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Laurie Shannon. Sovereign Amity: Figures of Friendship in Shakespearean Contexts.

Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2002. xiii + 240 pp. illus, bibl. index. $19. ISBN: 0-226-74967-3.

Laurie Shannon's excellent study of figures of friendship in Shakespearean and other Renaissance texts places previous work by New Historicists, feminists, and other scholars on issues of subject, gender, agency, and sovereignty in a new context. Examining classical and Renaissance theories of sovereignty and amity, she proposes that the Renaissance discourse of same-sex friendship figures for political ideas on the sovereignty of the self, equality, and the stature of kings.

This two-part study begins with "The Sovereign Subject," three chapters that examine works from Cicero through Bacon on the "kingliness" of the subject in private friendship. Reworking ideas by Stephen Greenblatt and Jonathan Goldberg, Shannon explains that in the private world, friendship as a contract of consent is a "preliberal utopian" discourse based on homonormativity: likeness conceived as equality in every respect, including a kingly sense of self-governance and agency (10). The discourse of friendship as counsel, however, acknowledges the disparities between friends and idealizes the role of free speech in producing "agentive subjects and respondent kings" (22). Tyranny evolves when kings reject the legitimacy of critical speech as "protopolitical dissent" (23).

Shannon then examines texts that challenge the classical view of friendship as exclusively masculine by presenting cross-gendered and female friendships. Elizabeth Cary's "The Tragedy of Mariam" and poetry by John Donne demonstrate how tyrants who reject the possibility of such friendships force women to adopt the heroic femininity embodied in chastity as their language of opposition. It functions analogously to "male political chastity" in its emphasis on autonomy and integrity (57). The discourse of female friendship and sexuality also incorporates the language of chastity to articulate political anxiety about tyranny in Shakespeare and Fletcher's The Two Noble Kinsmen. The chastity discourse blocks tyranny in two ways: its statement of female erotics competes with the tyrannical imposition of heterosexuality designed to limit female autonomy; it also exposes how tyranny obstructs male friendship.

Three chapters on the "Subjected Sovereign" investigate the prohibitions on utopian friendships for monarchs and the scandal of mignonnerie that results when kings fail to observe these limitations. Shannon's concern is the role of false speech in destroying or regenerating the king's public stature. The king who allows friendships to erupt the boundaries of counsel undermines his public authority, rendering him a tyrant vulnerable to flattery and exploitation by his minion. The lack of mutual discipline in such relationships injures the integrity of both king and friend.

Marlowe's Edward II and Shakespeare's Henriad illustrate the problem of mignonnerie. Shannon maintains that both playwrights position the subjection of a monarch to passion for a woman or a minion as corrupting. Faced with the conflicting demands of idealized friendship and "ethical monarchy," Edward II opts for mignonnerie, which leads to his political downfall (159). In a non-developmental reading of Hal, Shannon claims that, insisting on the isolation and self-governance of kings, he feigns but ultimately rejects friendship with Falstaff. Mutual discipline and stagecraft preserve his authority.

Friendship and polity both rely on false speech in Shannon's reading of The Winter's Tale. Departing from feminist interest in the Hermione/sexuality/chastity plot, Shannon suggests that the role of the "performative work" of Camillo and Paulina as deceptive friends and counselors is essential to restore the tyrannical monarch to ethical kingship. Crossing gender boundaries allows the generative effects of friendship, counsel, speech, and writing to counter flattery and the "pro-creation or eroticism" which characterize tyrannical views of gender relations (190).

Shannon's careful study of classical and Renaissance theories of friendship provides a vital context for comprehending the scope of challenges and revisions offered by Shakespeare, Marlowe, Donne, Cary, and others, yet her claims for female friendship and community seem exaggerated. The abstract nature of female friendships in Mariam and Kinsmen, compared to concrete and actionable male friendships, and the contrast between the discourse of female community and the actual isolation of the chaste heroine by other women deserve careful attention. The nature of Hermione and Paulina's friendship, especially Paulina's performance of friendship to Hermione by undertaking the role of Leontes' counselor, also merits consideration. Nonetheless, the cultural and political insights in Sovereign Amity will be important to every scholar fascinated by the Renaissance subject's struggle to negotiate between public and private worlds.


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Author:Ahern, Susan
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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