The strictures against an uncritical acceptance of the superficial conventionalism and innocence of the beautiful boy motif apply with equal force against an uncritical acceptance of the superficial and "purely virtuous" themes of the Renaissance friendship tradition. Nearly every praise of friendship in Renaissance literature, be it trite and stale or genuinely moving, allots a line or two for an allusion to the friendship of Achilles and Patroclus. Yet in the view of Shakespeare himself, the relationship between these two men was that between a bugger and his catamite. Thersites says to Patroclus in Troilus and Cressida, "Thou are thought to be Achilles' male varlet." Patroclus queries, "Male varlet, you rogue! What's that?" and Thersites answers, "Why, his masculine whore."
The Renaissance friendship tradition two sharply differentiated philosophical sources - in Plato and Aristotle - and a number of contributing raisons d'être. The dullest and most often repeated cliché in friendship literature is the "catalogue of famous friends" that originates in the eighth fragment of Bion, in which he praises the men who have found mutual love: Achilles & Patroclus, Orestes & Pylades, and Theseus & Pirithous. Marsilio Ficino in his Commentary on Plato's Symposium lists three pairs of famous friends: Achilles & Patroclus, Damon & Pithias, and Orestes & Pylades; these legendary pairs are used as parallels of Phaedrus & Lysias, Phaedrus & Socrates, and Phaedrus & Plato.
Castiglione in The Book of the Courtier lists Orests & Pylades, Theseus & Pirithous, and Scipio & Lelius. The unknown writer of "Of Friendship" in Tottle's Miscellany (1557) lists Damon & Pithias, Orestes & Pylades, Theseus & Pirithous, Scipio & Lelius, Euryalus & Nisus, Gesippus & Titus, Achilles & Menetus, and Cicery & Atticus. Richard Barnfield in The Complaint of Poetrie lists Damon & Pithias, Orestes & Pylades, Theseus & Pirithous, and Hercules & Hylas.
Robert Greene is particularly fond of this catalogue: in The Second Part of the Tritameron of Love (1587) he lists Damon & Pithias, Orestes & Pylades, and Ephemus & Eueritus; in The Debate Betweene Follie and Love (1587) he lists Damon & Pithias, Orestes & Pylades, David & Jonathan, Gesippus & Titus, Castor & Pollux, and Darius & Zopires; in Ciceronis Amor (1589) he lists Orestes & Pylades, Theseus & Pirithous, and Tully & Lentulus; in Mamillia (1593) he lists Orestes & Pylades, Thesus & Pirithous, and Euralus & Nisus. Christopher Marlowe in Edward II gives the typical catalogue:
The mightiest kings have had their minions:Richard Edwards in his play Damon and Pithias (1564) says that "scarce four couple of faithful friends have been since the world began": he is referring almost certainly to the basic set of Orestes & Pylades, Theseus & Pirithous, Achilles & Patroclus, and of course Damon & Pithias. During the Tudor period Thomas Dekker in Satiromastix could satirically refer to Damon and "Pithyasse" with a pun on "asse." By the seventeenth century this catalogue had been fairly well standardized to coincide with the list given by Robert Burton in his discussion of friendship in the Anatomy of Melancholy: Damon & Pithias, Orestes & Pylades, Theseus & Pirithous, David & Jonathan, and Nisus & Euryalus.
The typical catalogue of famous friends - a rhetorical set-piece - lists about five pairs. The first three pairs are the core of the list, and usually consist of Oretes & Pylades, Damon & Pithias, and Theseus & Pirithous; the fourth pair usually illustrates one friend who laments the death of the other (writers with a Christian preference usually select David & Jonathan, while writers with a classical preference select either Achilles & Patroclus or Hercules & Hylas); the fifth pair is usually more obscure than the others, and given as a display of the author's erudition.
The story of Orestes & Pylades is a late invention, and the "purest" of these friendships. Their story seems to have been a cliché from the very beginning, and there is no extant narrative of how they interrelate with one another as distinct and separate persons. They are simply "fast friends" since childhood, and perform many tasks together, such as the slaying of Clytemnestra, Orestes' mother. Pylades, the younger of the two, is clearly Orestes' alter ego, almost his twin-brother.
Several of the other pairs of famous faithful friends are compiled from the relationships of historical figures, for whom there is evidence of at least latent homosexual relations - such as Scipio Africanus the general and Caius Laelius the consul and orator (celebrated in Cicero's De Amicitia), Cicero himself and Titus Pomponius Atticus the wealthy book-seller, Darius the Persian king and Zopires his eunuch. Harmodius and Aristogeiton, who liberated Athens from the tyranny of Hipparchus (who himself was homosexual), became eponyms of homosexual love as well as political comradeship.
Euryalus and "his heart's love" Nisus, though frequently listed, do not exist outside the pages of Virgil's Aeneid, but therein the Roman poet attempts to immortalize the "happy pair" at least for the duration of the temporal sway of the Empire:
. . . if aught my verse avail,It is unfortunate that their friendship has almost been forgotten, except as part of the famous friend catalogue. We first meet the friends engaged in a footrace, foremost amongst all the contestants:
Euryalus famed for beauty and fresh youth,Euryalus is another formosus puer modeled upon Virgil's own Alexis: "no comelier youth / Clave to Aeneus, or donned Trojan arms - / Whose smooth boy-face showed faint the budding man." Nisus is a warrior, and significantly older than Euryalus. Both die in battle, Nisus throwing himself upon the body of his lover. All the later writers who involke them never mention the disparity in their ages, or the pederastic nature of their love, or even the boyish beauty of the latter. But, on the authority of a single line - that "These had one heart between them" - they are involked as the ideal and prototypical faithful friends and comradely age-mates. It is puzzling that although Renaissance writers were familiar with the Aeneid, they never acknowledge the real nature of the relationship between Nisus and Euryalus in their frequent references to them: is it because Renaissance readers were equally familiar with the Aeneid, and needed no overt prodding of their sly understanding?
The friendship of Theseus and Pirithous acquired homoerotic undertone in Attic comedy, for which Hercules attempted to free them from the rock to which they had been bound together in the underworld (for having tried to carry off Persephone), he succeeded in freeing only Theseus, and left behind his buttocks attached to the rocks - from which Theseus came to be called hypolispos, meaning "with hinder parts rubbed smooth." Obiviously this is meant as an obscene upon on how his buttocks had been "rubbed" the wrong way. (The myth was possibly retrospectively constructed in order to account for the obscene phrase.)
Most famous friends, like Theseus and Pirithous, "ratify their friendship by oaths." They enter into a formal bond or union which parallels the union of heterosexual marriage. One of the earliest means of swearing this solemn oath of friendship seems to have been the placing of their hands upon each other's testicles, from which was derived the early Hebrew legal practice of taking an oath (see Genesis 24.2; 47.29), the origin of our modern terms testify and testimony. Another method of swearing friendship, still practised in modern times, is Blutbrüderschaft, the rite of wrestling followed by pressing together two thumbs which have been cut with a knife. This ritual underlies the folktales of the fights of Robin Hood & Little John, and Davy Crockett & Mike Finn, and the common popular notion that two men become "fast friends" after they gain mutual respect by fighting with each other.
Most of the conventions concerning the nature of friendship are derived from Plato's Phaedrus and Symposium (and Marsilio Ficino's commentary on them). Most modern critics of Renaissance friendship theory try to suppress the fact that these conventions are concerned exclusively with an older man's love for a beautiful boy around seventeen years of age). For a Platonic friendship relationship to exist, there must be at least a half- generation disparity of age between the lover and the beloved; the boy must have an exceedingly beautiful body (in the same way that Oscar Wilde said he would never kiss an ugly boy); and they must feel as though they possess one soul between their two bodies (Aristophanes in the Symposium identifies friends/lovers as the two halves of a primal being). Cesare Gonzaga in Castiglione's Book of the Courier, with sly humour, aptly points up the anachronisms of the Platonic friendship tradition:
I am far more certain about it than you or anyone else can be that Alcibiades always got up from Socrates' bed like a child leaving the bed of its parents. And indeed it was a strange place and time - in bed and by night - to contemplate that pure beauty which Socrates is said to have loved without any improper desire, especially since he loved the soul's beauty rather than the body's, though in boys and not in grown men, who happen to be wiser.Castiglione recognized the ambiguity, so he simply recast the classical concepts of homosexual love into Renaissance concepts of heterosexual love - by the simple trick of substituting feminine pronouns for masculine pronouns while closely paraphrasing Plato. Plato had written
The beloved, when he is found in any disgraceful situation, will be pained at being detected by his lover. If there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their loves, they would be the very best governors of their own city, abstaining from all dishonour . . . For what lover would not choose rather to be seen by all mankind than by his beloved, either when abandoning his post or throwing away his arms. . . . Or who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger?Castiglione completely subverts the meaning of this passage about an army of male lovers, and writes:
A lover always wishes to make himself as lovable as possible, and he always fears lest some disgrace befall him which can make him less esteemed by the woman whose esteem he craves; . . . Indeed, if anyone were to recruit an army of lovers, to fight before the eyes of the women they love, it would conquer the entire world.There is logic in Plato's account, for each warrior would fight beside his boyfriend, who could therefore see his every advance or retreat. Castiglione's theory that men are conscious of their women watching them in battle from a distance is a nonsense, a patent distortion of his source in order to accommodate it to a heterosexual view. Plato's theory about permitting sexual love as long as it strives upward on the ladder of love is concerned solely with the relationship between two men; the passage (from the Phaedrus) is taken over wholesale by Castiglione, who substitutes a mistress for one of the men. Just as the physical attributes of the beautiful boy have been usurped by the mistress in Renaissance literature, so now have the ethical and aesthetic philosophies of homosexual love been usurped by the courtier for the seduction of his lady.
The friendship themes in Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics and Cicero's De Amicitio - those themes that are most often discussed in regard to Renaissance friendship theory - are imitated in a great many prose tracts and essays during the Renaissance, but they appear infrequently in its more imaginative literature and poetry. Aristotle conceives of friendship in a utilitarian and socially beneficial manner. The men involved, usually of about the same age, are clearly conceived as dutiful members of a state rather than mutual worshippers of beauty. They are advantageous to each other because they give each other wise council. Aristotle would not have admitted that "sage advice" originated in pederastic pedagogy, although he was himself homosexual. The typical usage of this tradition in poetry is found in doggerel about the difficult but necessary differentiation between the "faithful friend" and the "flattering foe."
Aristotle viewed friendship as a relationship among several men of good will, men in a club serving the government. For Plato the relationship existed between only two men, who served universal abstract ideas more than local state politics. Whenever any hint of strong emotion, as opposed to mere admiration or respect, begins appearing in the work in question, it is likely that the Platonic friendship tradition rather than the Aristotelian friendship tradition is the source. Modern critics try hard to subsume it all under the Aristotelian banner.
Cicero, a rather grave personage, regarded friendship as a consolation, the bright hope of the future, a sweet sharing of mutual interests, the enjoyment of discussing the good life with a trusted companion, a partnership in virtue leading to tranquillity of mind. Again, the level-headed Cicero stands in sharp contrast to Plato's ecstatic theory. To look for Aristotelian/Ciceronian conventions in Shakespeare's Sonnets - and in many other Renaissance works - is to search in the wrong direction. Romantic love rather than philosophical friendship is more often the theme of Renaissance friendship literature.
Much of the Renaissance friendship tradition originated not in the texts of the ancients, but in the hearts and experiences of real-life friends. Michel de Montaigne, the master of simple, realistic honesty through the written word, accuses the philosophers of mystifying this most true and perfect of emotions.
The sciences treat of things too refinedly, after an artificial, very different from the common and natural, way. My page makes love, and understands it; but read to him Leo Hebraeus and Ficinus, where they speak of love, its thoughts and actions, he understands it not. I do not find in Aristotle most of my ordinary motions; they are there covered and disguised in another robe for the use of the schools.Montaigne knows of friendship because he has a friend in Etienne de la Boetie, not because he reads learned discourses: "Even these discourses left us by antiquity upon this subject, seem to me flat and poor, in comparison of the sense I have of it." Most Renaissance prose essays on friendship resemble schoolboy exercises in which Aristotle rather than Virgil has been selected for rhetorical imitation and practice in linguistic study. But Montaigne's scholarship is everywhere supported by his devotion to Etienne.
Montaigne agrees with the ancients that the sacred tie of friendship cannot occur between a man and a woman, for several reasons. First, heterosexual love is more of a frenzy rather than a constancy, "a fever subject to intermissions and paroxysms" rather than the temperate fire of friendship, "a constant established heat, all gentle and smooth." Romantic heterosexual love is self-defeating, for it requires "a frantic desire for that which flies from us," while friendship is "a concurrence of desires" whose fruition is not subject to satiety. Second, friendship is a voluntary bond, while heterosexual marriage is "a convenant, the entrance into which only is free, but the continuance in it forced and compulsory." Third, women are not capable of sustaining the constancy of mind required for friendship. Ideal friendship for Montaigne is in fact strictly homosexual:
Doubtless, if without a formal marriage contract, there could be such a free and voluntary familiarity contracted, where not only the souls might have this entire fruition, but the bodies also might share in the alliance, and a man be engaged throughout, the friendship would certainly be more full and perfect.Montaigne disapproves of the Greek concept of pederasty not because it was homosexually erotic, but because it involved a significant disparity of ages. If one falls in love with "a springing and blossoming youth," one may waste one's ardours on a lad who may have a less-than-generous soul, who may grow up to be unworthy of one's love. Pederasty is acceptable, however, if the youth does indeed become noble and then reciprocates the love. Montaigne approves of the pederasty that develops into amicitia, as in the cases of Harmodius & Aristogiton and Patroclus & Achilles, "who was in the first flower and pubescency of his youth, and the handsomest of all the Greeks." He quotes with approval Cicero's view that love is based firmly upon the senses: "Love is a desire of contracting friendship arising from the beauty of the object" (Tuscalanae Disputationes, 4.34).
Montaigne's love for Boetie did not follow the antique authorities, and was more of an infatuation than a gradually confirmed constancy. The two men literally obey Marlowe's precept that love is instantaneous ("Who ever lov'd, that lov'd not at first sight?"):
At our first meeting, which was accidentally at a great city entertainment, we found ourselves so mutually taken with one another, so acquainted, and so endeared betwixt ourselves, that from thenceforward nothing was so near to us as one another.Montaigne rationalizes that, since they both were full-grown adults, "there was no time to lose, nor were we tied to conform to the example of those slow and regular friendships." The quintessence of a thousand considerations "seized my whole will, [and] carried it to plunge and lose itself in his, and that having seized his whole will, brought it back with equal concurrence and appetite to plunge, and lose itself in mine." These are the metaphysics of being head over heels in love. Where Aristotle had said that friends have one soul in two bodies, Montaigne is more expressive:
'Tis not in the power of all the eloquence of the world, to dispossess me of the certainty I have of the intentions and resolutions of my friend . . . Our souls had drawn so unanimously together, they had considered each other with so ardent an affection, and with the like affection laid open the very bottom of our hearts to one another's view, that I . . . knew his as well as my own.This union of two male souls is the ideal upon which heterosexual marriage is modeled. Montaigne goes on to point out that in some countries the lawgivers, "to honour marriage with some resemblance of this divine alliance," forbid man and wife to exchange gifts, as an indication that each already has all that the other possesses. Montaigne is Boetie's other "half," his "double". After Boetie's death, Montaigne led a "languishing" life, in which pleasure could not console, but only magnified his loss. Compared to their four years together, the rest of his life "is nothing but smoke, an obscure and tedious night."
Sir Philip Sidney personfied for his contemporaries both the beautiful boy and the faithful friend. The ideal Renaissance courtier, he died in the battle of Zutphen in 1586, and English poets poured forth their grief in epitaphs upon him as the ideal faithful friend, and in elegies on the loss of "the wonder of the age." For Spenser, in Astrophel (1595), Sidney died the death of Adonis, and was even metamorphosed into a flower. Lodowick Bryskett adopted a female persona in "The Mourning Muse of Thestylus," and lamented his death just as did Venus for Adonis. Matthew Royden, in "An Elegie, or Friends Passion, for His Astrophill," compared Sidney to the resurrected phoenix. Sir Walter Raleigh, in "An Epitaph," called him the "Scipio, Cicero, and Petrarch of our time." The best epitaph is by Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke, who clearly loved Sidney as more than a conventional friend. Greville foregoes the mythologizing and allegorizing conventions of consolation, and sincerely expresses his grief:
Sidney is dead, dead is my friend, dead is the worlds delight.Here indeed we find the principles of the Renaissance friendship tradition, but how the platitudes have been transformed by the reality. And this reality is not rhetoric, but homosexual love.
For the close interrelationship of homosexual love and the rhetorical friendship tradition we must turn to Hubert Languet's love-letters to Sir Philip Sidney, which began when Languet was fifty-five years old and Sidney was nineteen. They quote Cicero's De Amicitia: Sidney writes to Languet on 15 January 1574, "I shall read Cicero's works diligently; but I shall also learn some things about the Greeks of which I have had only superficial knowledge for a long while. I shall find the summum bonum (next to eternal bliss) in the cultivation of true friendship, and here you will unquestionably hold first rank" (trans. Charles Samuel Levy [the letters were written in Latin]). And Languet replies, "As the speaker in Cicero says, `Friendship is the salt and spice of life'."
Sidney abides by his quotations from the authorities, and remains a rather aloof faithful friend, but Languet is as infatuated as a Socratic pedagogue. Sidney broke his promise to revisit Languet, and this prompts a series of missives on constansy. Languet reproaches Sidney for forgetting him. Sidney protests his innocence and affirms his constancy:
As to your implied charge that my affection for you is waning, affection which was and always will be my tribute to your surpassing virtue, I acknowledge your kindness; but I very earnestly beg you always, no matter how great the distance between us, to retain the conviction that I am not so full of childish stupidity, womanly fickleness, or brutish ingratitude as not eagerly to seek the friendship of such a man, once having acquired it not to cultivate it, and, having cultivated it, not to show myself thankful for it. O that I had skill enough in Latin, or you in English! [Languet was French.] Then you would see what a scene I would have made about those doubts of yours. (5 December 1573)Languet retreats into the protective security of convention, and consoles himself that the hiatus in their relationship is still well within the tradition:
Promises which are made to friends, like the one you made to us about returning, can be broken without violating the laws of friendship if something happens in the meantime to make it inconvenient to keep them. Therefore, if you changed your plans, that would not subject you to the charge of inconstancy. (12 December 1573)Sidney does not reply. Languet becomes frightened, and attempts an apology:
I feel that your silence is meant to punish the frankness with which I wrote. Perhaps you do not accept what I write in the spirit in which I write it. I wished only to jest with you, as is the custom among friends. . . . But do not be angry with me again for this boldness of mine; my great affection for you exacts this of me. . . . You can be sure that I do respect and admire the brilliance of your lineage and the other blessings which natue and fortune have indulgently bestowed upon you. . . . But if I came upon a poor youth who resembled you in behavior and character, I would certainly adopt him as my son and make him heir to my belongings, and I would not be at all concerned about his parentage. (18 December 1573)Sidney still does not reply. Languet goes on to fully reveals not merely his great affection, but the fact that his passion goes well beyond the conventions of friendship theory:
I have formed very rewarding and gratifying friendships with more than a few persons. But my afection for you has entered my heart far more deeply than any I have ever felt for anyone else, and it has so wholly taken possession there that it tries to rule alone, and, as it were, to practice tyranny. (24 December 1573)The tyranny of love comes not from Cicero, but from Cupid. The faithful friend has unmasked himself to reveal a doting lover. While Sidney writes of his "tribute to your virtue," Languet writes that "my affection for you has somehow come to bewitch my soul." While Sidney commends the social nature of friendship, Languet records his heartfelt emotions: "If I wished to please myself, I would write you about nothing but my affection for you." Sidney was a man of easy grace who lacked the fundamental Renaissance virtue of magnanimity. He was the proverbial ill-chosen beloved of a wise man's affection. Languet suffered the disillusionment common to those idealists who would seek in their lovers the impossible dream of equally intense reciprocation.
Like the writing of Montaigne, what the correspondence between Sidney and Languet reveals is the reality of friendship, with all its vagaries and semi-suppressed homoeroticism, that exploits the conventions of friendship theory, not always successfully, in support of its own desires.
Copyright 1974, 1997 by Rictor Norton. All rights
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