Shakespeare and friendship

Shakespeare and friendship

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.

Just friends?

For Shakespeare, the word ‘friend’ expressed a wide range of meanings. He understood friendship as we do today, to mean affectionate companionship, but just as frequently he used ‘friends’ when he meant ‘family’: in As You Like It, Rosalind defends herself from the charge of inherited treason by claiming ‘if we did derive it from our friends, / What’s that to me? My father was no traitor’ (1.3.56–57). A friend in the singular could also mean a lover, often an illicit one. Bianca, Cassio’s mistress in Othello, is shocked to be asked to copy the embroidery on a handkerchief Cassio has presented to her. ‘This is some token from a newer friend,’ she objects (3.4.176). Early modern men and women had large circles of neighbours, acquaintances, business colleagues, creditors, debtors, servants and patrons, any of whom might be classed as friends. In Julius Caesar, when Mark Antony addresses the crowd after Caesar’s shocking assassination, his opening words capture the idea that a friend was, in the broadest sense, simply one’s fellow subject: ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears’ (3.2.70).

The first illustrated works of Shakespeare edited by Nicholas Rowe, 1709

The first illustrated works of Shakespeare edited by Nicholas Rowe, 1709

‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’: Mark Antony addresses the crowd before Caesar’s wounded corpse.

View images from this item  (74)

Usage terms: Public Domain

Alongside these everyday definitions, friendship also meant something very much deeper and more significant. For some, friendship was a preciously rare union of profound emotional, intellectual, spiritual and physical intensity, experienced by a lucky few and impossible to resist. It’s a character in Twelfth Night who most eloquently expresses the heart-swelling potential of this kind of friendship. Antonio, the sea-captain who rescued Sebastian from shipwreck, has followed him to Illyria where he faces arrest for his former attacks on Illyrian ships. Challenged by the Duke, Antonio explains that after he saved Sebastian’s life, he also granted the younger man ‘[m]y love without retention or restraint, / All his in dedication’ (5.1.75–76). His foolhardy mission into enemy territory was ‘for his sake … pure for his love’ (5.1.76–77), a love that the two men had cultivated for the previous three months, spent ‘day and night’ in each other’s company (91). Thinking – mistakenly – that Sebastian has forsaken him, Antonio lashes out at ‘the false cunning’ of ‘that most ingrateful boy’ (5.1.71, 80). His hurt makes it clear that false friendship is the greatest of betrayals.

Same-sex friendship and love

Ardent friendships of this kind are less familiar to us today, when we tend to understand inter-personal passion as arising out of sexual attraction. When a friendship passes a given point of intensity, we assume that the parties are no longer ‘just friends’ but have become lovers (or at the very least that they want to be lovers). Some early modern friendships undoubtedly underwent this sort of transformation too. In a period when same-sex sexual relationships were taboo, the culture and practices of friendship provided a context for same-sex lovers to articulate and explore their intimacy. Indeed, in some contexts passionate same-sex friendship was understood to stand in conflict with marriage. In The Merchant of Venice, Bassanio promises his stricken friend Antonio that although he is ‘married to a wife / Which is as dear to me as life itself’ (4.1.282–83), she is ‘not with me esteemed above thy life’ (85). Bassanio vows to ‘lose all, ay, sacrifice them all’ (4.1.286) to release Antonio. Noble sentiments, but not expressed without challenge. Bassanio’s new bride Portia is present, in disguise as a lawyer, to hear his pledge: ‘Your wife would give you little thanks for that / If she were by to hear you make the offer,’ she mutters, under her breath (4.1.288–89).

First edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets, 1609

First edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets, 1609

‘Thou mine, I thine’ (Sonnet 108): some of Shakespeare’s passionate poems of love are addressed to a man.

View images from this item  (80)

Usage terms: Public Domain

Officially, however, friendship between adults of the same gender was supposed to be sex free, a feature that in fact raised it higher in many people’s minds than matrimony, implicated as that union was in the sin of sexuality. Many male writers held friendship between men in particular esteem. George Wither, illustrator and editor of a celebrated 17th-century collection of emblems, captured this sense of exemplarity in his image of friendship. The illustration – two male hands clasped above a single flaming heart, surrounded by a pair of conjoined rings – was accompanied by a short verse: ‘That’s friendship, and true love indeed, / That firm abides in time of need’.

Friendship in George Wither's emblem book

Friendship in George Wither's emblem book

Clasped hands and a flaming heart: friendship as true love.

View images from this item  (1)

Usage terms: Public Domain

The French thinker Michel de Montaigne, whose collection of essays was translated into English by Shakespeare’s contemporary John Florio in 1603, argued in ‘De l’amitie’ (‘On friendship’ or ‘On affectionate relationships’) that intense friendship between men was a passionate connection that drew its participants into an irresistible bond. Friends ‘intermix and confound themselves one in the other, with so universal a commixture that they wear out and can no more find the seam that hath conjoined them together’. Writing of his own fervent relationship with the political philosopher Étienne de la Boétie, he admitted that he didn’t fully understand the force that, ‘having seized all my will, induced the same to plunge and lose itself in his; which likewise having seized all his will, brought it to lose and plunge itself in mine.’

Classical example 

Montaigne’s language wasn’t usually that wild. Most of his essays argued for a manner of life in which moderation was the keynote. Renaissance men like Montaigne were expected to keep their passions under control. They were advised not to give in to their bodily urges, or gluttony, or rage. But pure friendship, known as amicitia perfecta, was different. In its truest state, it could only be experienced at a very high temperature.

One explanation for this exception to the rule of moderation is to be found in amicitia perfecta’s classical origins. Anyone in the 16th and 17th centuries who received an education would have read De amicitia (‘On Friendship’) by the Roman politician and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43 BCE), a treatise that celebrated friendship between virtuous men (those who didn’t understand Latin could read one of many English translations, including William Caxton’s of 1481). Drawing on ancient Greek sources that included Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, Cicero laid out a philosophy of friendship that could be condensed to a few catchy proverbs: the friend was ‘another self’, and friends shared ‘one soul in two bodies’. Elizabethan readers were taught to admire the examples of ideal friends from classical and biblical history: Damon and Pithias, Orestes and Pylades, Achilles and Patroclus, David and Jonathan.

Uncertain resolutions

All of these exemplars of perfect friends were men, and men of rank. And this is another reason why it was held to be an acceptable thing to experience friendship with passionate intensity. Friendship was defined in treatises as something that existed in its ideal form between men of similar intellect, moral courage and ethical firmness – only the male frame was believed to be capable of withstanding the rigours of such powerful emotions.

Such a misogynistic view was established by medical opinion in the 16th and 17th centuries, although Shakespeare enjoyed staging interactions in which the traditional gender and class constraints around intense emotion were challenged. Orsino, the love-sick duke in Twelfth Night, evidently believed that passionate affection was the preserve of elite men. Speaking to his page Cesario (who is, of course, the play’s heroine Viola in disguise), he explains that his devotion to the impassive Olivia is by definition a somewhat one-sided affair: ‘There is no woman’s sides / Can bide the beating of so strong a passion,’ he claims (2.4.91–92). Viola, nobly suffering her own unutterable love for Orsino, silently disproves him.

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Orsino, Viola as Cesario, and Olivia. Twelfth Night, Act 5, Scene 1 by William Hamilton

View images from this item  (24)

Usage terms: Public Domain

In fact, Shakespeare’s attitude to ‘perfect’ friendship in men or women was often sceptical. He had little truck with the assumption that ardent friendship was a men-only affair, creating pairs of female friends such as Rosalind and Celia (As You Like It) and Helena and Hermia (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) who are every bit as devoted as their male counterparts. But he was also a dramatist, and interested in real-world relationships that were unpredictable and fallible. In his stories, the true love of friendship didn’t always get the happy ending it deserved. Rosalind and Celia, and Helena and Hermia find their friendships tested by the competing demands of heterosexual romantic love, and in Twelfth Night, Antonio is left without the comfort of a resolution: amid the impending marriages at the play’s conclusion, his ‘desire, / More sharp than filed steel’ for Sebastian, is forgotten (3.3.4–5).

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Hero and Ursula, with Beatrice hiding. Much Ado about Nothing, Act 3, Scene 1 by William Peters.

View images from this item  (24)

Usage terms: Public Domain

Friendship album of Gervasius Fabricius zu Klesheim

Friendship Album of Gervasius Fabricius zu Klesheim

Early 17th-century painting of women embroidering together. Hermia remembers such as scene of friendship to Helena as they fight in Act 3, Scene 2 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

View images from this item  (3)

Usage terms: The British Library has decided to make the images of pre-1800 collection items available on this website. For more information please refer to the following guidance.

The contributor has asked for the following credit: Will Tosh, 'Shakespeare and friendship' (2016).

  • Will Tosh
  • Will Tosh is Lecturer and Research Fellow at Globe Education, Shakespeare’s Globe, where he leads the on-going research into drama practice in the candle-lit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. He is the author of Male Friendship and Testimonies of Love in Shakespeare’s England (Palgrave) and Playing Indoors: Staging Early Modern Drama in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (forthcoming).

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.