A Crisis of Friendship?: Representation and Experience in Two Late University Plays

By Marlow, Christopher | Shakespeare Studies, Annual 2009 | Go to article overview

A Crisis of Friendship?: Representation and Experience in Two Late University Plays


Marlow, Christopher, Shakespeare Studies


IN THE SIXTEENTH and seventeenth centuries the universities of Oxford and Cambridge were almost unique in accommodating semiautonomous communities of young men, and I will argue that this rare social circumstance leaves its mark upon the dramatic work in which those communities were engaged. In this paper I will show how two university plays of the 1630s stage a moment of crisis for the predominant discourse of perfect friendship, and I go on to suggest some ways in which this can be accounted for. In the plays, the classical view of perfect friendship--as an absolute similitude between two friends who commonly understand their relationship to be that of "one soul in two bodies"--is put into question by the emergence of a more pragmatic view of friendship that recognizes the importance of strategic alliances and the significance of the group. This moment of crisis has an irreverent, satirical impulse, and I am particularly interested in thinking about why that impulse emerges in university drama, and what it might say about early modern masculinity.

In terms of plot, both Peter Hausted's The Rivall Friends (1631-32) and Robert Mead's The Combat of Love and Friendship (1634-38?) fit comfortably into the popular subgenre of friendship literature that deals with the conflict between friendship and heterosexual desire. The classical world was replete with pairs of friends who each wish to sacrifice their own lives in order to save their friend, with Damon and Pithias, and Orestes and Pylades perhaps the best-known examples. An early modern twist upon this desire for mutual self-sacrifice was introduced into the English vernacular tradition in 1531 by Thomas Elyot, whose conduct book, The Book Named the Governor, included a brief fictional illustration of perfect friendship in what it calls "the wonderful history of Titus and Gisippus." Although self-sacrifice in the face of execution remains present in the narrative, the text also provides an opportunity for Titus and Gisippus to sacrifice for each other their own equal romantic interests in Sophronia, a beautiful Athenian gentlewoman. (1) The central action of a friend resigning his interest in his mistress reappears in a number of early modern texts that postdate Elyot's, including Lyly's Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578), Shakespeare's The Two Gentlemen of Verona (ca. 1594), and Hausted's The Rivall Friends.

The play, performed by members of Hausted's own Queens' College, Cambridge, in front of Charles I, Queen Henrietta Maria, and numerous Cambridge students, concerns two friends who are love rivals, and the twist here is that they both actively attempt to favor the suit of the other in increasingly outlandish ways. Since it was performed in 1632, the play arrives a century into the tradition of English writing on self-sacrificing friends and it is careful to indicate its awareness of the convention. In fact, at the same time that the play acknowledges the friendship tradition, it emphasizes that tradition's incompatibility with the world encountered by the early modern university student. The plot of The Rivall Friends is composed of four overlapping narrative strands, and is too complicated to be explained here in full. I return to the titular plot below, but one of the subplots involves a mock battle of wits between four young men, arranged by two of the play's gentleman malcontents, Lovell and Anteros. These four young men can be seen to represent a variety of subject positions commonly available to young Englishmen in the seventeenth century. One identifies himself as an elder brother; one is an Inns of Court man; one an attorney's clerk; and one a Bachelor of Arts. As we might expect, given that this play was performed in front of an audience full of Cambridge university students, the Inns of Court character is given a rather hard time of it: his name is Nodle Emptie. But the relationship between Hammershin, the scholar, and Mungrell, the elder brother, has the most to tell us about the play's view of friendship. …

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