William Shakespeare Friendship - Essay


(Shakespearean Criticism)


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.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Ruth Morse (essay date 1983)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Barry Weller (essay date 1989)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7039 words.)

Zvi Jagendorf (essay date 1991)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8324 words.)

Richard Mallette (essay date 1995)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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:...

(The entire section is 9804 words.)

Alan Stewart (essay date 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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James I. Wimsatt (essay date January 1970)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2820 words.)

Clifford Davidson (essay date summer 1980)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Jan H. Blits (essay date September 1981)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 6575 words.)

Robert C. Evans (essay date spring 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 15180 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 609 words.)