‘Emblems’ are illustrations that use allegories or symbols to represent complex or abstract ideas, such as friendship, virtue, wisdom and mortality. Such images were often collected in emblem books alongside explanatory and instructional verse, the illustration and text working together to provide a moral lesson. Emblem books were popular in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. This emblem book from 1635 was compiled and written by George Wither, a satirical poet and pamphleteer.
The image displayed here shows the emblem for ‘friendship’. The engraving shows a pair of clasped hands holding a crowned and flaming heart, circled with linked rings. The Latin tag around the engraving reads ‘bona fide’, which means ‘with good faith’. The epigram above the engraving describes friendship as ‘true love, indeed’, and the verses below talk of constancy, reciprocity and generosity in friendship.
In the early modern period, same-sex friendship (and particularly male friendship) was held in high esteem and could be described with an intensity and vocabulary that we would nowadays associate with romantic or sexual love. There is a blurring of lines here: sometimes same-sex friendships were intense but platonic (i.e. non-sexual); on other occasions the intimacy of same-sex friendship gave a framework within which same-sex desire could be explored and expressed.
Romeo and Mercutio
Mercutio’s playful banter with Romeo has strongly sexual elements to it and critics have differing views as to whether this – and indeed Mercutio’s function in the play as an opponent of the kind of romantic love Romeo talks of – suggests a platonic friendship or one with elements of sexual desire. In many modern productions, Mercutio is played as gay. Whether Shakespeare wrote Mercutio as gay, straight or somewhere in-between, it is interesting to note that in Shakespeare’s main source for Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio has a much smaller role. Shakespeare chose to elaborate on Mercutio’s character to increase his importance in the play, and to increase the role of same-sex friendship in Romeo’s life.