This week I had the opportunity to attend the workshop “The Art of Being Together: Shakespeare and Friendship” led by Prof. Goran Stanivukovi of Saint Mary’s University Canada. While I must admit my interests usually lie about as far away from Early Modern and Renaissance Period literature as I can possibly get, due to my experiences in the theatre, Shakespeare holds a special place in my heart. As a result, I was glad to get a chance to look at his work in the light of Prof. Stanivukovi’s research.
Prof. Stanivukovi began the workshop by positing that investigating the meaning and nature of friendship is, in many ways, the primary goal of many of Shakespeare’s plays. He provided ample evidence to support this idea, pointing to the friendships of Romeo and Mercutio, Hamlet and Horatio, and Antonio and Bassonio and observing that many of the conflicts that drive these plays stem from intrusions into these friendships. These intrusions tend to take the form of either a competing romantic relationship or economic concerns.
At this point it is important to observe that Prof. Stanivukovi builds his argument off an early modern understanding of friendship. To help those of us attending the workshop understand this, he provided a pretty wide range of readings of Classical and Early Modern ideas about friendship. What stood out to me the most from these readings was the belief that friendship was a higher or nobler relationship than a romantic relationship like marriage. Marriage was viewed as a partnership founded on inequality and commercial or financial agreement rather than the genuine affection of friendship. The Renaissance idea of friendship was also a good deal more flexible than we are accustomed to today, including familial relationships as well as relationships between mentors and mentees
For Renaissance figures like Shakespeare, this created complicated questions about love, desire, friendship, and the lines that divide and connect them. While we did not discuss this play in the workshop, to me this is most obvious in As You Like It. Orlando must pretend to court Rosalind (who is masquerading as the country youth Ganymede), thus blurring the lines between friendship and romance, and the central conflict of the plot is, in many ways, the product of the failed friendships of the brothers Duke Senior and Duke Frederick, and Oliver and Orlando, which is caused by the intrusion of politics, power, and money in their relationships.
While this talk centered on the Classical/Early Modern concept of friendship it seems to me that friendship is an even more pressing topic to consider in Modern and Postmodern works, which are often founded either on a conspicuous lack of friendship or meaningful human connection (see Samuel Beckett’s Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable trilogy, or John Banville’s The Sea) or on hyper-dependent relationships that still fail to bring those involved any meaningful connection (again, see Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or Endgame, or, in the interest of stepping away from an Irish context, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, or even Edward Albee’s “Zoo Story”).
Ultimately, however, this leaves me ruminating on some of the Modern and Postmodern works that resolve themselves (in as far as such works ever resolve themselves) through successful relationships. Interestingly, this brings to mind three rather far flung works: James Joyce’s Ulysses, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and Jamie O’Neill’s At Swim Two Boys. In Ulysses, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus are, in many ways, saved and rejuvenated by their short relationship as Dedalus defends Bloom from the capers of his friends and Bloom helps Stephen safely navigate the perils of the “Nighttown” episode. In fact, it occurs to me that their relationship is not unlike that of Prince Hal and Falstaff in Henry IV parts one and two, as the seemingly lower class and clearly much more worldly Bloom must stand in as a new father figure/mentor to Dedalus. Of course, the fact that the bond between Frodo and Sam was the only thing that made the destruction of the Ring in The Lord of the Rings really possible is fairly obvious even to people whose sole experience with the book is through GIFs and memes taken from the Peter Jackson trilogy.
At Swim Two Boys probably presents the most complex picture of friendship as it dramatizes the establishment of the homosexual relationship as a fully realized bond, deeply related to yet distinct from more Classical ideas of friendship, through the musings of MacMurrough and the burgeoning, if tragically brief relationship between Jim and Doyler. Looking at At Swim Two Boys in the context of Prof. Stanivukovi’s workshop is actually quite exciting, as it places O’Neill’s exploration of the homosexual relationship into a much longer tradition, and helps one to consider some of the wider ramifications of Shakespeare’s own consideration of the lines between affectionate friendship and desire in works like As You Like It.
Obviously, Prof. Stanivukovi’s workshop has given me a lot to think about, both as his research into friendship relates specifically to Shakespeare and as it forces me to consider works nearer to my own field of interest in a different light.
Joyce, James. Ulysses. Edited by Hans Walter Gabler, Vintage Books, 1986.
O’Neill, Jamie. At Swim Two Boys. Scribner, 2003.
Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. Simon & Schuster, 2004.
Stanivukovi, Goran. “The Art of Being Together: Shakespeare and Friendship.” 18 October 2016, University College Cork School of English, University College Cork. Lecture.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of The Rings. Hougton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004.