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Shakespeare’s Friends

Class at Faculty of Arts |




Shakespeare’s Friends

Friendship was a captivating concept in the Renaissance. Indeed, in his 1508 edition of Adages, Erasmus, the contemporary creator of a cult of friendship, commences his considerations with a saying attributed to Pythagoras,

“amicorum communia omnia” – all is common among friends – concluding that “the whole of human happiness

[is] included in this brief saying”. Among the many types of friendship, one draws singular attention: a non- instrumental alliance rooted in unconditional mutual affinity. Celebrated in fiction and non-fiction alike, this idealised bond – in which, as Montaigne memorably maintains, “minds […] 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” – follows the ideal of true friendship found in Aristotle and Cicero.

This ideal, however, receives at once an endorsement and a sceptical treatment in Shakespeare’s works. While firm at the basis of such glorifications of friendly devotion as the close of Sonnet 29 (“For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings / That then I scorn to change my state with kings”); the ideal is tainted in a number of plays, which seem to concede that “most friendship is feigning” (AYLI, 2.7.181). At the heart of Shakespeare’s treatment of friendship is a tension between an ideal and the experience, the paradoxical realization that we seem not to be able to fully accept that what we cannot live without. Through a reading of a selection of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, this course will explore this tension that arises from Aristotle’s contention, much revered in the

Renaissance, that a friend is a heteros autos: (an)other self, difference and semblance in one.

Primary reading:

Aristotle Books 8&9 of Nicomachean Ethics; Cicero De Amicita; Erasmus Adages; Montaigne “On Friendship”;

Francis Bacon “Of Friendship”

Plays: Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, 1 Henry IV, As You Like It, The Winter’s Tale

Sonnets: a selection

Secondary reading:

Agamben, Giorgio. “Friendship” in: What is an Apparatus? And Other Essays (2009) Trans. David Kishik and

Stefan Pedatella, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Blanchot, Maurice. Friendship (1997) Trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. The Politics of Friendship (2005). Trans. George Collins, London: Verso.

Hutson, Lorna. The Usurer’s Daughter: Male Friendship and Fictions of Women in Sixteenth-century England

(1997). London: Routledge.

MacFaul, Tom. Male Friendship in Shakespeare and his Contemporaries (2007). Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press.

Study programmes