Friendship in George Wither's emblem book

Description

‘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.

Friendship

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.

Full title:
A Collection of Emblemes, ancient and modern: quickened with metricall Illustrations, both morall and divine
Published:
1635, London
Format:
Book / Folio / Illustration / Image
Creator:
George Wither, William Martial [engraver]
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library
Shelfmark:
G.11603.

Full catalogue details

Related articles

Print and perception: The literary careers of Margaret Cavendish and Katherine Philips

Article by:
Tamara Tubb
Theme:
Gender and sexuality

Margaret Cavendish and Katherine Philips both wrote across a range of genres and achieved considerable success in their day. Tamara Tubb explores their different approaches to the difficulties of being a 17th-century female writer: Philips created a reserved and modest literary persona, presenting herself as the ideal woman of the time, while Cavendish openly challenged literary and feminine conventions.

Character analysis: Benvolio, Mercutio and Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet

Article by:
Emma Torrance
Themes:
Power, politics and religion, Tragedies

Emma Torrance analyses the characters of Benvolio, Mercutio and Tybalt within Act 3, Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet – a key scene in which a fight breaks out between the Capulets and Montagues.

Shakespeare and friendship

Article by:
Will Tosh
Themes:
Gender, sexuality, courtship and marriage, Shakespeare’s life and world

Shakespeare's plays often portray intense, complicated friendships. Will Tosh considers how these reflect, and sometimes challenge, Elizabethan ideas about what it meant to be a friend.

Related collection items

Related works

Romeo and Juliet

Created by: William Shakespeare

Romeo and Juliet begins with a Chorus setting the scene in the Italian city of Verona, where the Capulets and the ...