closes with sounds of thundering cannons—sounds of war transformed into sounds of tribute, sounds of power transformed into sounds of love and honor, sounds of violence transformed into sounds of peace, sounds of hatred transformed into final peals of friendship.


  1. The Question of Hamlet (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959), 3-4.

  2. “Friendship” does not appear, for instance, as a separate subject in the indices of either Randal F. Robinson, Hamlet in the 1950s: An Annotated Bibliography (New York: Garland, 1984) or Julia Dietrich, Hamlet in the 1960s: An Annotated Bibliography (New York: Garland, 1992). Inevitably it is discussed to one degree or another by various scholars whose work is cited in these books. In Robinson, for example, see entries 317 (Leo Kirschbaum) and 438 (Abbie Potts). In Dietrich, see such entries as the following: 103 (Curtis Watson); 651 (Heinreich Straumann); 665 (Fermin de Urmeneta); and 1033 (Howard Feinstein). Even more helpful is Bruce T. Sajdak's Shakespeare Index: An Annotated Bibliography of Critical Articles on the Plays 1959-1983, 2 vols. (Millwood, New York: Krause International, 1992). The following items in Sajdak's work are particularly helpful: U40 (Isadore Traschen); U238 (Howard Feinstein); U272 (Bridget Gellert); U345 (James I. Wimsatt); U364 (Robert Willson); U496 (Kristian Smidt); U376 (Joseph Meeker); U403 (Thomas Nelson); U494 (Andrew J. Sacks); U606 (Leo Rockas); U610 (Pierre Sahel); U714 (Ilona Bell); U772 (Charles Haines); U793 (Michael Taylor). Although I do not agree with the arguments of all these scholars, I have found all their ideas suggestive.

    Also helpful have been the following: Julia Lupton, “Truant Dispositions: Hamlet and Machiavelli,” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 17 (1987): 59-82, and (most recently) Keith Doubt, “Hamlet and Friendship,” Hamlet Studies 17 (1995): 54-62. However, none of the studies mentioned in this note, nor any others of which I am aware, undertake the kind of detailed, almost scene-by-scene approach to the theme of friendship I hope to offer here.

  3. My original intent, when I first conceived this article, was both to theorize and historicize Shakespeare's treatment of friendship in Hamlet, but as I worked on the piece, one problem kept arising: the sheer richness of the play kept intruding on any sustained effort to pull back from the work itself. I have opted here instead, therefore, to work my way minutely through the drama, saving explicit theorizing on Renaissance friendship for another forum. I do already offer some historical and theoretical comments about the topic in chapter 6 of Ben Jonson and the Poetics of Patronage (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1989), 192-221. For a useful guide to general discussions of friendship, see J. L. Barkas, Friendship: A Selected, Annotated Bibliography (New York: Garland, 1985). Among the items listed by Barkas, the following have proven most helpful: 9 (Aristotle); 11 (Augustine); 23 (Robert R. Bell); 36 (Peter M. Blau); 41 (Lawrence A. Blum); 49 (Robert Brain); 63 (Cicero); 78 (Steve Duck); 116 and 117 (Erving Goffman); 124 (Andrew M. Greeley); 135 (George Homans); 188 and 189 (George J. McCall and J. L. Simmons); 194 (Gilbert C. Meilander); 208 (Friedrich Nietzsche); 222 (Plato); 225 (Plutarch); 227 (John M. Reisman); 263 (Jeremy Taylor); 311 (Sir Francis Bacon); and 504 (Montaigne). For more recent work see, for instance, Neera Kapur Bahwar, ed., Friendship: A Philosophical Reader (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1993); Leroy S. Rouner, ed., The Changing Face of Friendship (Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994); and the special issue on friendship (edited by Peter Murphy) of the South Atlantic Review 97:1 (1998).

    Jacques Derrida's book The Politics of Friendship, trans. George Collins (London: Verso, 1997) appeared too late (and seemed perhaps a bit too opaque) for me to make much use of it here.

  4. See “Timon of Athens: The Iconography of False Friendship,” Huntington Library Quarterly 43 (1980): 181-200, esp. 185. I am honored to acknowledge here the true friendship Cliff Davidson has always shown, not only toward me and many other colleagues (such as his long-time collaborator John S. Stroupe), but also toward the numerous scholars he has generously helped over the years. Cliff's encouragement and assistance will be greatly missed but never forgotten.

    One of the most valuable studies of Renaissance concepts of friendship remains the venerable study by Laurens J. Mills, One Soul in Bodies Twain: Friendship in Tudor Literature and Stuart Drama (Bloomington: Principia, 1937). Mills surveys (and quotes extensively from) all the standard sources. One of these is William Baldwin's 1547 Treatise of Morall Philosophie, which was subsequently enlarged by Thomas Palfreyman and reprinted in 1620. This text quickly summarizes nearly all the most typical Renaissance ideas about friendship (mostly borrowed from classical precursors). These include the beliefs that friendship is a “vertue” rooted in virtue; that it involves “perfect consent in all things”; that “there is nothing giuen of God (except wisedome) that is to man more commodious”; that friendship makes “of two persons one”; that it is “small pleasure to haue life in this world if a man may not trust his friends”; that friendship “is to be preferred before all worldly things”; that “where equality is not, friendship may not long continue”; that a “true friend is more to be esteemed, then kinfolke”; that one should be “slow to fall into friendship, but when … in [should] continue”; that one should not trust friends won during prosperity; that “friends lightly taken, are likewise lightly left again”; that the “iniury of a friend is much more grieuous than the iniury of an enemy”; but also (paradoxically) that there “is so little [obvious] difference between our enemy and our friend” that it is “hard to know the one from the other.” See the edition of Baldwin's treatise edited by Robert Hood Bowers (Gainesville: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1967), 174-79.

    For more recent discussions of Renaissance friendship see, for example, Lorna Hutson, The Usurer's Daughter: Male Friendship and Fictions of Women in Sixteenth-Century England (London: Routledge, 1994), as well as Laurie J. Shannon's “‘Soveraigne Amitie’: Friendship and the Political Imagination in Renaissance Texts” (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1996) and the secondary works cited therein.

  5. This is not the place to discuss the complicated texts of Hamlet. Suffice it to say that I have elected to use the Arden edition, prepared by Harold Jenkins (London: Methuen, 1982). I have also consulted other editions and have found particularly helpful The Three-Text Hamlet: Parallel Texts of the First and Second Quartos and First Folio, ed. Paul Bertram and Bernice W. Kliman (New York: AMS Press, 1991). Unless otherwise noted, any italics in quotations are mine and have been added to emphasize particular words.

  6. In addition to the Arden notes and the works cited in my first two endnotes, I have also found the following scholarship particularly helpful in thinking about the play in general and especially about the theme of friendship: Paul S. Conklin, A History of Hamlet Criticism (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1947); Arthur G. Davis, Hamlet and the Eternal Problem of Man (New York: St. John's University Press, 1964), esp. 137-66; John W. Draper, The Hamlet of Shakespeare's Audience (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1938), esp. 17-53, 70-82, and 152-244; Harold Fisch, Hamlet and the Word: The Covenant Pattern in Shakespeare (New York: Unger, 1971), esp. 44-57; Walter N. King, Hamlet's Search for Meaning (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1982); Marvin Rosenberg, The Masks of Hamlet (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1992); Bert O. States, Hamlet and the Concept of Character (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), esp. 147-89; and Morris Weitz, Hamlet and the Philosophy of Literary Criticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964).

  7. See States, Hamlet and the Concept of Character, 152.

  8. See Shannon, “‘Soveraigne Amitie’,” passim.

  9. See Davis, Hamlet and the Eternal Problem of Man, 154.

  10. See also Draper, The Hamlet of Shakespeare's Audience, 22.

  11. This encounter is greatly expanded in the folio version; see Bertram and Kliman, eds., The Three-Text Hamlet, 96-100.

  12. See States, Hamlet and the Concept of Character, 149.

  13. See Draper, The Hamlet of Shakespeare's Audience, 19.

  14. For an effective analysis of this entire scene, see James I. Wimsatt, “The Player King on Friendship,” Modern Language Review 65 (1970): 1-6.

  15. See Fisch, Hamlet and the Word, 48.

  16. See Rosenberg, The Masks of Hamlet, 559.

  17. See Davis, Hamlet and the Eternal Problem of Man, 155.

  18. See Rosenberg, The Masks of Hamlet, 560.

  19. But see King, Hamlet's Search for Meaning, 82.

  20. See Mills, One Soul in Bodies Twain, 134-44; and Draper, The Hamlet of Shakespeare's Audience, 282.

  21. See Doubt, “Hamlet and Friendship,” 59.

  22. See Joan Larson Klein, “Hamlet IV.ii.12-21 and Whitney's Choice of Emblems,Notes and Queries, n.s. 23:4 (1976): 158-61.

  23. See Rosenberg, The Masks of Hamlet, 865.

  24. See Draper, The Hamlet of Shakespeare's Audience, 157.

  25. See Doubt, “Hamlet and Friendship,” 61.

Richard Mallette (essay date 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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: the kinsmen renounce their amity and become violent rivals for the affections of the beloved. On the other hand, the play equally asserts the price of that ascendancy: if marriage prevails over same-sex friendship, it does so at a “cost.” Violence is the most obvious cost, but it is not the only one. Marriage is shown also to co-opt same-sex desire, to regulate and so ultimately to exact the “loss of our desire.” The effect of the play's representation of such rival allegiances is to challenge dominant discourses of marriage. Friendship becomes the site of what marriage costs. By bringing competing kinds of desire into relation with one another, the play insists more upon the ruin of desire than on the triumph of married love.

This essay traces a range of desire in this prominent literary treatment of friendship by identifying in that text embedded affinities between Renaissance discussions of friendship and discursive expressions of sexual desire.1The Two Noble Kinsmen is especially important because it highlights the web of affiliations between the erotic and the homosocial; in this play erotic friendship converges with male rivalry for the beloved, issuing in a violence represented as constituent of erotic desire. The conflict between friendship and eros shows what must be sacrificed if illegitimate same-sex desire is to be monitored. Same-sex erotic friendship becomes the focus of what the superintendence of desire requires. Moreover, the play claims attention as one of the few Renaissance literary treatments of both male and female same-sex erotic friendship.

The erotic structures of Renaissance friendship discourse are signaled in Montaigne's canny essay “Of Friendship” (1580), an early modern proof-text on the subject that can serve as a brief prolegomenon. In appraising why the bonds of male friendship transcend the erotic attachments between men and women, Montaigne, like most of his male contemporaries and predecessors, dismisses women on two grounds. First, women cannot form friendships—with either men or one another—of the caliber Montaigne requires, for their friendships are not capable of stability and permanence: “nor seem their mindes strong enough to endure the pulling of a knot so hard, so fast, and durable” (199). Second, women cannot satisfy for men the spiritual (as opposed to physical) demands of friendship. The possibilities intrigue him, though, because the physical intimacies offered by men's relationships with women would, on the face of it, seem to fulfill his requirement of closeness. Indeed, dominant discourses of marriage in the period—certainly in Protestant England, if not in Catholic France—celebrate “companionship” between husband and wife as one of the chief benefits of matrimony.2 If, muses Montaigne, one could imagine a relationship where both mind and body “might be wholy engaged,” then friendship would be “more compleat and full” (199). Having rejected women's ability to sustain such companionship—and thereby putting himself outside newly regnant discourses of marriage that celebrate friendship between husband and wife—Montaigne leaves open the possibility of achieving such a union between men. Although Montaigne perceives, he instantly rejects the next logical step: same-sex erotic friendship. To acknowledge the legitimacy of what he calls “Greeke licence” would be to contradict that such a union is “justly abhorred by our customes” (199). Which customs? The notion of sodomy that inspires such revulsion (and confusion) in his contemporaries?3 Not exactly: it is not same-sex desire but rather the Greco-Roman “disparitie of ages, and difference of offices betweene lovers” that fail “sufficiently [to] answer the perfect union and agreement, which we here require” (199). This thought leads him to a lengthy divagation, buttressed by classical literary examples, of the “disparitie” he objects to, particularly those cases in which the older lover responds immoderately to the beauty of the younger and thereby surrenders an “equitable and equall manner” (201). The sort of friendship Montaigne celebrates, however, features not merely balance but sameness: “If a man urge me to tell him wherefore I loved him, I feele it cannot be expressed, but by answering; Because it was he, because it was my selfe” (201).4

Montaigne has both confronted and slyly skirted the issue of eroticism in friendship. He nearly acknowledges but then quickly represses a potentially erotic linkage between (male) friends.5 Although he rejects eros as a legitimate component of friendship, however much it may be staring him in the face, the grounds he holds are not those of his contemporaries, namely that sodomy is a form of debauchery, a political and religious offense.6 He argues instead from the issue of equality. Montaigne thereby opens a viable route for tracking same-sex friendships in literary discourse. What are the implications of Montaigne's model for a Renaissance text that treats eroticized friendships between equals? His nervous erasure of same-sex erotic friendship, whose validity he very nearly grants, is similar to what happens in The Two Noble Kinsmen. Like Montaigne, this play both acknowledges and refuses to accept the possibilities of erotic friendship between equals. The play then overgoes Montaigne in what it says about literary friendships between women as well as between men. If we rise to Montaigne's implicit challenge and assay a literary treatment of erotic friendship as relations between same-sex equals, we can watch his argument extend to its logical analytic end—an end that will challenge contemporary discourses of marriage.

The Two Noble Kinsmen warrants scrutiny through just such a lens, for it speaks to Montaigne's several criteria. First, Shakespeare's and Fletcher's play about the friendship between two young knights satisfies Montaigne's demand for “equality.” Furthermore, it features both male and female friendships—and presents them as erotic same-sex unions. Although this last feature of the play has usually been evaded or ignored, the rivalry of Palamon and Arcite for Emilia has recently been treated (warily) under the auspices of male homosocial bonds, relationships, as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has theorized, that are not usually or explicitly homoerotic.7 To examine the homosociality of this play, however, points us determinedly toward the homoerotic, if this construct is contextualized within the matrix of the values of heterosexual marriage the text seems to endorse. The play's friendships are qualified so severely by erotic complications that companionate marriage cannot feasibly resolve its struggles.8 Romantic comedy, particularly earlier Shakespearean comedy, typically occludes same-sex desire by resolving competing ambiguities in a matrimonial bond that idealizes opposite-sex couples (Pequigney, Traub). Indeed, this is the very problem this play addresses: can marriage defeat or even quell intense same-sex eros? The play makes tangible the threat of same-sex eroticism and attempts to police that transgressive desire by enforcing marriage as its antidote. But the play also dramatizes the futility of the policing and its cost to both love and marriage: none of the characters achieves anything like happiness or erotic fulfillment. Marriage is demanded of the characters as a mechanism for controlling desire, but its enforcement has the effect of highlighting the resistance of desire to compulsory marriage.

We may begin with the play's principal female friendship, if only because it so prominently jeopardizes the text's ideologies. Emilia's friendship with her girlhood friend Flavina is the most intensely described female erotic friendship in the Shakespearean canon. As far as the audience is concerned, if not her would-be suitors, Emilia's same-sex erotic credentials are firmly established early on. In conversation with her Amazonian sister Hippolyta about the power of same-sex friendship and its “intertangled roots of love” (1.3.59), she reveals her inmost erotic thoughts about women. A salient feature of Emilia's friendship with Flavina is her recollection of their equality and balance. As though she were challenging Montaigne's asseverations that women are incapable of the demands and union of friendship, Emilia describes an absolute equality between the two girls: “our souls” were balanced “like the elements”: “What she lik'd / Was then of me approv'd, what not, condemn'd” (1.3.61-65). Furthermore, that friendship satisfies Montaigne's criterion for physical closeness. But the “Greeke licence” Montaigne recoils from takes in Emilia's autobiography an unexpected Sapphic turn. After a lyrical account of the girls' bonds, in highly charged erotic terms (“The flow'r that I would pluck / And put between my breasts [O then but beginning / To swell about the blossom], she would long / Till she had such another, and commit it / To the like innocent cradle, where phoenix-like, / They died in perfume” [1.3.66-71]), Emilia comes to this conclusion: “the true love 'tween maid and maid may be / More than in sex dividual” (1.3.81-82).9 Hippolyta leaps to the obvious inference: “you shall never (like the maid Flavina) / Love any that's call'd man.” Emilia responds: “I am sure I shall not” (84-85). But Hippolyta does not fully accept this information. She's determined “no more [to] believe thee in this point / (Though in't I know thou dost believe thyself)” (87-88). On the other hand, despite her halfhearted skepticism, Hippolyta does not regard Emilia's allegiance to another woman as scandalous or even especially surprising. It's a fact the two women acknowledge and share. Emilia's first-person story has set forth a model of same-sex desire that deliberately excludes men from her erotic life. Hippolyta's averred reluctance to “believe” her is undermined by her own evaluation that Emilia will never love a man, and by Emilia's ready confirmation of that judgment.

This conversation does more than reveal Emilia's individual unconventional erotic allegiance. It also implicitly challenges larger social structures of marriage and patriarchy. Hippolyta acknowledges as much by noting that Emilia has “said enough to shake me from the arm / Of the all-noble Theseus” (1.3.92-93), a patriarchal would-be husband if ever there were.10 Emilia's claims about the power of erotic friendship make Hippolyta uncomfortable enough to want “assurance” of Theseus's affections, to seek security that she “possess[es] / The high throne in his heart” (94-96). Emilia responds by coolly reasserting the strength of her own erotic affiliations: “I am not,” she tells Hippolyta, “[a]gainst your faith [in Theseus], yet I continue mine” (96-97).

Furthermore, the play challenges the marital value that excludes from its economy same-sex desire by not confining Emilia's same-sex longings to the distant past but by also dramatizing her same-sex erotic life as having an ongoing present in the action onstage. In a crucial and usually overlooked exchange, Emilia engages in an erotic negotiation with her handmaid. “Thou art wanton,” says Emilia. Playing with a proverb (I could laugh and lie down) that lent itself to much bawdry, the women continue the flirtation (Tilley 370):11

… I could laugh now.
I could lie down, I am sure.
And take one with you?
That's as we bargain, madam.
Well, agree then.
Exeunt Emilia and Woman.


This brief and teasing transaction again highlights the potential for eroticized friendship between women, as though to challenge the Montaignesque disbelief in women's ability to form such strong attachments. Furthermore, the entire conversation between Emilia and her handwoman defies the boundaries of class, for the two exhibit an openness to one another that breaks down social barriers. By contemporary stage convention, the bawdiness of the servant is not usually shared by the mistress. In this play, however, the intimate ties between lady and handwoman, reinforced by the naturalness and candor of their conversation throughout this scene, suggest a friendship more than a mistress-servant relationship. That their friendship is eroticized only heightens the daring character of the bonds between women in the play.

Yet the play takes pains to mute the transgressive overtones of this friendship, much as it downplays Emilia's attachment to Flavina by safely placing the girlhood friendship in the remote past. In the case of the handmaid, subversive homoerotic colorations are undercut or decentered by placing the conversation in a male homosocial context. The teasing exit of Emilia and her handmaid immediately precedes the ludicrous wrangling between Palamon and Arcite over Emilia, whom they seize on as the erotic focus of their rivalry (“I saw her first. … / I saw her too. … / I, that first saw her; I, that took possession / First …” [2.2.160-67]. Note that the men see Emilia; would they have reacted differently had they heard what she and the handmaid say?). The flirtation between Emilia and her handmaid is made more socially permissible, then, by its inclusion in a homosocial setting, an inclusion that has the effect of erasure. Emilia is the competitive focus between two knights, thereby deflecting attention from her defiance of convention toward an endorsement of heterosexual values.

Homosociality, then, which reduces the woman's status to that of erotic object, paradoxically confers a quasi-legitimacy on the expression of same-sex desire between two women. And it masks the illicit character of that desire. The enveloping narrative homosociality diminishes the cultural threat of same-sex eros and so permits that dangerous desire to be voiced, however quietly, and enacted, however ambiguously. The women's flirtation imperils neither the kinsmen's desire to “possess” Emilia nor the audience's expectation that marriage will be her eventual lot. Surely the diminishing of the danger to marriage ideology is one reason critics have been so slow to recognize the same-sex eroticism of this scene and of the play in general. Another reason may be the culturally discounted value of female desire, particularly if men are excluded from the erotic economy. Finally, the scene's emphasis on conventional male rivalry for women, whose end is usually matrimony, decenters critical attention from the covert intimacies women negotiate between themselves, intimacies acted out under the very noses of the kinsmen who squabble over the woman.

In the same fashion, however strong Emilia's attachment to Flavina may be and however it implicitly challenges marital values, it will not thwart her socially prescribed role as future marriage partner. Although in conversation with Hippolyta she explicitly rejects heterosexual romantic love, Emilia's same-sex affection is not presented as a rejection of marriage. She does not say she will never marry: she simply says she will not love men, a quite different statement and not as patently jeopardizing to social compositions. This feature of the play, then, does not conspicuously repudiate the bases of patriarchy or marriage. Furthermore, she later utters no protest when Theseus instructs her to marry whichever of the suitors proves his chivalric superiority. Finally, a prominent feature of her girlhood erotic friendship is that Flavina is safely dead (“she the grave enrich'd” [1.3.51]). The text downplays the illegitimacy of same-sex eroticism by cautiously locating the friendship in the far-off past of girlhood, with a partner accessible only to memory. Emilia's same-sex girlhood longing is voiced only to another woman (her sister and an Amazon, at that), in private conversation, and is not overtly characterized as impeding her societal role as a would-be married woman.12

The friendship between Emilia and Flavina, on the other hand, does forecast dramatic events, for, as Hippolyta accurately predicts, Emilia will not “love any that's call'd man.” Although she is as embattled as any romance heroine, she never loves or willingly commits herself to either of her young suitors.13 Her same-sex erotic attachment extends to the roots of young adulthood. Emilia calls herself “a natural sister of our sex” (1.1.125), sexually and psychically attached to women from pubescence on, and not, like some of the women in Shakespearean comedies, as having a female companion ad hoc until the right man comes along. Her betrothal to Palamon has a funereal, rather than a nuptial, air, and demonstrates how chivalric rivalry reifies her. The absurdity of the situation is palpable: the winner dies, and so Emilia is betrothed to the loser.

The play, then, in its depiction of female friendship, offers a dark view of marriage as a woman's portion. Neither marriage nor heterosexuality is Emilia's choice; indeed, both are compulsory. She scarcely indicates interest in either suitor, and she is married willy-nilly to the loser of the contest they wage for her. Here is where the Jailer's Daughter stands out by contrast. Her heterosexual credentials are unexceptionable. The Daughter is portrayed as a devotee not to Diana, as Emilia is, but instead to strong sexual appetites. Yet she, too, is compelled to marry someone other than the partner she chooses, someone other than the one she loves. The will of the Jailer's Daughter, like that of Emilia, is disregarded by the men who determine her match.14 By showing Emilia's erotic imagination to be governed by the remembrance of Flavina, and by slyly interjecting the exchange with the handmaid, the play discredits marriage as Emilia's emotionally (as opposed to socially) appropriate lot. After all, the play's sorrowful conclusion, with its ambiguous aftermath of the chivalric contest, focuses on Emilia's plight rather than her happily married future. And so while paying obeisance to the cultural obligation to marry, the play's ending gives scant sense that Emilia has emotionally accepted that the female friend is subsidiary to a new allegiance to her future husband. The play thereby emphasizes the cost of regulating same-sex desire. Emilia gives voice to her desire, provides autobiographical details of it, and then acts it out before the audience's (and her suitors') eyes. And yet she is married at the end of the play, and her desire is erased, as though in fealty to a societal obligation that sees marriage as her destiny, even if that means disregarding the evidence throughout the play of its inappropriateness to her. Are we meant to be pleased that Emilia is married at the play's end? Or has marriage been so discredited as her rightful emotional condition that we must leave the theater disturbed by her lot? Are the conventions of comedy and romance so powerful that we disregard the harm of forcing a young woman to marry against all the testimony the play provides that this course will be for her unsuitable? The female friendships in the play are constructed with such erotic and social ambiguity that it's unclear what the play, with its grave interrogations of female friendship, endorses.

So, too, with the male friendships. The title characters are at first presented as textbook examples of Renaissance male friends, seeming eager to exemplify Montaigne's assertions about the power of friendship to produce “perfect union and agreement” (199). Indeed, as critics have often noted rather querulously, these two young men are often indistinguishable, as if modeled on the Montaignesque notion of sameness. Also as if observing Montaigne's hypothesis about physical intimacy between friends, the play heightens the erotic expressions between the young knights.15 Having earlier (1.2) made plain their affection for one another, Palamon and Arcite in prison lament their lot. “Let's think this prison holy sanctuary,” says Arcite to Palamon (2.2.71). The prison becomes the play's first domain for expressing same-sex male intimacy.

Arcite laments that they will never know the “sweet embraces of a loving wife” and that “[w]e shall know nothing here but one another” (2.2.30, 41). But he immediately goes on to find comfort in this privation: “Whilst Palamon is with me, let me perish / If I think this our prison” (61-62). Arcite here takes explicit pleasure in the prospect of being alone in prison with Palamon. He urges Palamon to think that “[w]e are one another's wife, ever begetting / New births of love” (80-81). He even imagines the advantages of their not being able to find a “loving wife”: “[w]ere we at liberty, / A wife might part us lawfully” (88-89). This possibility seems to have a blandishing effect on Palamon, who replies like someone successfully wooed: “You have made me / (I thank you, cousin Arcite) almost wanton / With my captivity” (95-97). Wanton, indeed: hardly a word to be used apart from its charged libidinous undertones, and appropriate to Arcite's fantasy of imagining themselves “one another's wife.”16 Concluding this heady interchange with a vow that mimes the wedding service, Palamon says, “I do not think it possible our friendship / Should ever leave us.” Arcite (prophetically) answers, “Till our deaths it cannot” (114-15). Their “holy sanctuary” now echoes with the suggestion of “holy matrimony.” But the “new births of love” they generate in prison will not be fulfilled until they exchange their amity for another bond, in another all-male arena, the field of chivalric competition. In that domain (another “holy sanctuary”), births of love become something more sinister: erotic desire grows into homosocial violence.

That violence is born in the prison scene, when the youths' devotion to one another changes to the rivalry occasioned by Emilia's entrance. The sequencing is supposed to be comic: the instant reversal of their shared affection at the mere glimpse of Emilia. A homosocial contest replaces erotic friendship with farcical, puerile alacrity: “You love her then? Who would not? And desire her? / Before my liberty. / I saw her first” (2.2.158-60). The play emphasizes its sequencing of the structures of desire: it first defines the erotic bonds between the young men and only then transforms those bonds to homosocial aggression. By directing the youths' erotic energies into homosocial violence, The Two Noble Kinsmen will again cast a dark shadow on marriage and all kinds of love. The play does so by focusing on the sinister connections between same-sex erotic passion and homosocial rivalry. The play enacts not merely an ardent same-sex male eroticism; it also accentuates that intimacy to explore the malignant bonds between eros and violence.

The sequencing—and the promptness of the transformation—suggest the inseparability of eros and aggression. The play thoroughly spans and thoroughly voices the hypothetical continuum Sedgwick posits between homosocial and homoerotic discourses—although the characters rarely seem to realize what they're voicing. “To draw the homosocial back into the orbit of desire, of the potentially erotic,” notes Sedgwick, “is to hypothesize the potential unbrokenness of a continuum between the homosocial and the homosexual” (1). Over the course of the conflict the youths will dramatize (i.e., potentialize) numerous features of that spectrum of desire between men. In fact, the play dramatizes the intimacy of the links between eros and aggression. It thereby suggests that the continuum Sedgwick posits is more than hypothetical. In this play the homosocial and the homoerotic are indivisible.

In the prison scene, for example, although the same-sex erotic bonds are soon broken, a similar diction of desire defines the youths' rivalry. Emilia is almost incidental to the homosocial antagonism (Palamon: “Friendship, blood, / And all the ties between us, I disclaim / If thou once think upon her” [2.2.172-74]). Arcite cannot at first believe he's being treated this way: “am not I / Part of your blood, part of your soul? You have told me / That I was Palamon, and you were Arcite” (184-86)—very like Montaigne in identifying himself wholly with his friend. The scene dramatizes how homosocial discord emerges from eroticized friendship. So close are the bonds of same-sex eros and homosocial rivalry that one may postulate that because erotic desire between the youths has no legitimate possibility of fully fledged physical expression, it emerges instead as violence. Thwarted same-sex desire is channeled into socially sanctioned aggression. The closeness of eros and aggression gives a retrospective poignancy to Palamon's bemused thought upon first seeing Emilia: “Might not a man well lose himself and love her?” (155). To “love” Emilia will indeed entail sorrowful loss by the play's end, not only of himself but also of his friendship with Arcite and indeed of Arcite's life. As Arcite himself later says as he recognizes what the friends have lost: “I could wish I had not said I lov'd her / Though I had died” (3.6.40-41). But having “said” they love her, both young men commit themselves to a course of animosity that will destroy at least one of them as well as the bonds between them. The irony, then, is all the greater that during the prison scene Emilia carries on the erotic transaction with her handmaid, while the men literally overlook (if not overhear). The sour joke is on the would-be suitors, who are simultaneously entangled in an intense homosocial/erotic agon, and are unable to distinguish between the two. This irony gravely complicates the conventional homosocial triangle that makes the bond between the rivals at least as potent as the bond that links the rivals to the beloved. The beloved, in this case, is not only unconsulted but also emotionally unavailable—by her own admission, she will never love any that's called man.

Although Arcite is at first shocked by Palamon's turning from him to Emilia, he quickly recovers from feeling rejected and comically redirects his ardor for Palamon into enmity. He will, he boasts, “pitch between her arms to anger thee” (2.2.217), a textbook expression of the homosocial displacement of motivations that elevates the bonds between the rivals over those with the beloved. Freed from prison, Arcite later ponders how Palamon will react to his rival's proximity to Emilia. In soliloquy he says, “But if / Thou knew'st my mistress breath'd on me, and that / I ear'd her language, liv'd in her eye, O coz, / What passion would enclose thee!” (3.1.27-30). His exaltation is clearly a product of displaced desire. The “passion” he imagines is Palamon's, not his own for Emilia, much less Emilia's for either of the men. In fact, neither youth ever tries to imagine Emilia's feelings or anything about her situation; they're entirely preoccupied with one another. The spurned erotic friend has become the competitor; the homoerotic is undivided from the homosocial. For his part, Palamon, too, barely conceals (from the audience, if not himself) his own longing for Arcite. After he has been freed from prison, he fantasizes openly in soliloquy:

Were I at liberty, I would do things
Of such a virtuous greatness that this lady,
This blushing virgin, should take manhood to her
And seek to ravish me.


Palamon obviously yearns for Arcite's erotic attention. Which blushing virgin, Emilia or Arcite, does he imagine taking “manhood” and ravishing him? In the next scene, Arcite is shown as wistfully soliloquizing along the same lines as Palamon, for he employs similarly ambiguous wishes for the “free enjoying of that face I die for” (2.3.3). Whose face? He mentions only Palamon by name. Indeed, by a not difficult reconfiguring of the erotic triangle, we can see his jealousy directed against Emilia, not Palamon: “Palamon! / … thou shalt stay and see / Her bright eyes break each morning 'gainst thy window, / And let in life into thee; thou shalt feed / Upon the sweetness of a noble beauty” (2.3.7-11). How is the homosocial triangle formed here: whom is his antagonism directed toward, whom his longing? Which noble beauty does he long to see in prison each morning? The youths' erotic confusions are expressed in their cryptic phrasings and their muddled longing, confusions not deeply cloaked beneath their expressions of competition.

The kinsmen's reunitings in the forest (3.1, 3) clarify some of their flustered yearning. In the first of these scenes, they alternate comically between affection and antagonism, summed up in Palamon's suggestive statement: “sir; your person / Without hypocrisy I may not wish / More than my sword's edge on't” (94-96). Palamon responds equally evocatively: “Most certain / You love me not; be rough with me, and pour / This oil out of your language” (101-3). Their tone alternates between amatory and hostile, for neither youth recognizes the boundaries between longing and violence. In the second reuniting, Arcite proposes a reconciliation that excludes Emilia:

Pray sit down then, and let me entreat you
By all the honesty and honor in you,
No mention of this woman. 'Twill disturb us.

Palamon responds: “Well, sir, I'll pledge you” (3.3.13-16). Having deliberately bracketed the unnamed Emilia and removed her from between them, they then eat and drink, “thaw” (18) and remember happier times. Those recollections, “[w]hen young men went a-hunting” (40), include their amorous conquests—and contests. This competitive homosocial dialogue leads in turn almost inevitably back to Emilia and the source of their current rancor, which breaks the bonds they have just reestablished—or redirects those bonds from friendship to rivalry. The kinsmen cannot touch on eros without rupturing the ties of friendship (or, more accurately, intensifying them into rivalry), so anxious does the subject make them, and so inexorably does it lead them to aggression: “he dies for't,” says Palamon, as Arcite exits, with exquisite evocativeness (53). What critics have seen as the play's “struggle between collaboration and competition” is more accurately seen as the struggle to define the boundaries between the homoerotic and the homosocial, and the characters' inability to see that their friendship spans that unified continuum (Hedrick 56).

Key to the ironies of their desire is the arming scene (3.6), whose subtext is acute same-sex longing, just beneath the desire to kill one another. The terms of the dialogue alternate among chivalric ritual, crude hostility, and joking erotic familiarity, as though to emphasize the intimacy of these modes of expression. It begins with Palamon wishing that “my embraces / Might thank ye, not my blows,” answered by Arcite's claim that “you show / More than a mistress to me” (22-26), for “[y]our person I am friends with” (39). This scene, right in the middle of the play, is its moral and emotional centerpiece. Here the grim connection between eros and death is seen at its most naked and absurd. The friends struggle to articulate desire and wind up desiring violence. Longing is not permissible, but violence is. As Bruce Smith analyzes male-male desire on the Renaissance stage, the “desiring subject [in tragedy] defines the [same-sex] object of his desire in terms of power; desire finds its end in violence” (“Making a Difference” 135).17 Hence the domains in which male desire is voiced in this play: the all-male arenas of the prison and the arming area. The paradoxes of the arming scene are heightened by the two men having vowed to kill one another for a woman who seems unable to love either of them.

This scene is colored by an erotic-military air, and rather heavy-handedly underlined with a number of sexy double entendres (“Do I pinch you? … I'll buckle't close,” “thrust the buckle / Through far enough,” “I'll strike home. / Do, and spare not” [54-68]), as well as a solicitation about one another's persons (“How do I look?” asks Palamon, and Arcite answers, “Love has us'd you kindly” [66-67]).18 This erotic tomfoolery poignantly accents their attempts to destroy one another. The subsequent description of their retinues is also telling, for it dwells on male physical appearance. The dialogue sketches a series of male blazons (e.g., “His hair hangs long behind him, black and shining / Like ravens' wings” [4.2.83-84], or, even more, “All his lineaments / Are as a man would wish 'em, strong and clean” [113-14]) that out-Marlowe Marlowe for queer erotic intensity. These two men are not devotees of Mars and Venus, as their feeble prayers before the tournament would have it, but rather find their avatars, as Emilia's musings about them suggest (4.2.15, 32), in Ganymede and Narcissus.19 She points out, in a Marlovian echo of Leander, that Arcite is another “wanton Ganymede [who] / Set Jove afire,” one “[s]moother than Pelops' shoulder” (4.2.15, 21).20 These affiliations account at least in part for why the young men are nearly indistinguishable, despite the ingenious efforts of critics to find differences in characterization, and they account, too, for the unusual emphasis throughout the play on the young men's physical attractiveness. These two youths (Ganymede, Narcissus) gaze at one another (longingly), not at Emilia. The central scenes, with their baffled intermingling of sex and violence, might take as their epigraph/epitaph Theseus's subsequent comment: “Can these two live, / And have the agony of love about 'em, / And not kill one another?” (3.6.218-20). It's a good question. Could they have permitted that agony of love (for one another) without wanting to destroy it by destroying one another and themselves? If the play had depicted the youths as showing any convincing romantic interest in Emilia, an affirmative answer to Theseus's question would be a possibility. But neither of them ever has a conversation with her or exchanges more than a few ritualized and public lines of dialogue with her (e.g., 2.5). They are interested overwhelmingly in one another. The deflected eroticism of that interest takes a violent expression. In killing one another, they kill same-sex desire and so contain its transgressive potency.

If we place these considerations in the light of the remarkable dialogue early in the play that glorifies male friendship, the play's method of containing that transgression will become visible. In a conversation that forecasts the friendship to be defined by Palamon and Arcite in prison, Hippolyta and Emilia extol the friendship between Theseus and Pirithous: “They two have cabin'd / In many as dangerous as poor a corner, / Peril and want contending,” says Hippolyta (1.3.35-37), suggesting the intimacy of the all-male arena and the friendship it breeds. This expression of what Emilia calls “Pirithous' and Theseus' love” (1.3.55) proleptically defines the kinsmen's relationship: “Their knot of love, / Tied, weav'd, entangled” can be undone only by death, so “intertangled” are the “roots of love” (1.3.41-42, 59). Although the depiction reflects some of the truisms of Renaissance idealizings of male friendship, it also suggests, in the light of later developments in the play, the intertanglings of eros and violence between Arcite and Palamon. So entwined are the two young men that only death will undo them, and indeed death is the inevitable goal of their relationship and this play. For the play to have ended otherwise would countenance a profound sexual and cultural infraction that needs to be suppressed even as it is dramatized.

The Two Noble Kinsmen checks the potential illicitness of same-sex desire by several means. First, the play secures same-sex eroticism within a matrix of heterosexual marriage values. Marriage is the only long-term erotic option the characters can consider, however inadequate marriage proves as a solution to their conflicts. And it is farcically inadequate, for all three principals. Second, the play displaces same-sex erotic desire into culturally acceptable homosocial aggression. Here the chivalric antecedents help ameliorate illegitimate same-sex erotic colorations: these knights reenact a respectable Chaucerian chivalric contest. That the play cannot prevent the conflict from spilling into same-sex longing does not diminish the rearguard action it undertakes by placing the rivalry in the nostalgic and culturally agreeable context of chivalry. Third, the play performs what D. A. Miller has theorized as the “open secret” of same-sex eros in literary discourse. The function of the secret is “not to conceal knowledge, so much as to conceal the knowledge of the knowledge” (205-6). Alan Sinfield has extended this insight to suggest that the purpose of the open secret is to keep “a topic like homosexuality in the private sphere, but under surveillance, allowing it to hover on the edge of public visibility. If it gets fully into the open, it attains public recognition; yet it must not disappear altogether, for then it would be beyond control and would no longer effect a general surveillance of aberrant desire” (47).21 What acts as the surveillance mechanism in most literary discourse, of course, is heterosexual marriage, which replaces most same-sex friendships. The characters envision themselves as married partners, and the literary work usually leaves them that way, with much of the same-sex erotic tension dissolved or masked or ignored.

Shakespeare's and Fletcher's play, on the other hand, has a more difficult task in superintending same-sex eroticism. That desire is too powerful to be fully contained by marriage, and the play could hardly be said to take happy leave of its characters. The play uses homosocial strife as the means of exercising surveillance over, and so containing, same-sex eroticism. The price of that containment is violent death and compulsory marriage. As Arcite says on his deathbed: “Emily, / To buy you I have lost what's dearest to me” (5.3.111-12). Or, as we have heard Palamon say with equal ambiguity and sadness: “O cousin, / That we should things desire which do cost us / The loss of our desire!” (5.4.109-11). Both speak unknowingly: what is desired most dearly cannot be fully owned or voiced by the (male) desirers themselves. Both employ financial tropes to express the emotional price that the characters have had to pay to insure that marriage is not threatened by erotic friendship.

Hence the homoerotic has been allowed to hover on the edges of public visibility.22 And yet, as Sinfield's paradigm suggests, same-sex eros has obviously not “disappeared altogether” and so gotten beyond control. Same-sex desire hovers—not at the margins, but rather at the center of the play. The play performs its own policing of male same-sex desire by obliterating it in murderous homosocial antagonism—but not before having made its ironies painfully apparent. This is why the sequencing is so important: the play first dramatizes the erotic alliances of the principal male characters. Then it contains, controls, polices that eroticism by transforming, with comic promptness, that same-sex desire into homosocial rivalry. Or, to look at the issue another way, it contains same-sex desire by killing off the characters who occasion it—Flavina and Arcite. With both of them enriching the grave by the play's end, the text has seen to it that marriage triumphs, at least institutionally, if not emotionally. And the cost of that triumph is made clear by the fates of the young characters: at the end of the play none of them enjoys happiness, which is, after all, promised as a chief benefit of matrimony. The societal organization of marriage is victorious, but the price to be paid for that victory is sexual and emotional fulfillment.

Here we see another function of the Jailer's Daughter. Her socially impermissible longing for Palamon is presented as a class issue, but her desire is just as ideologically illegitimate as the same-sex longing of the noble characters. Desire that violates the boundaries of either class or sexuality cannot be permitted by the play's conclusion. The madness of the Jailer's Daughter and her subsequent loveless union uphold marriage ideology as effectively as the loveless union of Palamon and Emilia. Neither woman has a voice in her marital arrangements, and neither projected match finally threatens the play's marriage values. If either Emilia or the Jailer's Daughter had been permitted to fulfill her desires, the play would inscribe an unthinkable subversion of ideology, whether social, in the Daughter's case, or sexual, in Emilia's. In each instance, marriage is the woman's “cure,” as the Doctor characterizes the plan to have the Wooer sleep with the Daughter (5.2.19). Theseus decrees Emilia's marriage to the chivalric victor, whoever he may be; the Doctor decides that the Daughter's “cure” is sex with a male stranger. In each case, the woman is claimed by a man to whom she has no erotic or emotional attachment. But the play never explores this issue of lovelessness. In both cases, although male authorities direct the young women into marriages with men for whom they have no feeling, the play never dramatizes the consequences of this erotic surveillance. It is as though the play itself acts out its opening lines: “New plays and maidenheads are near akin—/ Much follow'd both, for both much money gi'n / If they stand sound and well” (Prologue.1-3). For this play to stand sound and well means that it upholds marriage values. Emilia's maidenhead, for example, must be presented at the conclusion to the highest bidder, the chivalric champion. The triumph of “marriage” over the threat of class and sexual impropriety would seem enough to quell objections to the sterility of the matches. And yet in his final speech Theseus himself calls attention to doubts the play has dramatized: “O you heavenly charmers, / What things you make of us! For what we lack / We laugh, for what we have are sorry” (5.4.131-33).

Emilia's role, too, accentuates how close the play comes to rupturing the audience's ideological complacency. Her position emphasizes the destructiveness of the play's attempts at erotic surveillance. She fully recognizes her powerlessness throughout the contest waged over her. Her long soliloquy with the kinsmen's pictures accurately indicates the same-sex subtext: she identifies the young men with Ganymede and Narcissus, two well-known code names for same-sex erotic types. “O, who can find the bent of woman's fancy?” (4.2.33), she asks. In fact, Hippolyta earlier seems exactly to have found it (in Flavina), and Emilia herself seems to know which way she's bent. “I have no choice” (4.2.35), she complains, saying more than she intends. She has no choice between the men because neither would constitute her choice, if she were to be given any significant choices. Later she points out that she is “bride-habited, / But maiden-hearted” (5.1.150-51), a play on the word “maiden” that sums up her sexual predicament. The heart and fancy of this maiden are bent toward another maiden, however she may be bride-habited toward men who are clearly more interested in one another than in her. This is why, when the young men are discovered in the forest, she entreats Theseus to spare their lives and banish both. Theseus refuses her this convenient resolution of her plight, on the grounds that she lacks “understanding” (3.6.213-16). But Emilia understands her difficulty more clearly than the young men understand theirs. To remove them by banishment would solve her problem and theirs, for they, too, would be free from the homosocial rancor into which they have channeled their desire.

To cast the youths into the outer cultural darkness of banishment would remove the need to subdue their erotic longing for one another. But the play cannot allow that possibility, either; it needs, in Sinfield's terms, to contain the homoerotic on the edges of public visibility. And so banishment is not culturally feasible. In suggesting banishment, Emilia speaks only for herself, however, not for them, and expresses only her need to be free from their attentions. And so she next begs Theseus to make them “[s]wear … never more / To make me their contention, or to know me” (3.6.252-53). Desperately trying to use whatever means she can to remove them from her life, she only incites a loud volley of homosocial hostility from the young men. Neither of them evinces much more than a perfunctory interest in her, of course, but instead a great deal more in one another (Palamon: “I must love, and will, / And for that love must and dare kill this cousin,” 261-62; can there be a more pregnant statement of the youths' erotic confusions?). “They cannot both enjoy you” (275), says Theseus with wonderful ambiguity. Indeed, neither can “enjoy” her, for reasons none of the principals comprehends. Death seems almost the only solution to this nexus of misunderstood and inarticulate desire. Such confusions have forced the characters into an emotional cul-de-sac. None can enjoy any of the others, in any sense of the word “enjoy.”

And so in the specifics of the youths' enmity, too, the play erodes cultural certainties about the redemptive properties of marriage. Despite their earlier imbalanced erotic partnership, the play could have concluded, in the fashion of a comedy, by depicting the suitable matches of the young knights (to women) and given them a life happy ever after. Another play—even an early Shakespearean comedy—might have concluded with little disruption from the youths' entanglement, which would be simply dissolved in the culturally harmonizing discourse of marriage (Pequigney 218). This disturbing play, though, presents a fervent and reciprocal erotic affiliation between the two youths, intertwines it with homosocial competition of the crudest kind, and then “resolves” the rivalry with a highly unsatisfactory triumph of one knight over the other. Even the winner is not the winner, but dies. And Palamon, as we saw, regrets the loss of Arcite far more than he joys in winning Emilia. His regret that “nought could buy / Dear love but loss of dear love” (5.4.111-12) captures the essence of the youths' relationship: the price paid for thwarting desire between them is loss of one another through violence. He also suggests, rather bizarrely, that in death Arcite has become the focus of the rivalry—or would be if Emilia had evidenced much interest in either of them. “O miserable end of our alliance! / … I am Palamon, / One that yet loves thee dying” (5.4.86-90), he says as Arcite expires.

The play closes on the note it began, with a funeral-marriage. The homosocial triangle is broken. But the play is not resolved by an even superficially happy marriage. The Two Noble Kinsmen instead formulates a union between two characters attached to same-sex dead friends more than to one another. The marriage tetrad the ending of the play fails to construct is between Arcite-Palamon and Emilia-Flavina. That (unwritten) play's wedding night has proleptically been accomplished on the battlefield, where the young men have what one critic rather sensationally calls a simultaneous orgasm (Abrams 73), or in Emilia's case, in the far reaches of bygone youth. For the surviving characters in the play as written, though, erotic happiness seems over, attached to dead lover-friends. What remains is an empty hull of public married respectability. That emptiness is the cost that marriage pays in suppressing the characters' desires.


  1. Until recently, Renaissance idealizings of friendship seemed to have no truck with same-sex desire. If only by virtue of scholarly silence on the subject, the unmentionable vice of Sodom was judged to measure vast distances from friendship discourse. But historians and literary scholars have started to fill the gaps—with both positivist and more theoretical interventions—between friendship and same-sex eros. Alan Bray traces “the unacknowledged connection between the unmentionable vice of Sodom and the friendship which all accounted commendable,” primarily in historical evidence (“Signs” 47). Bruce R. Smith provides the most complete picture of the connections between friendship and “homosexual desire” (Homosexual Desire 33-41, 67-72, 234-36, 245-51). Jonathan Goldberg finds numerous instances of the overlaps between friendship and other male-male relations (Sodometries 77-84, 118-26, 236-46).

  2. Early modern English views of marriage have been widely investigated. Mary Beth Rose (29-32) sums up Protestant idealizings of matrimony; Anthony Fletcher provides a thorough survey of recent scholarship, especially work that sees Protestant discourses of marriage as a celebration of companionship.

  3. Bray's pathbreaking book argues that sodomy was unclearly defined in the period: e.g., “It was not a sexuality in its own right, but existed as a potential for confusion and disorder in one undivided sexuality” (Homosexuality 25). See also Bruce R. Smith (Homosexual Desire 41-53) on the sodomy laws and their confusion. Goldberg (Sodometries 17-26, 109-26) develops Foucault's insight (101) that sodomy is a “confused category.”

  4. Compare Cicero on the subject: “What is sweeter than to have someone with whom you may dare discuss anything as if you were communing with yourself” (131); “[a]gain, he who looks upon a true friend, looks, as it were, upon a sort of image of himself” (133).

  5. William J. Beck examines the half-dozen references to “l'homosexualité” in the Essays and concludes that Montaigne's emendations of 1592 suggest Montaigne's “attraction pour La Boetie” (43). Carla Freccero notes the diction of anthropophagy, a practice Montaigne condemns among the “cannibals,” in his views on friendship. Bruce R. Smith considers Montaigne's essay in the Greco-Roman context of friendship discourse and points to Montaigne's insistence on friendship as a meeting of equals (Homosexual Desire 36-37, 41).

  6. The point has been amply demonstrated by recent scholarship. Bray's treatment (Homosexuality 13-32, 68, 103, 112) of the historical setting has been refined and amplified by Bruce R. Smith (Homosexual Desire 10-19, 41-53) and Goldberg (Sodometries 3-18). Two recent studies have studied the early modern crime of sodomy from a theoretical perspective: Gregory Bredbeck notes that sodomy is a “way to encompass a multitude of sins with a minimum of signs” (13); Jonathan Dollimore sees continuities between “sodomy as a kind of behaviour, and homosexuality as a modern identity” (237).

  7. See, e.g., Hedrick 45-77. Although I disagree with Hedrick's downplaying of same-sex eros in the play (e.g., “We need not look for a homoerotic or homosexual subtext if we acknowledge the governing structure of ‘male homosocial desire,’” 55), I find productive his mapping of the cultural narrative of homosociality onto the action. Sedgwick is the already classic account of homosociality (1-27). She does not see “genital homosexual desire as ‘at the root of’ other forms of male homosociality” (2), but instead finds a “radically disrupted continuum … between sexual and nonsexual male bonds” (23).

  8. Rose focuses on a variety of the play's “dislocations,” particularly the relation of love and sexuality to marriage (212-30). Rose's treatment is especially acute in defining the characters' suffering as anxiety and ambivalence about sexual love.

  9. Noel R. Blincoe argues that the quarto reading “sex individuall,” usually emended in modern editions to “sex dividual” (i.e., persons of different sex), is correct, implying “the union of man and woman in wedlock” (484-85). In either case, Emilia pronounces on the superiority of the “love 'tween maid and maid,” whether over that with a man or between married partners. The most straightforward view of Emilia's “sexual preference” is held by Dorothea Kehler, who sees in Emilia's longing for Flavina a challenge to compulsory heterosexuality (166-68). Valerie Traub's analysis of the homoerotic significations in the friendship between Rosalind and Celia in As You Like It may be extended to the female friendships in this play (122-30). Douglas Bruster makes just such an extension, but claims that Emilia, unlike an audience, “does not recognize the erotic potential of her speech” (12) about Flavina.

  10. D'Orsay Pearson provides background for “the Renaissance image of Theseus as the unfaithful lover and husband, the abandoner of women, and the unnatural father” (281).

  11. Hallett Smith notes that an “old card game, ‘Laugh and lay down,’ prompted many mildly indecent puns” (1652). Richard Abrams points to this interchange as evidence of “Emilia's sapphic orientation” (72). See also Gwyn Williams 137-41.

  12. It is, however, strong enough to make some critics uncomfortable. Emilia has been said to be “sexless” (Hallett Smith 1641) and her longing for Flavina “not the sort of thing one wants to associate Shakespeare with” (Edwards 105). Glynne Wickham claims that the conversation between Hippolyta and Emilia “brings the discussion of platonic love perilously close to consummation in homosexual relationships, both male and female.” Wickham rescues the conversation from that peril, however, by averring that “Emilia's views are those of a girl who has not yet been in love with a man” (183).

  13. Rose sees Emilia as an “independent actor”: the play cannot decide whether Emilia is a “passive victim in regard to choosing a mate, or … unwilling to assert her prerogative as a subject and make a choice” (222). In an essay that otherwise reproduces a number of normative and prescriptive assumptions from earlier criticism, E. Talbot Donaldson does note that the play “seems to suggest that [Emilia's] resistance to sexual love is mature and valid, and that the entanglement of marriage is not an inevitable prescription for all women's happiness” (63).

  14. Jeanne Addison Roberts sees the Jailer's Daughter as the “true exemplar of Venus” whose “voracious feminine appetite must be curbed,” and whose “unbridled female sexuality … demands the ‘bridaling’ enacted in wedlock” (141-42).

  15. Barry Weller explores the erotic intensity of the youths' friendship; I find his essay especially insightful in tracing the conflicts in the play between friendship and marriage. Bruce R. Smith considers the conflict in the play between male bonding and marriage (Homosexual Desire 69-72). He notes Arcite's erotic initiative in the “two friends' speeches [that] pulse with sexual innuendo” (70). On the related issue of friendship, eroticism, and textual collaboration, see Masten 280-309.

  16. The word, of course, is frequently used in Shakespeare and throughout the period with erotic suggestions. In this play alone it has several relevant usages: e.g., Emilia tells her handmaid “Thou art wanton,” when they flirt beneath the men's noses in the prison scene (2.2.146). Looking at Arcite's portrait before the tournament, Emilia proclaims that “[j]ust such another wanton Ganymede / Set Jove afire” (4.2.15-16). Palamon's prayer to Venus acknowledges her power by saying that “youth, like wanton boys through bonfires, / Have skipp'd thy flame” (5.1.86-87).

  17. As Bruce R. Smith points out in this acute discussion of the dynamics of same-sex desire, “one law of tragedy remains sacrosanct: the ending of homoerotic desire is death” (“Making a Difference” 136).

  18. Donald K. Hedrick points to the double entendres but resists (“I will not examine the dialogue's sexual innuendo”) their implications: “I would argue that the probable tone of this passage is intended to produce a homosocial locker-room snickering for the male audience rather than a homosexual reference to the characters” (66).

  19. In the prison scene (2.2), directly after Arcite and Palamon have declared their affection for one another, Emilia enters and asks the name of a flower. “'Tis call'd narcissus, madam,” says her handmaid. Emilia answers, “That was a fair boy certain, but a fool / To love himself. Were there not maids enough?” (2.2.119-21). The interchange clearly reflects on the young men, but how? The remark has enough ambiguity to account for (1) the scene's same-sex erotic dimensions; (2) its classical (and Montaignesque) truisms about the identicalness of true friends; (3) Emilia's simultaneous distance from and proximity to the kinsmen; and so on.

  20. Cf. the initial description of Leander in “Hero and Leander” (Marlow 432-33, lines 61-65):

    His bodie was as straight as Circes wand,
    Jove might have sipt out Nectar from his hand.
    Even as delicious meat is to the tast
    So was his necke in touching, and surpast
    The white of Pelops shoulder.
  21. M. C. Bradbrook makes a similar point, years before queer theory's interventions: she claims that “the topic of homosexuality … become[s] pervasive without being acknowledged. The relation of the kinsmen … reflects what everyone knew to be the habits of the monarch himself” (32).

  22. And then has been disallowed, rather loudly, by critics. Against all evidence, some have repeatedly (and defensively) maintained it is not about “homosexuality.” In his introduction to the Oxford Shakespeare edition, Waith censures tout court recent theatrical productions that “have strongly suggested homosexuality. It is most unlikely … that Fletcher and Shakespeare intended such suggestions or that audiences at that time would have interpreted the bond between the kinsmen in this way” (50).

Works Cited

Abrams, Richard. “Gender Confusion and Sexual Politics in The Two Noble Kinsmen.Drama, Sex, and Politics. Ed. James Redmond. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985. 69-76.

Beck, William J. “Montaigne Face à la Homosexualité.” Bulletin de la Societé des Amis de Montaigne 9 (1982): 41-50.

Blincoe, Noel R. “‘Sex individual’ as Used in The Two Noble Kinsmen.Notes and Queries 35 (1988): 484-85.

Bradbrook, M. C. “Shakespeare and His Collaborators.” Shakespeare 1971: Proceedings of the World Shakespeare Congress, Vancouver, August 1971. Ed. Clifford Leech and J. M. R. Margeson. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1972. 21-36.

Bray, Alan. “Homosexuality and the Signs of Male Friendship in Elizabethan England.” Goldberg, Queering 40-61.

———. Homosexuality in Renaissance England. London: Gay Men's P, 1982.

Bredbeck, Gregory. Sodomy and Interpretation: Marlowe to Milton. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991.

Bruster, Douglas. “Female-Female Eroticism and the Early Modern Stage.” Renaissance Drama ns 24 (1993): 1-32.

Cicero. De Senectute, De Amicitia, De Divinatione. Trans. William Armistead Falconer. The Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1953.

Dollimore, Jonathan. Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault. Oxford: Clarendon, 1991.

Donaldson, E. Talbot. The Swan at the Well: Shakespeare Reading Chaucer. New Haven: Yale UP, 1985.

Edwards, Philip. “On the Design of ‘The Two Noble Kinsmen.’” Review of English Literature 5.4 (1964): 89-105.

Fletcher, Anthony. “The Protestant Idea of Marriage in Early Modern England.” Religion, Culture, and Society in Early Modern Britain: Essays in Honour of Patrick Collinson. Ed. Anthony Fletcher and Peter Roberts. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. 161-81.

Foucault, Michel. An Introduction. Vol. 1 of The History of Sexuality. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage, 1980.

Freccero, Carla. “Cannibalism, Homophobia, Women: Montaigne's ‘Des cannibales’ and ‘De L'amitie.’” Women “Race,” and Writing in the Early Modern Period. Ed. Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker. New York: Routledge, 1994. 73-83.

Frey, Charles H., ed. Shakespeare, Fletcher, and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1989.

Goldberg, Jonathan, ed. Queering the Renaissance. Durham: Duke UP, 1994.

———. Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1992.

Hedrick, Donald K. “‘Be Rough With Me’: The Collaborative Arenas of The Two Noble Kinsmen.” Frey 45-77.

Kehler, Dorothea. “Shakespeare's Emilias and the Politics of Celibacy.” In Another Country: Feminist Perspectives on Renaissance Drama. Ed. Dorothea Kehler and Susan Baker. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1991. 157-80.

Marlowe, Christopher. Hero and Leander. 2d ed. Ed. Fredson Bowers. London: Cambridge UP, 1973. Vol. 2 of The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe. 425-507.

Masten, Jeff. “My Two Dads: Collaboration and the Reproduction of Beaumont and Fletcher.” Goldberg, Queering 280-309.

Miller, D. A. The Novel and the Police. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.

Montaigne, Michel de. The Essays of Michael, Lord of Montaigne. Trans. John Florio. Introd. A. R. Waller. Everyman's Library. 3 vols. London: Dent, 1910.

Pearson, D'Orsay W. “‘Unkinde’ Theseus: A Study in Renaissance Mythography.” English Literary Renaissance 4 (1974): 276-98.

Pequigney, Joseph. “The Two Antonios and Same-Sex Love in Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice.English Literary Renaissance 22 (1992): 201-21.

Roberts, Jeanne Addison. “Crises of Male Self-Definition in The Two Noble Kinsmen.” Frey 133-44.

Rose, Mary Beth. The Expense of Spirit: Love and Sexuality in English Renaissance Drama. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1988.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia UP, 1985.

Shakespeare, William, and John Fletcher. The Two Noble Kinsmen. Ed. Hallett Smith. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974. 1639-81.

Sinfield, Alan. Cultural Politics—Queer Reading. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1994.

Smith, Bruce R. Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England: A Cultural Poetics. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991.

———. “Making a Difference: Male/Male ‘Desire’ in Tragedy, Comedy, and Tragi-comedy.” Erotic Politics: Desire on the Renaissance Stage. Ed. Susan Zimmerman. New York: Routledge, 1992. 127-49.

Smith, Hallett. Introd. The Two Noble Kinsmen. Shakespeare and Fletcher 1639-41.

Tilley, Morris Palmer. A Dictionary of the Proverbs in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1950.

Traub, Valerie. Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Waith, Eugene, ed. The Two Noble Kinsmen. The Oxford Shakespeare. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989.

Weller, Barry. “The Two Noble Kinsmen, the Friendship Tradition, and the Flight from Eros.” Frey 93-108.

Wickham, Glynne. “The Two Noble Kinsmen or A Midsummer Night's Dream, Part II?” The Elizabethan Theatre VII. Ed. G. R. Hibbard. Port Credit, Ont.: Meany, 1980. 167-96.

Williams, Gwyn. Person and Persona: Studies in Shakespeare. Cardiff: U of Wales P, 1981.

Alan Stewart (essay date 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 once called them’.5 Some have attributed this to the inherent contradictions of the play's genre, tragicomedy.6 Some have attributed it to its collaborative authorship by Fletcher and Shakespeare, as if each playwright wrote in solitary ignorance of his partner's work, and the play necessarily betrayed that process.7 This approach makes possible, for example, the argument that Shakespeare composed the first exchange between Palamon and Arcite, but that Fletcher was responsible for their apparently contradictory quarrel in the prison scene.8

In this [essay], I prefer to follow the approach of Richard Hillman, who has argued that ‘it is … possible, especially in a post-modern critical climate, to take the play's internal jars, whatever their origin … as integral to the text we have, not as blocking the text that might have been’.9 I shall argue that, rather than being a failed attempt at a play about idealised male friendship, The Two Noble Kinsmen is rather a play about a failed attempt at idealised male friendship. In turn, I shall suggest, this failure derives from the juxtaposition of both classical-humanist and chivalric modes of male friendship with the realities of social relations, and a particular form of kinship, in Jacobean England.

The Two Noble Kinsmen contains a proliferation of variations on that classical and then humanist theme of amicitia, the idealised male friendship celebrated in such key Renaissance pedagogical texts as Cicero's De amicitia and De officiis and Seneca's De beneficiis.10 First, Theseus and Pirithous present an established example of amicitia, a legendary male couple revered alongside Orestes and Pylades, Damon and Pythias, and Scipio and Laelius. Pirithous operates to Theseus as alter ipse, another himself, to the extent that he stands in as Theseus at his friend's wedding to Hippolyta, because Theseus is honour-bound to avenge the deaths of the husbands of the three queens. In Emilia's words ‘The one of th'other may be said to water / Their intertangled roots of love’ (I, iii, 58-9).

Second, we encounter the female friendship of Emilia and Flavina. Emilia tells of her love for the innocent ‘play-fellow’ (I, iii, 50) of her childhood who died young:

                                                                                                                        What she liked
Was then of me approved; what not, condemned—
No more arraignment. The flower that I would pluck
And put between my breasts (then but beginning
To swell about the blossom), oh, she would long
Till she had such another, and commit it
To the like innocent cradle, where phoenix-like
They died in perfume.

(I, iii, 64-71)

This intense female friendship, located in early pubescence and now irretrievably lost, occupies the same elegiac space as those in earlier Shakespeare plays: Rosalind and Celia in As You Like It, and Helena and Hermia in A Midsummer Night's Dream, for example.11

But the central friendship is that of Palamon and Arcite. As they are imprisoned together, Arcite gives one of the most passionate friendship speeches in English literature:

                                        And here being thus together,
We are an endless mine to one another;
We are one another's wife, ever begetting
New births of love; we are father, friends, acquaintance,
We are, in one another, families;
I am your heir and you are mine. This place
Is our inheritance; no hard oppressor
Dare take this from us; here, with a little patience,
We shall live long and loving.

(II, ii, 78-86)

Palamon answers, ‘Is there record of any two that loved / Better than we do, Arcite?’, to which Arcite affirms, ‘Sure there cannot.’ ‘I do not think it possible’, continues Palamon, ‘our friendship / Should ever leave us’. ‘Till our deaths it cannot’, declares Arcite, ‘And after death our spirits shall be led / To those that love eternally’ (II, ii, 112-17). The tale of Palamon and Arcite as told in this play thus echoes that quintessential humanist fiction of the two male friends, temporarily rent asunder by the intrusion of a woman, who then go on to make up, usually with one of them marrying the woman, and the other marrying his friend's sister. Perhaps the most famous example is the story of Titus and Gisippus, told by Boccaccio in his Decameron, and then Englished by Thomas Elyot, and placed centrally in his influential Boke Named the Gouernour.12 The moral of such tales is that, despite the claims of family and marriage, male friendship will emerge as the supreme affective force in the lives of the two men.

This superabundance of friendships should, I suggest, raise our suspicions from the start, as couple after couple are introduced displaying apparently textbook adherence to the model. As Theodore Spencer wrote incisively in 1939, ‘[o]ne of Shakespeare's favourite dramatic devices in his mature work is to establish a set of values and then to show how it is violated by the individual action which follows’.13 Here, these three instances are introduced precisely to point up the relative failings of two of them. In the case of Emilia and Flavina, the elegiac tone points to the futility of a female version of amicitia, always already lost. But more importantly, in Palamon and Arcite something is terribly wrong. From the declaration just quoted, the eternal friendship of Palamon and Arcite lasts exactly two more lines, by which time Palamon has caught sight of Emilia, and Arcite has to urge him (unsuccessfully) to ‘forward’ with his speech. Their subsequent quarrel over Emilia, leading to an illegal duel, and ultimately to the strange death of Arcite—rather than to the usual double marriage—indicates clearly that all is not well in this telling of their friendship.

The reason for this, I shall suggest, is that in Palamon and Arcite we see a literary, humanist template sitting uncomfortably on a particular Jacobean social reality. The story of Palamon and Arcite is subtly nuanced in each of its retellings. As Eugene Waith notes, in Boccaccio's Teseida, it is ‘basically a tale of lovers’; in Chaucer's Knight's Tale, the relationship is a ‘chivalric bond of blood-brotherhood’.14 In Shakespeare and Fletcher's version, I suggest, Palamon and Arcite are, first and foremost, as the title makes quite clear, kinsmen, and as they constantly reiterate, cousins. In this chapter, I shall argue that we can make far more sense of The Two Noble Kinsmen if we stop thinking of it as a play about friendship, and approach it instead as a play about the problems of kinship, and specifically the problems of cognatic cousinage.15

The Two Noble Kinsmen operates, as much of Jacobean England operated, within a culture where women (and figuratively, their virginity) were passed between families in marriage for financial gain; in the upper middling classes and above, these transactions were often complex and lengthy affairs, as befitted such important exchanges of lands, goods and cash. From the first words of the prologue, The Two Noble Kinsmen situates itself centrally within such a culture:

New plays and maidenhead are near akin:
Much followed both, for both much money gi'en,
If they stand sound and well. And a good play,
Whose modest scenes blush on his marriage day
And shake to lose his honour, is like her
That after holy tie [the wedding] and first night's stir
Yet still is Modesty and still retains
More of the maid, to sight, than husband's pains.

(Prologue, ll. 1-8)

The action of the play is inserted into an interrupted marriage (once again, as in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Theseus and Hippolyta have to wait!); the action is concluded when Emilia is exchanged between her new brother-in-law Theseus and the surviving kinsman, Palamon. (Although Arcite appears to give Emilia to Palamon with his dying breath—‘Take her. I die’ (V, iv, 95)—in fact it is Theseus who endorses the match). Even the Jailor's Daughter becomes marriageable because Palamon, in gratitude for her actions in springing him from gaol, gives ‘a sum of money to her marriage: / A large one’—a gift, of course, not directly to the woman, but to her father, in order that he might marry her to the advantage of both father and daughter (IV, i, 21-4). When Palamon and Arcite are imprisoned, they first bewail the fact that they must remain bachelors; as Arcite puts it:

                                                                                          here age must find us
And, which is heaviest, Palamon, unmarried.
The sweet embraces of a loving wife,
Loaden with kisses, armed with thousand Cupids,
Shall never clasp our necks; no issue know us;
No figures of ourselves shall we e'er see,
To glad our age, and like young eagles teach 'em
Boldly to gaze against bright arms and say,
‘Remember what your fathers were, and conquer!’

(II, ii, 25-36)

Much critical work has been done to illuminate this commodification of women in marriage, most notably Gayle Rubin's reworking of the anthropological work of Claude Lévi-Strauss to uncover the ‘traffic in women’, and Eve Sedgwick's combining of this with René Girard's triangular formulation to reread male rivalry over women as the prime feature of male homosociality.16 In her study of quattrocento and cinquecento Florence, Christiane Klapisch-Zuber has shown how these abstract structures operated in practice. ‘In Florence’, she writes, ‘men were and made the “houses”. The word casa designates … the material house, the lodging of a domestic unit … But it also stands for an entire agnatic kinship group.’ These houses, and kinship in general, were ‘determined by men, and the male branching of genealogies drawn up by contemporaries shows how little importance was given, after one or two generations, to kinship through women’. She illustrates graphically how, as they married, women moved between houses—both lineage groups and the physical buildings—demonstrating both the stability of the house, and the radical discontinuity of the lives of the women exchanged between them:

In these case, in the sense of both physical and the symbolic house, women were passing guests. To contemporary eyes, their movements in relation to the case determined their social personality more truly than the lineage group from which they came. It was by means of their physical ‘entrances’ and ‘exits’ into and out of the ‘house’ that their families of origin or of alliance evaluated the contribution of women to the greatness of the casa.17

Although the importance of kinship in the English middling classes is thought to have been diminishing during this period, in the upper classes it still held sway. As Keith Wrightson writes, ‘[i]t is undoubtedly true … that both the titular aristocracy and the upper gentry were deeply preoccupied with ancestry and lineage and that they tended to recognise a wide range of kinsmen’;18 indeed Anthony Fletcher has asserted that in Sussex county society ‘kinship was the dominant principle’.19 Mervyn James writes that the deepest obligation in any man's life was:

to the lineage, the family and kinship group. For this, being inherited with the ‘blood’, did not depend on promise or oath. It could neither be contracted into, nor could the bond be broken. For a man's very being as honourable had been transmitted to him with the blood of his ancestors, themselves honourable men. Honour therefore was not merely an individual possession, but that of the collectivity, the lineage. Faithfulness to the kinship group arose out of this intimate involvement of personal and collective honour, which meant that both increased or diminished together. Consequently, in critical honour situations where an extremity of conflict arose, or in which dissident positions were taken up involving revolt, treason and rebellion, the ties of blood were liable to assert themselves with a particular power.20

Viewed in this English social context, rather than in its humanist literary context, the play reads rather differently. The first words uttered by Arcite put in place a competition between affective and familial links: ‘Dear Palamon, dearer in love than blood / And our prime cousin’ (I, ii, 1-2). The ‘love’ that Arcite feels for Palamon is greater than the claim of ‘blood’, the fact that they are first cousins. Yet they refer to themselves constantly in kinship terms (at least thirty-eight times in the course of the play): ‘cousin’, ‘coz’, ‘noble cousin’ (II, ii, 1), ‘gentle cousin’ (II, ii, 70 and III, vi, 112), ‘fair cousin’ (III, vi, 18), ‘sweet cousin’ (III, vi, 69), ‘Clear-spirited cousin’ (I, ii, 74), ‘My coz, my coz’ (III, i, 58), ‘kinsman’ (III, vi, 21), ‘noble kinsman’ (II, ii, 193 and III, vi, 17).21 Even when the two are estranged during their competition for Emilia, they are ‘Traitor kinsman’ (III, i, 30) and ‘base cousin’ (III, iii, 44) and Palamon can punningly answer Arcite's ‘Dear cousin Palamon’ with ‘Cozener Arcite’ (III, i, 43-4), reminding us that the root of ‘cozening’ is the cozener's claim to be his victim's long-lost cousin.22

‘Cousin’, like ‘kinsman’, is a deliberately vague term in early modern English, one that can refer to any loose family connection: Anthony Fletcher writes that in Sussex, ‘stress on cousinage in correspondence and account keeping became a mere mark of courtesy. The tight circles of intimate friendship, which were more significant for the dynamics of country affairs, ran within the wider circles of blood’.23 But these men are not merely ‘kinsmen’: they share a very particular relationship—to Theseus, they are ‘royal german foes’ (V, i, 9), implying a close cousin relationship, and in the Herald's words, ‘They are sisters' children, nephews to the King’ (I, iv, 16). This echoes the Chaucerian source, where they are described as being ‘of the blood riall / Of Thebes, and of sistren two yborne’ (ll. 1018-19).24 This point is reiterated strikingly as Palamon and Arcite go through the ritual motions before their attempted duel: Palamon asserts:

                                                            Thou art mine aunt's son
And that blood we desire to shed is mutual,
In me thine and in thee mine.

(III, vi, 94-6)

In other words, their blood relationship derives from the female line—in Roman or Scottish law terms, their kinship is cognatic, rather than agnatic (through the male line). Palamon and Arcite are an example, therefore, of what we might call ‘cognatic cousinage’.

There is no doubting of course that the kin relationship of cousins german, or first cousins, is extremely close, so close that if one were male and one female, then their right to marry each other would be disputed. However, seen in terms of a culture that exchanges women between patriarchal houses, cousins german whose kinship is cognatic occupy a strangely distant relationship: they are necessarily born into different houses, because their mothers married into different houses. This means, then, that the connection between the two cousins is not necessarily mutually beneficial—what benefits one need not benefit the other.

The peculiarity of this particular kinship relationship—its intense affective claims belied by its signal lack of practical utility—can be glimpsed in the tortuous interactions of two contemporary cousins german: Sir Robert Cecil and Francis Bacon. Cecil was the son of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, by his second wife Mildred Cooke; Bacon was the son of Sir Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper, by his second wife Anne Cooke. Mildred and Anne were sisters, two of the renowned and learned daughters of Sir Anthony Cooke, and thus Robert and Francis were first cousins, an instance of cognatic cousinage. But this apparently close family connection was put under great strain after the premature death of Francis's father in February 1579. Left without adequate provision by his father, and unable to call on his estranged elder half-brothers after a dispute about the will, Francis naturally turned to his uncle, Lord Burghley. Throughout his correspondence of the 1580s and early 1590s there are unveiled hints that Burghley might want to become a surrogate parent to his poor nephew. Instead, however, Francis was to be consistently disappointed by his uncle, who put his energies behind his own son, and other protégés. Francis in turn was forced to look for support beyond his immediate family, and turned in 1588 to Elizabeth's new young favourite, Robert Devereux, the second earl of Essex.25

Essex backed Francis in his bid to become Attorney-General in 1593 and 1594. It soon became clear, however, that Burghley and Cecil were backing another candidate, Edward Coke. This situation produced some highly charged encounters between Bacon's supporters (including Essex and Bacon's mother) and Coke's supporters (Burghley and Cecil). Such an encounter is recorded for us by one of Essex's intelligencers, Anthony Standen, to whom Essex related the anecdote.26 At the end of January 1593, in the privacy of a shared coach, Sir Robert asked Essex who his candidate was for the vacant post of Attorney-General. Essex affected astonishment, declaring that he ‘wondered Sir Robert should ask him that question, seeing it could not be unknown unto him that resolutely against all whosoever for Francis Bacon he stood’.

Sir Robert affected amazement. ‘Good Lord’, he replied, ‘I wonder your Lordship should go about to spend your strength in so unlikely or impossible a matter.’ It was out of the question, he continued, that Francis Bacon should be raised to a position of such eminence, since he was simply too young and inexperienced (Francis was thirty-three at the time). Essex readily admitted that he could not think of a precedent for so youthful a candidate for the post of attorney. But he pointed out that youth and inexperience did not seem to be hindering the bid by Sir Robert himself (‘[a] younger than Francis, of lesser learning and of no greater experience’) to become principal secretary of state, the most influential of all government posts. Cecil retaliated immediately:

I know your lordship means myself. Although my years and experience are small, yet weighing the school I studied in and the great wisdom and learning of my schoolmaster, and the pains and observations I daily passed, yet I deem my qualifications to be sufficient. The added entitlement of my father's long service will make good the rest.

Unconvinced, Essex passionately reaffirmed his support for Bacon. ‘And for your own part Sir Robert’, he concluded, ‘I think strange both of my Lord Treasurer and you that can have the mind to seek the preferment of a stranger before so near a kinsman as a first cousin.’

This exchange demonstrates vividly both the symbolic and the practical implications of various relationships between kinsmen. It testifies to the real practical value of the closest kin relationships: Cecil's career is quite explicitly acknowledged as his birthright, because of his father's success. Cognatic cousinage, however, is more complex. On the one hand, we see here the social expectations of the relationship, and of its powerful affective pull (‘strange [that] you … can have the mind to seek the preferment of a stranger before so near a kinsman as a first cousin’). On the other, we witness the ineffectiveness of this claim in practical terms: Burghley and Cecil are never swayed to support Bacon (Bacon was not to reach public office for another twelve years, and his career only took off following Cecil's death in 1612). Although the situation was thought unfair by many, Bacon had no legal or moral claim on his cognatic relatives.

The Two Noble Kinsmen is not about either of the cousins' attempting to use the other in any practical sense. As Jeffrey Masten has pointed out, their similarity, a standard trope of amicitia literature, is indeed deployed to suggest that they will inevitably enter into competition:

                                                                                                    … am not I
Part of your blood, part of your soul? You have told me
That I was Palamon, and you were Arcite.
Am not I liable to those affections,
Those joys, griefs, angers, fears, my friend shall suffer?

(II, ii, 187-91)27

However, the futility of their kinship is signalled throughout the play by a skilfully maintained figurative representation. As the chapters in this collection by Helen Hackett and Gordon McMullan amply illustrate, the late plays return insistently to figures of maternity and manliness. These two sisters' sons, who, as we have already seen, describe themselves as their aunts' sons, are constantly referred to in terms of their mothers. When asked what she thinks of Arcite, Emilia answers that ‘Believe, / His mother was a wondrous handsome woman; / His face, methinks, goes that way’ (II, v, 19-21) (although Hippolyta then contends that ‘his body / And fiery mind illustrate a brave father’ (II, v, 21-2)). Later Emilia describes Palamon as being ‘swart and meagre, of an eye as heavy / As if he had lost his mother’ (IV, ii, 27-8). Together, she insists, ‘Two greater and two better never yet / Made mothers joy’ (IV, ii, 63-4). When Palamon berates the kind of men who boast of their sexual conquests, those ‘large confessors’, he ‘hotly ask[s] them / If they had mothers—I had one, a woman, / And women 'twere they wronged’ (V, i, 105-7). To Palamon the image of womanhood is his mother.

Firmly established as mothers' boys, the masculinity of both Palamon and Arcite is steadily chipped away throughout the play by a number of analogies, several with Ovidian overtones: as Jonathan Bate argues, ‘[c]ollaboration with Ovid is one of the marks of Fletcher and Shakespeare's collaboration with each other’.28 When they are in prison, delineating their amicitia, Arcite exclaims that ‘We are one another's wife, ever begetting / New births of love’ (II, ii, 80-1). Two classical archetypes of passive male sexuality, Narcissus and Ganymede, are reiterated. Immediately after Arcite and Palamon assert their status as wives to each other, Emilia picks some narcissus from the garden, asserting that ‘That was a fair boy certain, but a fool / To love himself. Were there not maids enough?’ (II, ii, 120-2), referring of course to the myth of Narcissus dying while longing for his own reflection, having rejected the women who loved him. The connection is made explicit when Emilia later compares pictures of her two suitors—Palamon may be to Arcite ‘mere dull shadow; / … swart and meagre, of an eye as heavy’:

As if he had lost his mother; a still temper;
No stirring in him, no alacrity;
Of all this sprightly sharpness, not a smile.
Yet these that we count errors may become him:
Narcissus was a sad boy, but a heavenly.

(IV, ii, 26-32)

As the work of James Saslow, Leonard Barkan and Bruce R. Smith has shown, Ganymede had become by the Renaissance a standard figure for sodomitical, and specifically passive sodomitical, identification.29 In the same speech, Emilia compares Arcite to Ganymede, one of the ‘prettie boyes / That were the darlinges of the gods’. In Golding's words:

The king of Gods [Jupiter] did burne ere while in loue of Ganymed
The Phrygian, and the thing was found which Iupiter that sted,
Had rather be then that he was. Yet could he not beteeme
The shape of any other bird than Eagle for to seeme:
And so he soring in the ayre with borrowed wings trust vp
The Troiane boy, who stil in heauen euen yet doth beare his cup,
And brings him Nectar, though against Dame Iunos wil it bee.(30)

Emilia declares:

                                                                                                              What an eye,
Of what a fiery spark and quick sweetness,
Has this young prince! Here Love himself sits smiling;
Just such another wanton Ganymede
Set Jove afire with, and enforced the god
Snatch up the goodly boy, and set him by him,
A shining constellation. What a brow,
Of what a spacious majesty, he carries,
Arched like the great-eyed Juno's, but far sweeter,
Smoother than Pelops' shoulder!

(IV, ii, 12-21)

We move from the beautiful shepherd boy Ganymede snatched up to become Jove's cupbearer in the heavens, to Jove's own wife Juno, to the ivory shoulder that replaced the shoulder of Pelops served up by his father Tantalus (and as ever, we are not sure here whether the smooth shoulder is the succulent one eaten, or the ivory replacement).31 Palamon and Arcite are led through a serious of analogies that cast them as women, or as passive male bodies eaten by men or made love to by men, or as men in love with their own reflection. These images multiply through the play, and no amount of recognition for Arcite's potential prowess as a wrestler is going to shake them off.

What effect might this have on a reading of The Two Noble Kinsmen? I return to the speech I quoted earlier, where Palamon and Arcite pledge eternal friendship. It is indeed a remarkable and passionate speech, but we need to see it in context. It comes during the couple's imprisonment: at the beginning of the scene (II, ii), Palamon bewails their situation (‘Oh, cousin Arcite, / Where is Thebes now? Where is our noble country? / Where are our friends and kindred?’ (II, ii, 6-8)) and Arcite agrees that their ‘hopes are prisoners with us’ (II, ii, 26), lamenting the fact that they will never marry, nor have children, nor hunt again. It is only then that Arcite exclaims:

                                                                                                              Yet, cousin,
Even from the bottom of these miseries,
From all that Fortune can inflict upon us,
I see two comforts rising, two mere blessings,
If the gods please: to hold here a brave patience
And the enjoying of our griefs together.
While Palamon is with me, let me perish
If I think this our prison!

(II, ii, 55-62)

Palamon replies:

'Tis a main goodness, cousin, that our fortunes
Were twined together; 'tis most true, two souls
Put in two noble bodies, let 'em suffer
The gall of hazard, so they grow together,
Will never sink; they must not, say they could.
A willing man dies sleeping and all's done.

(II, ii, 62-8)

It is then that they go on to ‘make this prison holy sanctuary / To keep us from corruption of worse men’ (II, ii, 71-2), and go into their passionate speech of friendship. As this preamble shows, however, the speech is a set piece, arrived at only after despair has cast them down, and as a pragmatic response to their dire situation. Friendship in the classic Ciceronian mould is only an option once imprisonment takes away their social agency. It does not stand up to comparison with the successful friendship of Theseus and Pirithous, or with the elegaic friendship of Emilia and Flavina, which have been carefully set up before precisely to demonstrate the failings of Palamon and Arcite's friendship; the first oblique comment on their declaration of friendship is Emilia's discussion of Narcissus. And even within the speech just quoted we can sense something awry: these two friends are ‘two souls / Put in two noble bodies’ (II, ii, 64-5), when the classic formulation of friendship is a single soul in two bodies. The hyperbole of being each other's wife, family, heir is merely a response to the deprivation of social agency; the minute that a way back into the real world is spied (in the form of Emilia, marriage to whom will ensure not only freedom but social success in Athens) the eternal friendship is shelved.

While the influence of Ciceronian amicitia is evident throughout, the play's immediate source requires that the authors also deal with the male friendship associated with chivalric codes. Here again, all is not as it might be. Chaucer's Knight's Tale has an ending which can still been seen as happy within the expectations of its genre: one knight wins his lady in honourable chivalric contest, but dies in an accident; after a suitable period, the lady is granted to the honourable loser. Much has been written about the chivalric elements of The Two Noble Kinsmen: it has been seen as linked to a neo-chivalric movement associated with Prince Henry;32 it has even been read as a roman à clef of international politics, with Arcite as Henry, who has to die before his sister Elizabeth (Emilia) can marry her betrothed Frederick (Palamon).33 In The Two Noble Kinsmen, the elements are similar to Chaucer's, but their treatment is noticeably different, and the end result unsettling: as Philip Finkelpearl has written, ‘[a]though the knightly code may originally have been designed to curb uncivilized instincts, here it sanctions and dignifies the urge of revenge, murder, and suicide’.34

Richard Hillman sees the fundamental contradictions as suggestive of an unbridgeable gap between medieval and Jacobean notions of chivalry: ‘[p]recisely by endlessly trying and failing to measure up to the inherited images of romance perfection, these pale Jacobean imitations deconstruct the very business of image-making. They are trapped by their own attempted appropriation of a medieval past’.35 The kinsmen's ‘failure to measure up’ is, moreover, treated harshly, even callously. The chivalric contest now carries a death penalty for the loser, and there is virtually no time lost between the winner's death and the loser's marriage. The death of one knight, an incidental detail in Chaucer (since it does not matter who marries the lady), here becomes essential to the happy ending. Significantly, a successful conclusion can only come at what Palamon calls the ‘miserable end of our alliance’ (V, iv, 86), the accident in which Arcite is fatally injured. Even here, the nature of his death—Arcite is left hanging upside down from his mount, after the horse rears away from a spark from the cobbles (‘Arcite's legs, being higher than his head, / Seemed with strange art to hang’ (V, iv, 78-9))—suggests something less than chivalric. As Richard Abrams notes, ‘[b]y the play's end, disabused of The Knight's Tale's heroic mystique, we recognise the strangeness of a world where a question of love-rights is automatically referred to a determination of which kinsman is the stronger fighter’.36

Arcite must die for Palamon to win: as Palamon laments, ‘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’ (V, iv, 110-12). The Two Noble Kinsmen demonstrates, and demands, highly developed understanding of concepts of friendship and kinship, developed enough to accommodate both parody and sincerity about such concepts. The friendship of Palamon and Arcite is no more than a game to while away long hours of incarceration; their constantly reiterated claims to kinship dissolve in the face of a prize (Emilia) that might benefit them as individuals and their immediate family groups; the play's happy ending necessitates the dissolution of their ‘alliance’. Fletcher and Shakespeare indulge their audience in the comfortable humanist myth of amicitia, and the reliable codes of chivalric courtship, only to force that audience to accept the fact that ultimately these are no more than myths and codes, and that they cannot thrive together. We are faced with the sobering fact that artistic closure is not always compatible with social reality: to secure our desired happy ending, there may be fatalities.


  1. For the limited critical bibliography to 1990 see Proudfoot, ‘Henry VIII’, pp. 391-2. The only monograph devoted to the play is Bertram, Shakespeare and ‘The Two Noble Kinsmen’.

  2. Thompson, Shakespeare's Chaucer, p. 166.

  3. Donaldson, The Swan at the Well, p. 50.

  4. Spencer, ‘The Two Noble Kinsmen’, p. 256.

  5. Wickham, ‘The Two Noble Kinsmen’, p. 168.

  6. See The Two Noble Kinsmen, ed. Potter, ‘Introduction’, pp. 2-6.

  7. Spencer, ‘The Two Noble Kinsmen’, p. 255. See also The Two Noble Kinsmen, ed. Potter, pp. 24-34. The ‘collaboration’ argument is also used to explain away the problematic Jailer's Daughter subplot, but my focus here is on the Palamon and Arcite story.

  8. Waith, ‘Shakespeare and Fletcher’, pp. 239-42; Hillman, ‘Shakespeare's romantic innocents’, p. 73.

  9. Hillman, ‘Shakespeare's romantic innocents’, pp. 70, 71.

  10. The classic survey of male friendship in Renaissance English literature remains Mills, One Soul in Bodies Twain.

  11. For a discussion of this genre see Miller, Stages of Desire, Ch. 5.

  12. See Elyot, Boke Named the Gouernour (1531); for the importance of this story, see Hutson, The Usurer's Daughter, Ch. 2.

  13. Spencer, ‘The Two Noble Kinsmen’, p. 270.

  14. Waith, ‘Shakespeare and Fletcher’, p. 236.

  15. The importance of kinship rather than friendship in The Two Noble Kinsmen is stressed in Mills, One Soul in Bodies Twain, pp. 322-3, but he does not address the particular nature of this kinship.

  16. Rubin, ‘The traffic in women’; Sedgwick, Between Men.

  17. Klapisch-Zuber, Women, Family, and Ritual, pp. 117-18.

  18. Wrightson, English Society, pp. 44-51, p. 47.

  19. Fletcher, A County Community, p. 48.

  20. James, Society, Politics and Culture, p. 325.

  21. For other uses of ‘cousin’ and ‘coz’ see II, ii, 4; II, ii, 63; II, ii, 96; II, ii, 107; II, ii 126; II, ii, 131; III, i, 43; III, i, 69; III, iii, 1; III, iii, 20; III, iii, 23; III, vi, 1; III, vi, 44; III, vi, 47; III, vi, 53; III, vi, 61; III, vi, 73; III, vi, 82; III, vi, 117; III, vi, 262; III, vi, 299; V, i, 23; V, i, 31; V, iv, 93; V, iv, 109.

  22. Similarly, ‘cousinage’ can refer to the writ whereby a legal claim for land is made by one claiming to be a cousin to the deceased.

  23. Fletcher, A County Community, p. 48.

  24. References are to The Riverside Chaucer.

  25. See Jardine and Stewart, Hostage to Fortune.

  26. See Anthony Standen to Anthony Bacon, 3 February 1593/4, Lambeth Palace Library MS 650, fols 80-2 (art. 50). This incident is discussed at greater length in Jardine and Stewart, Hostage to Fortune, pp. 11-17.

  27. Masten, Textual Intercourse, p. 49.

  28. Bate, Shakespeare and Ovid, p. 265.

  29. See Saslow, Ganymede in the Renaissance; Barkan, Transuming Passions; Smith, Homosexual Desire, Ch. 3.

  30. Golding, The XV Bookes (1603), sig. Q8v (Book X, ll.155-61).

  31. For Pelops, see Golding, The XV Bookes, sig. K8v (Book VI, ll. 515-25).

  32. See for example Hillman, ‘Shakespeare's romantic innocents’, p. 79; Finkelpearl, ‘Two distincts, division none’, pp. 184-99.

  33. Wickham, ‘The Two Noble Kinsmen’, passim.

  34. Finkelpearl, ‘Two distincts, division none’, p. 191.

  35. Hillman, ‘Shakespeare's romantic innocents’, p. 71.

  36. Abrams, ‘Gender confusion’, p. 75.


Abrams, Richard, “Gender Confusion and Sexual Politics in The Two Noble Kinsmen,” in Drama, Sex and Politics, Themes in Drama 7, ed. James Redmond (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 69-76

Bate, Jonathan, Shakespeare and Ovid (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993)

Bertram, Paul, Shakespeare and “The Two Noble Kinsmen” (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1965)

Chaucer, Geoffrey, The Riverside Chaucer, ed. F. N. Robinson, gen. ed. Larry D. Benson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987, 3rd edn)

Donaldson, E. Talbot, The Swan at the Well: Shakespeare Reading Chaucer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985)

Elyot, Thomas, Boke Names the Gouernour (London, 1531)

Finkelpearl, Philip J. “Two Distincts, Division None: Shakespeare and Fletcher's The Two Noble Kinsmen of 1613,” in Elizabethan Theater: Essays in Honor of S. Schoenbaum, eds R. B. Parker and S. P. Zitner (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1996), pp. 184-99

Fletcher, Anthony, A Country Community in Peace and War: Sussex 1600-1660 (London: Longman, 1975)

Golding, Arthur, trans. The XV Bookes of P. Ouidius Naso, Entituled Metamorphosis (London, 1603)

Hillman, Richard, “Shakespeare's Romantic Innocents and the Misappropriation of the Romance Past: The Case of The Two Noble Kinsmen,Shakespeare Survey, 43 (1991): 69-89

Hutson, Lorna, The Usurer's Daughter: Male Friendship and Fictions of Women in Sixteenth-Century England (London and New York: Routledge, 1994)

James, Mervyn, Society, Politics and Culture: Studies in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986)

Jardine, Lisa, and Alan Stewart, Hostage to Fortune: The Troubled Life of Francis Bacon 1561-1626 (London: Gollancz, 1998)

Klapisch-Zuber, Christiane, Women, Family, and Ritual in Renaissance Italy, trans. Lydia Cochrane (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1985)

Masten, Jeffrey, Textual Intercourse: Collaboration, Authorship, and Sexualities in Renaissance Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)

Miller, Carl, Stages of Desire: Gay Theatre's Hidden History (London: Cassell, 1996)

Mill, Lauren J., One Soul in Bodies Twain: Friendship in Tudor Literature and Tudor Drama (Bloomingtom, Ind.: Principia Press, 1937)

Proudfoot, G. R., “Henry VIII (All Is True), The Two Noble Kinsmen, and the Apocryphal Plays,” in Shakespeare: A Bibliographical Guide, ed. Stanley Wells (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 381-403

Rubin, Gayle, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on a ‘Political Economy’ of Sex,” in Towards an Anthropology of Women, ed. Rayna Reiter (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975)

Saslow, James M., Ganymede in the Renaissance: Homosexuality in Art and Society (New Haven: Yale Univeristy Press, 1986)

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985)

Shakespeare, William, and John Fletcher, The Two Noble Kinsmen, ed. L. D. Potter (London: Routledge, 1997)

Spencer, Theodore, “The Two Noble Kinsmen,Modern Philology, 36 (1938-9), 255-76

Thompson, Ann, Shakespeare's Chaucer: A Study in Literary Origins (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1978)

Waith, Eugene M. “Shakespeare and Fletcher on Love and Friendship,” Shakespeare Studies, 18 (1986), 235-50

Wickham, Glynne, “The Two Noble Kinsmen or A Midusmmer Night's Dream, Part II?,” in The Elizabethan Theatre VII: Papers Given at the Seventh International Conference on Elizabethan Theatre Held at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, in July 1997, ed. G. R. Hibbard (London and Basingstroke: Macmillan, 1980), pp. 167-96.

Wrightson, Keith, English Society 1580-1680 (London: Hutchinson, 1982)

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


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.

Edwards, Philip. “Shakespearian Triangles.” Hebrew University Studies in Literature and the Arts 19 (1991): 7-22.

Compares the love triangles—male friends enamored of the same woman—in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Winter's Tale, The Two Noble Kinsmen, and the Sonnets.

Geary, Keith. “The Nature of Portia's Victory: Turning to Men in The Merchant of Venice.Shakespeare Survey 37 (1984): 55-68.

Contemplates the love versus friendship theme in The Merchant of Venice within the context of Portia's male disguise as Balthazar.

Kerrigan, William. “Female Friends and Fraternal Enemies in As You Like It.” In Desire in the Renaissance: Psychoanalysis and Literature, edited by Valeria Finucci and Regina Schwartz, pp. 184-204. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Explores Shakespeare's thematic refiguring of male sibling rivalry into idealized feminine friendship in As You Like It.

Patterson, Steve. “The Bankruptcy of Homoerotic Amity in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice.Shakespeare Quarterly 50, no. 1 (spring 1999): 9-32.

Argues that The Merchant of Venice portrays a radical shift away from the homosocial ideal of amity (witnessed in the same-sex friendship of Antonio and Bassanio) to a modern and romantic paradigm of social economy based upon marital bonds and heterosexual union.

Porter, Joseph A. “Friendship and Love.” In Shakespeare's Mercutio: His History and Drama, pp. 145-63. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Centers on Mercutio's reorientation of Romeo and Juliet from a love tragedy to a representation of the tensions between love and friendship.

Rossky, William. “The Two Gentlemen of Verona as Burlesque.” English Literary Renaissance 12, no. 2 (spring 1982): 210-19.

Views The Two Gentlemen of Verona as a satirical play focused on Elizabethan attitudes toward friendship and love.

Rutter, Carol. “Rosalind: Iconoclast in Arden.” In Clamorous Voices: Shakespeare's Women Today, edited by Faith Evans, pp. 97-121. London: Women's Press Limited, 1988.

Poses questions to Juliet Stevenson, who portrayed Rosalind in Adrian Noble's 1985 production of As You Like It. Rutter elicits the actor's views on the relationships in the play, including Rosalind's strong friendship bond with Celia.

Shannon, Laurie. “Likenings: Rhetorical Husbandries and Portia's ‘True Conceit’ of Friendship.” Renaissance Drama n.s. 31 (2002): 3-26.

Examines The Merchant of Venice's early modern ideological approaches to the concepts of friendship, marriage, and husbandry.

———. Sovereign Amity: Figures of Friendship in Shakespearean Contexts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002, 240 p.

Theoretical study of such topics as gender, same-sex friendship, love, and political sovereignty in a variety of Shakespeare's works, including The Two Noble Kinsmen, The Winter's Tale, and the Henriad.

Sharp, Ronald A. “Gift Exchange and the Economies of Spirit in The Merchant of Venice.Modern Philology 81, no. 3 (February 1986): 250-65.

Examines the themes of gift giving and friendship in The Merchant of Venice.


Food for Words: Hotspur and the Discourse of Honor


Gender Identity