The theme of friendship is prevalent in Shakespeare's works, from his comedies and romances to his histories and tragedies, and is personified in such pairs as Hamlet and Horatio of Hamlet, Rosalind and Celia in As You Like It, and Hal and Falstaff in the Henry IV plays. Much scholarly interest in the theme of Shakespearean friendship has been devoted to the dramatist's treatment of the friendship-versus-love topos. A relatively common scheme in Renaissance literature, this pattern pits steadfast friends (usually males) against the threat of heterosexual union in marriage. As commentators have observed, marriage tends to win out in the end, but Shakespeare remains characteristically ambivalent as to whether love or friendship truly triumphs. This love-versus-friendship theme describes the central plot of one of Shakespeare's early comedies, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, as well as his late collaborative romance The Two Noble Kinsmen, both of which feature a love triangle. Regarding the playwright's tragic dramatization of friendship, most critics have focused on Hamlet, particularly the Danish prince's friendship with the loyal Horatio as well as his perilous relationship with university companions Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Additionally, Shakespeare's detailed portrayals of false friendships have attracted the attention of scholars, most notably the fascinating relationship between Prince Hal and Falstaff and the dramatist's iconographic representation of false friendship in his late tragedy Timon of Athens.
Critics are interested in Shakespeare's handling of the Renaissance convention that depicts friendship and love as bitter rivals, usually represented in the sundering of a close bond between two men due to their romantic interest in the same woman. In her 1983 study, Ruth Morse explores the antipathy between male friendship and romantic love dramatized in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Morse maintains that in the play Shakespeare made liberal use of the existing conventions of romantic comedy in order to reflect the social and psychological difficulties of sacrificing an affectionate bond between two men, in this case Proteus and Valentine, in order that they might pursue their love of the same woman. Zvi Jagendorf (1991) examines the depiction of male friendship (Antonio and Bassanio) and heterosexual love (Bassanio and Portia) in The Merchant of Venice, arguing that Shakespeare's play features a strong contrast between the two: marriage promises profit and increase while friendship portends only debt and continued sacrifice. The late romance The Two Noble Kinsmen, which most critics view as Shakespeare's collaborative work with dramatist John Fletcher, has elicited much critical commentary on the play's principal theme: the conflict between friendship and heterosexual love. Barry Weller (1989) examines the fundamental struggle between friendship and marriage in the play, and claims that The Two Noble Kinsmen ultimately depicts the friendship of Palamon and Arcite as a “destructive compact.” Richard Mallette (1995) presents an equally cynical reading of the play as a work concerned with destroyed friendship. Its ending, he observes, presents a superficially happy marriage characterized by emotional emptiness and suppressed desire without hope of redemption. Alan Stewart (1999) examines the idealized friendship of Palamon and Arcite in The Two Noble Kinsmen. The critic notes that their friendship, which is defined by medieval codes of chivalric honor and kinship, exists uncomfortably among the social realities of Jacobean England.
Critics generally agree that Shakespeare's most compelling and sustained depiction of friendship appears in the drama Hamlet. Having returned from Wittenberg to find his father dead and mother remarried to his uncle Claudius, Hamlet relies on the devoted friendship of Horatio and survives the poor advice of his dubious university companions Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Critics have frequently contrasted the true and false friendships portrayed in the drama, and have endeavored to come to some final conclusion regarding Shakespeare's musings on the subject of friendship in this tragic context. James I. Wimsatt (1970) centers on the speech of the Player King in Act III, scene ii of Hamlet, which mentions the mutability of friendship, and contends that Shakespeare portrayed the motifs of fortune and friendship in the play as fickle, unstable, and inscrutable forces. Keith Doubt (see Further Reading) notes that there are three types of friendship in the play: the loyal friendship that Horatio sustains with the Prince; the ultimately self-serving friendship extended by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; and the friendship that the dying Laertes offers. In Doubt's view, Laertes's friendship is the most meaningful because it is the most charitable. Robert C. Evans (1999) maintains that friendship constitutes a fundamental theme in the tragedy of Hamlet, one that is first articulated in the drama's opening scene and is sustained throughout. Evans studies the relationships between Hamlet and Horatio, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Laertes, Claudius, and Ophelia, as well as his friendships with other minor characters in the play. According to the critic, Horatio shows himself to be a true friend, while Claudius's actions demonstrate that he is an isolated and self-serving figure, as are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Evans concludes by remarking on the tragic near-friendship of Hamlet and Laertes, observing that they wrongly battle one another not because they are enemies, but to prove whose love for Ophelia is greater.
As suggested in Hamlet, Shakespeare's works often focus on the theme of false friendship. Clifford Davidson, in his 1980 essay on Timon of Athens, interprets the title figure of the play as a Renaissance emblem of failed friendship. Shakespeare's Timon is a magnanimous man whose extravagant gifts to parasitic individuals disguised as comrades and well-wishers precipitates his collapse into misanthropy once his wealth is exhausted and his supposed friends abandon him. In Davidson's view, this story can be interpreted as an emblematic Renaissance tableau of the responsibilities and potential perils of friendship. Jan H. Blits (1981) contends that the antique virtue of manliness is the basis of true friendship in Julius Caesar. Great men like Brutus and Cassius are possessed of this virtue, Blits maintains, but are often unable to temper or moderate its potential excesses. Others, like Antony in the play, fail the test of manliness and therefore are incapable of true friendship in Shakespeare's Roman world. Finally, Allan Bloom (see Further Reading) muses on the unusual relationship between Prince Hal of the Henry IV plays and the companion of his dissolute youth, Sir John Falstaff. This temporary friendship between the young man who will one day be ruler of England and the dissipated tavern knight has struck many critics as one of the more odd couplings in Shakespearean literature. According to Bloom, the Hal-Falstaff pairing offers a parody of Aristotelian friendship, which should take the form of an almost spiritual union of two souls, born of mutual appreciation and unsullied by material wants. Hal and Falstaff, in contrast, indulge themselves together while symbolically breaking the political rules that Hal will one day come to personify as King Henry V. For Bloom, their friendship, based on little more than selfishness and sensuality, is a false and manipulative one that is doomed from the start.