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Male Friendship in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries.

Tom MacFaul. Male Friendship in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xi + 222 pp. index. bibl. $90. ISBN: 978-0-521-86904-1.

Tom MacFaul's clearly-written book is a welcome addition to the growing body of scholarship on male friendship in early modern English literature. MacFaul's point of departure is the "Humanist ideal" (1) of male friendship, which the introductory chapter summarizes thus: "a friend is a second self with whom one shares everything, friends are virtuous and similar to one another, and the friend is chosen after long and careful assessment of his virtues; the purpose of such friendship is the promotion of virtuous thought and action; it may contribute to the public sphere, but it is ultimately independent of it" (6). In MacFaul's view, this idealized friendship, derived from classical writers such as Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero and transmitted through humanists such as Erasmus, Elyot, and Bacon, generally amounted to hollow rhetoric, divorced from the practicalities of real-world social interactions. But, he argues, friendship's rhetoric could serve as a useful "fantasy of equality" in Renaissance literature, particularly drama, where it enabled "individual self-assertion" and the construction of selfhood (29). MacFaul expands this claim in chapter 2, asserting that Shakespeare's Sonnets function as a kind of microcosmic drama in which the speaker attempts to create a coherent self through a series of moments of imagined friendly equality with the young man.

MacFaul's insistence on the illusory nature of ideal friendship, on its ability to create only "fictions of connection" (197), helps explain why the vast majority of the book is not about the humanist ideal of perfect friendship between two equal and virtuous men, but about deviations from that model. The book's nine chapters explore a host of imperfect friendships in Renaissance English literature, including those that fail due to romantic rivalries and those destroyed by betrayal and fraud. Much of the book is devoted to bonds that, while not exactly friendship, are in some ways analogous to it: brotherhood and kinship, service, political alliance and royal favoritism, and "fellowship," a term MacFaul uses to classify groups of friends loosely joined by utility or pleasure. The structure of the book and its rationale are clearly laid out at the end of chapter 1.

The strongest parts of the book are MacFaul's erudite and incisive analyses of friendship in Shakespearean drama, which evince a keen sensitivity to textual nuance. MacFaul's discussion of The Two Noble Kinsmen, a play in which "the friendships which are most valorized are dead ones" (78), is particularly compelling as it demonstrates how the difficulties of practicing male friendship are figured by Palamon and Arcite's jail cell, "Shakespeare's ultimate symbol for the Humanist ideal of friendship" (86). In his enlightening reading of Othello, MacFaul makes a strong case that Iago's feigned friendship with Othello "comes, in its twisted way, to be the truest relationship either man has" (169). Perhaps the most thought-provoking insight MacFaul draws from the repeated collapse of male friendship in Renaissance drama is that instead of fostering the equality and sameness that the humanists envisioned, friendship required characters to see themselves in relation to individuals who finally were not "second selves" but genuine others. "Dramatic friendship," MacFaul concludes, "is ultimately a mode of recognizing and respecting human difference" (195).

So compelling is the book at its best that I can't help but wish that there were either more of it (a longer book) or less of it (a narrower focus). It might have been best to focus on Shakespeare alone and save his contemporaries for another day. As it stands, in addition to the chapter devoted to the Sonnets, MacFaul treats well over two dozen Shakespeare plays; this alone is a very ambitious undertaking for a 200-page book. The related discussions, lucid and interesting though they often are, of The Boke Named the Governour, Euphues, The Faerie Queene, Damon and Pithias, The Malcontent, The Maid's Tragedy, The Atheist's Tragedy, the plays of Marlowe and Jonson, etc., are likely to leave readers wishing for deeper analysis of fewer texts. The book would also benefit from a more thoroughgoing engagement with existing scholarship. MacFaul makes good use of the major scholars of friendship and masculinity, including Alan Bray, Eve Sedgwick, Laurie Shannon, and Lorna Hutson, but these names appear repeatedly in the notes, which are on the whole rather sparse, especially considering the book's scope. None of these objections, however, detracts significantly from the value of this fine book, a must-read for anyone interested in Shakespeare, the history of friendship, or early modern constructions of gender.


Yeshiva College
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Author:Stretter, Robert
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2008
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