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Studies in Shakespeare
March 19, 1998
[Conclusion] | [Endnotes] | [Bibliography]
"What's Love Got to do with It?":
Shakespeare and the Precarious Friendship Ideal in
The Two Noble Kinsmen and Julius Caesar
Palamon: Is there record of any two that loved
Better than we do, Arcite?
Arcite: Sure there cannot. (II.ii.114-116)
Brutus: What means this shouting? I do fear the people
choose Caesar for their king.
Cassius: Ay, do you fear it?
Then must I think you would not have it so.
Brutus: I would not, Cassius, yet I love him well. (I.ii.80-84)
With these lines, Shakespeare sets into motion the plots of two distinct plays; betrayal will undo the friendship, love decaying into enmity. The Renaissance philosophy of male companionship is as powerful in its expression as it is noble. However, the idyllic must always be explored within the context of realism. As he does so notably in many of his works, Shakespeare uses the classic ideal of friendship given by such noteworthies as Cicero and Montaigne and dramatically dissects it within the action of the plays. Recalling the words of Coriolanus:
O World, thy slippery turns! Friends now fast sworn,
Whose double bosoms seems to wear one heart,
Whose hours, whose bed, whose meal and exercise
Are still together, who twin, as 'twere, in love
Unseparable, shall within this hour,
On a dissension of a doit, break out
To bitterest enmity.(Coriolanus, IV.iv.12-18)
Certainly, there are fundamental differences in the relationships between characters and plots in the two plays. Whereas the relationships of Palamon and Arcite, Theseus and Pirithous, and Emilia and Flavinia reinforce the "betrayed friendship and the desire for self-sufficiency [that] are omnipresent themes in Renaissance literature," in Julius Caesar, the theme is one of "the triumph of will over reason." Brutus speaks of his love of Caesar, yet betrays it as Palamon and Arcite betray one another's professed love. Simply by using the word "love," in fact, Shakespeare calls into question the Elizabethan notion of many of love's facets in both plays, both the same-sex love of friendship and the wedded love of man and wife.
As Waith puts it, the authors of The Two Noble Kinsmen "invoke the classic ideal of friendship, which, like ideal love, had been absorbed into the chivalric tradition as it appeared in the romances, and was also, on its own, highly respected in the Renaissance." Or, to quote Laurie Shannon, "the masculinity of ideal friendship in the Renaissance is as proverbial as the 'one soul in two bodies' formulation that celebrates it." This view is based primarily on the work of Montaigne, who says in his essay "Of Friendship":
In the amity I speak of, [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.... If a man urge me to tell wherefore I loved him, I feel it cannot be expressed but by answering: "Because it was he; because it was myself."
Julius Caesar, on the other hand, seems to owe more to Cicero's essay (fitting for a Roman play) "On Friendship": I don't believe that the appearance of Cicero in this play as an actual character is accidental. Think on what Cicero writes: "Friendship can only exist between good men." And later, "We mean then by the 'good' those whose actions and lives leave no question as to their honor, purity, equity, and liberality; who are free from greed, lust, and violence; and who have the courage of their convictions." Given the actions of Brutus and the main participants of the events of this play, "love" seems part of a language of self-delusion when we examine Cicero's text.
Likewise, can we say that Palamon and Arcite demonstrate the qualities expressed by either Montaigne or Cicero? Donald Hedrick writes:
Friendship...is the subject under investigation by The Two Noble Kinsmen...both female-female and male-male relationships are thus explicitly idealized and at the same time subjected to an implicit comparison or competition.
The competition is love itself. Barry Weller in "The Two Noble Kinsmen, the Friendship Tradition, and the Flight from Eros" describes this investigation of friendship by saying, "The crises of death and sexual desire test the proposition that a friend is an 'other self' under extreme conditions. In the variant narrative, exemplified by The Two Gentlemen of Verona and perhaps Euphues, friendship collapses, for one partner at least, under the first assault of eros. It is to this variant tradition that The Two Noble Kinsmen belongs." Laurie Shannon points this out as well when she writes:
False to form, Palamon and Arcite instantly pursue their separate interests, and vow instead to take one another's lives. A "true" friendship would not have collapsed under this pressure. By the drama's close, both will sadly question the fatality by which one love exacts the life of another love.
This is indicative of an earlier statement by her that "Palamon and Arcite articulate their twinning relationship with a youthful excess that effectively parodies some of Montaigne's declamatory rhetoric." The key to understanding the treatment in this play is to understand that within the boundaries of the classic ideal, love of a woman could not dissolve such a friendship. In fact, the relationship of Palamon and Arcite seems antithetical to the Montaigne ideal upon examination, certainly as demonstrated by their quarrel in Act 2 over Emilia. In "Shakespeare the non-dramatic poet," Robert Ellrodt provides an interesting insight that, when examined in the context of The Two Noble Kinsmen, condemns the relationship of Palamon and Arcite on these very grounds:
Love for the youth is more than exalted friendship, a Renaissance ideal such as Montaigne, Lyly, Sidney, and Spenser variously evidence. Such friendship was a privileged bond between individuals...a fellowship immune from the stresses and storms of heterosexual passion.
Or, to quote Potter, "In light of this sophistry, it is hard to see Palamon and Arcite as ideal friends in the same sense as Sidney's Musidorus and Pyrocles in the Arcadia." Such a radical departure is not rare for Shakespeare; the conflict of friendship is compared to The Winter's Tale by Charney, who writes, "the theme of male friendship corrupted by heterosexual love recalls The Winter's Tale. There Leontes and Polixenes as boyhood friends were 'as twinned lambs, that did frisk i' th' sun'." As contrasted with other writers of the period, Shakespeare runs friendship through an exploratory wringer:
The two most highly respected Renaissance writers, Sidney and Spenser, depicted examples of idealized male friendship, but in neither the Arcadia nor The Faerie Queen does the friendship seriously clash with love. Shakespeare, however, frequently depicts such a clash, as in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
While Shakespeare created a world in The Two Noble Kinsmen founded upon the ideal of Montaigne, he took a different approach with Julius Caesar; Parker speaks of a "diseased love and inconstancy that mark the play," and Hunter writes that the play is based upon a "contrast between political duty and personal emotion." Brutus's dilemma is stated in his funeral oratory: "not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more" (III.ii.21-22). Brutus speaks highly of his love of Caesar, as does Antony; likewise, Cassius speaks of a love for Brutus even as he urges Brutus against his dear friend. There is much love professed in this play of rhetoric, yet very little displayed on even the most cursory examination. Love between friends is a present theme, but not meant for the same exploration as The Two Noble Kinsmen. Honigmann writes of Shakespeare's strategy:
As many commentators have said, Shakespeare's special effort went into the language of Julius Caesar. Apart from the poets and prose-writers that I have already mentioned (Livy, Horace, Virgil), the Rome of Julius Caesar bred orators, such as Cicero, trained in the schoolsand Shakespeare's unique achievement was that he re-created a world dedicated to speech-making and the arts of persuasion.
What does this say about the nature of love in Julius Caesar? The intimacy and frankness of love is, in many instances, the diametric opposite of what we think as politics, regardless of the era. Bevington states as much in his introduction to Julius Caesar: "Politics seems to require a morality quite apart from that of personal life, posing a tragic dilemma for Brutus." As Parker writes in "The Whore of Babylon and Shakespeare's Julius Caesar," marking the relationship between Brutus and Portia: "...the word "love" is conspicuously absent. Portia, moreover, twice accuses Brutus of "steal[ing] out of his wholesome bed"...the rejection bodes the dissolution of the marital bond." Neither does Brutus actually profess his love to Caesar: we are told about it, and Brutus perhaps even means it, yet words in this play are constantly mitigated by deeds. "Let's be sacrificers, but not butchers" (2.1.166) he says to Cassius, as if he could deliberately choose to be an unwilling sacrificer, forced to kill his dear friend Caesar against his personal judgment by the spirit of the times, as he resoundingly rejected the role of butcher that he indeed was." This underscores the self-delusion inherent to Julius Caesar. Or, as Charney sums it up: " In Brutus we feel that tragedy is a complex matter of a noble figure who lacks any practical sense of what is actually going on." He further relates:
Unlike Cassius, Brutus knows no "personal cause to spurn" at Caesar, so that he is forced to deal with hypothetical generalities. His whole movement to murder is based on a conditional assumption: [n]o other killing in Shakespeare is based on such a flimsy argument.
Antony also strongly reinforces this conflict of politics and love with his words and actions following the death of Caesar. The message that his servant relays is a consummate lie, the extreme of political rhetoric:
Thus, Brutus, did my master bid me kneel;
Thus did Mark Antony bid me fall down
And, being prostrate, thus he bade me say:
"Brutus is noble, wise, valiant, and honest;
Caesar was mighty, bold, royal, and loving.
Say I love Brutus and honor him;
Say I feared Caesar, honored him, and loved him.
If Brutus will vouchsafe that Antony
May safely come to him and be resolved
How Caesar hath deserved to lie in death,
Mark Antony shall not love Caesar dead
So well as Brutus living, but will follow
The fortunes and affairs of noble Brutus
Thorough the hazards of this untrod state
With all true faith." So says my master Antony.(III.i.125-139)
Antony even warns the conspirators when he meets them with an ironic commentary on his own actions: "Gentlemen allalas, what shall I say? / My credit now stands on such slippery ground / That one of two bad ways you must conceit me, / Either a coward or a flatterer" (III.i.192-195). He is neither in this scene; instead, Antony proves that he is just as capable of deceit as the men upon whom he intends to revenge the death of Caesar are. And the word "love" (or its derivation) is spoken four times in this speech alone, and it is among the emptiest rhetoric of the play.
In returning to The Two Noble Kinsmen, we have seen the exemplification with which Shakespeare demonstrates the corruption of the Montaigne ideal in the similarly empty rhetoric of Palamon and Arcite. Witness the observation of Madelon Leif and Nicholas Radel:
The kinship of Palamon and Arcite soon proves to be a paradoxical self-love, one that commits the knights to their "noble" cause and, sadly, one that sparks the fire that will consume them; their subsequent bickering over Emilia says more about their selfishness and possessiveness than it does about their love for her. The real point to be made here, however, is that their language is a bit too self-conscious (and absurd) to be seen as anything more than posturingexpressive of, but inadequate to, their predicament.
Shannon adds to this, saying, " Compared to Theseus's 'knot of love'...the kinsmen's friendship is precarious in the extreme." This, however, is only the half of it; Shakespeare furthermore plays upon Montaigne's rhetoric with one simple statement in I.iii.81-82:
Emilia: That the true love 'tween maid and maid may be
More than in sex dividual.
With this statement, as Charles Frey puts it, "In depicting the friendship of Emilia and Flavinia, Shakespeare turns from the perhaps masculinist language of difference and cleaving to hints of a spiritual creativity that might provide life beyond death." This is a radical departure from mainstream Renaissance thought. As Lois Potter writes:
Montaigne's famous essay on his friendship with La Bołtie was clearly in Shakespeare's mind when he wrote The Two Noble Kinsmen, but, interestingly enough, he drew on it, not in the relationship of Palamon and Arcite, but in Emilia's dialogue with Hippolyta in I.iii."
Exactly how radical is this departure? Montaigne's description of friendship, echoed by Hippolyta in speaking of Theseus and Pirithous's friendship as a "knot," precludes women from experiencing such a friendship because they didn't have the strength to make such an association. Yet, as Shannon says, "Here, the women have the power to appreciate it; Emilia, of course, will go on to describe her experience of it, despite Montaigne's theory." There is no misinterpretation of Shakespeare's intent in this scene: Emilia represents in the span of two lines not only the repudiation of male-dominated ideal friendship, butto a certain extent, at leastthe repudiation of marriage as the foundation of love.
Emilia's narration of the innocent and close friendship she shared with Flavinia in their childhood introduces the more general issue in the debate over friendship and marriage. Emilia contends that friendship between members of the same sex is worthier than the love found between man and wife.
Once again, the character of Theseus reinforces this view; indeed, the play begins portentously with "the sacredness of the love between husband and wife by presenting the solemn rites of the marriage processional of Duke Theseus and Queen Hippolyta." This will create an interesting thematic triangle in the relationship between Theseus, Hippolyta, and Pirithous: the love between Hippolyta and Theseus is different from [the friendship of Theseus and Pirithous] and, even though Hippolyta is Queen of the Amazons, she cannot compete with the noble friend. Weller adds to this analysis with:
Theseus and Pirithous, like Orestes and Pylades or David and Jonathan, are traditional exemplars of lofty and selfless friendship who are presumably adduced to strengthen the play's thematic emphasis. Nevertheless, the context in which their history is evoked makes it not merely a pattern but an alternative to marriage.
Marriage (as distinguished from philandering) is a constraining covenant, very different from friendship, which is freely entered into for its own sake. But despite the Renaissance fascination with the friendship ideals of Montaigne and Cicero, it must be understood that traditional Renaissance thought placed the love between man and wife in a higher regard. For these ideals had been absorbed into a chivalric tradition that "emphasized relations between man and woman." When the play is read with this in mind, one can see how truly non-conformist Emilia is. Noel Blincoe states:
Deeply rooted in Elizabethan-Jacobean culture, husband and wife were not only united in soul, but also in flesh and blood. In claiming that maiden love has a pre-eminency when set against wedded love, Emilia establishes one of the central dramatic themes in the play.
Think of the recent stir over same-sex marriage in the twentieth century, as well as the volume of political rhetoric spouted about "family values." Even in modern America, the sentiment expressed by Emilia would be viewed as out of the mainstream; to Elizabethans of Shakespeare's day, this surely must have ranked as a shocking view on the institution of marriage.
Nor is it confined to The Two Noble Kinsmen. Once again, we need to examine the rhetoric of love in Julius Caesar; Brutus and Portia amplify the theme of marriage as empty, as does the barrenness of Calpurnia (who has one of the least desirable roles in all of Shakespeare). Although in context the Cinna scene seems somewhat tongue-in-cheek, witness the following exchange as related by Barbara Parker:
Significantly, the word "love" or a variant occurs eight times in [Brutus's funeral oration] speech, in contrast to its total absence from his dialogue with Portia. The Cinna episode, which ends the first structural segment of the play, provides an ironic commentary on all that has transpired:
4 Pleb. Are you a married man or a bachelor?
Cinna. ...wisely, I say, I am a bachelor.
2. Pleb. That's as much as to say they are fools that marry.(III.iii.8-19) 
Marital love in Julius Caesar ultimately fares no better than love between friends. This continues the "cynical and problematic world view" that is ascribed to Shakespeare by some critics (and which comes to full fruition in the later plays, such as The Two Noble Kinsmen). Neither marriage nor friendship, however idealized that they may be, tend to live up to their paragon examples in the course of everyday life.
In both The Two Noble Kinsmen and Julius Caesar, Shakespeare uses the friendship ideal given by Cicero and Montaigne as a thematic underpinning. However, the playwright constructs both works primarily in antithesis to Montaigne's "knot of love" and Cicero's "friendship between good men." The critical implication of this is that we are forced to question love and friendship rather than accept what could be construed as a social na„vetł of the English Renaissance. Such treatment of subject matter versus philosophy is why Shakespeare has withstood the passage of centuries, and why his work still seems so relevant in our contemporary society. Shakespeare asks the questions for which we are still seeking answers, in a time when not many writers dared to follow the same course. There is a quote from Eugene Waith's introduction to The Two Noble Kinsmen that could equally apply to both plays:
In the scenes I have just discussed friendship appears to be the greatest boon life can offer and the loss of a friend the greatest catastrophe, but the dramatic power of the play arises from conflict, and the conflicting power of love is not understated. 
It is in promoting this conflict that Shakespeare demonstrates such mastery. In the end, the question is not "can a woman befriend a woman with the same bond as that between men," or "is the love of man and wife greater than the love of friends"; the question must be: What is love? Is it an empty word, or is it the ultimate expression of a universal ideal? Unfortunately, life provides us with no better answer than that it is often an admixture of the two. Love, it seems, refuses to be defined so simply; it is the words and deeds that it inspires that ultimately prove its mettle.
1. Potter, Lois, ed. The Two Noble Kinsmen. Surrey: Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd., 1997, p. 10
2. Honigmann, E. A. J. Myriad-Minded Shakespeare, 2nd ed. New York: St. Martin's Press, Inc., 1998, p. 31
3. Waith, Eugene, ed. The Two Noble Kinsmen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989, p.49
4. Shannon, Laurie J. "Emilia's Argument: Friendship and 'Human Title' in The Two Noble Kinsmen." ELH, Baltimore, MD. Fall 1997, 64:3, p. 657
5. Montaigne, The Complete Essays (Penguin Classics), M. A. Screech, trans. New York: Viking Press, 1993
6. Cicero, "On Friendship", World Literary Heritage [CD-ROM] (Softbit Inc., 1994)
8. Hedrick, Donald K. "Be Rough With Me: The Collaborative Arenas of The Two Noble Kinsmen." In Shakespeare, Fletcher, and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Ed. Charles H. Frey. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989, p. 63
9. Weller, Barry. "The Two Noble Kinsmen, the Friendship Tradition, and the Flight from Eros." In Shakespeare, Fletcher, and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Ed. Charles H. Frey. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989, p. 93
10. Shannon, p. 665
11. Shannon, p. 664
12. Ellrodt, Robert. "Shakespeare the Non-dramatic Poet." In The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Studies. Stanley Wells, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986, p. 39
13. Potter, p. 57
14. Charney, Maurice. All of Shakespeare. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993, p. 362
15. Potter, p. 56
16. Parker, Barbara L. "The Whore of Babylon and Shakespeare's Julius Caesar." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Spring 1995, 35:2, p. 258
17. Hunter, G. K. "Shakespeare and the Traditions of Tragedy." In The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Studies. Stanley Wells, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986, p.134
18. Honigmann, p. 24
19. Bevington, David, ed. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, 4th ed. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc., 1997, p. 1021
20. Parker, p. 257
21. Charney, p. 229
22. Charney, p. 233
24. Lief, Madelon and Radel, Nicholas F. "Linguistic Subversion and the Artifice of Rhetoric in The Two Noble Kinsmen." Shakespeare Quarterly, Washington, DC. Winter 1987, 38:4, p. 411.
25. Shannon, p. 665
26. Frey, Charles H. "Grinning at the Moon: Some Sadness in The Two Noble Kinsmen." In Shakespeare, Fletcher, and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Ed. Charles H. Frey. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989
27. Potter, p. 55
28. Shannon, note 39, p. 677
29. Blincoe, Noel R. "The Analogous Qualities of The Two Noble Kinsmen and Masque of the Inner Temple and Grey's Inn." Notes and Queries, Oxford, England. June 1996, 43 (241):2, p. 169
30. Blincoe, "The Analogous Qualities," p. 168
31. Charney, p. 366
32. Weller, p. 98
33. Waith, p. 50
34. Potter, p. 55
35. Blincoe, Noel R. "'Fury-Innocent' as Used in The Two Noble Kinsmen." Notes and Queries, Oxford, England. Sept. 1995, 42 (240):3, p. 337
36. Parker, p. 258
37. Leif and Radel, p. 406
38. Waith, p. 56
Bevington, David, ed. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, 4th ed. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc., 1997
Blincoe, Noel R. "'Fury-Innocent' as Used in The Two Noble Kinsmen." Notes and Queries, Oxford, England. September 1995, 42 (240):3, 337-38
Blincoe, Noel R. "The Analogous Qualities of The Two Noble Kinsmen and Masque of the Inner Temple and Grey's Inn." Notes and Queries, Oxford, England. June 1996, 43 (241):2, 168-72
Charney, Maurice. All of Shakespeare. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993
Cicero, "On Friendship", World Literary Heritage [CD-ROM] (Softbit Inc., 1994)
Ellrodt, Robert. "Shakespeare the Non-dramatic Poet." In The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Studies. Stanley Wells, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986
Frey, Charles H. "Grinning at the Moon: Some Sadness in The Two Noble Kinsmen." In Shakespeare, Fletcher, and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Ed. Charles H. Frey. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989
Hedrick, Donald K. "Be Rough With Me: The Collaborative Arenas of The Two Noble Kinsmen." In Shakespeare, Fletcher, and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Ed. Charles H. Frey. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989
Honigmann, E. A. J. Myriad-Minded Shakespeare, 2nd ed. New York: St. Martin's Press, Inc., 1998
Hunter, G. K. "Shakespeare and the Traditions of Tragedy." In The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Studies. Stanley Wells, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986
Lief, Madelon and Radel, Nicholas F. "Linguistic Subversion and the Artifice of Rhetoric in The Two Noble Kinsmen." Shakespeare Quarterly, Washington, DC. Winter 1987, 38:4, 405-25.
Montaigne, The Complete Essays (Penguin Classics), M. A. Screech, trans. New York: Viking Press, 1993
Parker, Barbara L. "The Whore of Babylon and Shakespeare's Julius Caesar." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Spring 1995, 35:2, 251-70
Potter, Lois, ed. The Two Noble Kinsmen. Surrey: Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd., 1997
Richmond, Hugh M. "The Persistent Kinsmen of Shakespeare and Fletcher." Notes and Queries, Oxford, England. June 1994, 40 (238):2, 232-34
Shannon, Laurie J. "Emilia's Argument: Friendship and 'Human Title' in The Two Noble Kinsmen." ELH, Baltimore, MD. Fall 1997, 64:3, 657-82
Waith, Eugene, ed. The Two Noble Kinsmen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989
Weller, Barry. "The Two Noble Kinsmen, the Friendship Tradition, and the Flight from Eros." In Shakespeare, Fletcher, and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Ed. Charles H. Frey. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989
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