Renaissance Men and Male Friendship

Imani Bowers, 2008

            According to researcher and teacher of Medieval Renaissance cultures Robert J. Gonzalez-Casanovas, “Friendship is the anomalous relation: it exists outside the more thoroughly codified social networks formed by kinship and sexual ties” (164).  Male friendship is categorized under homophilia, in which “it is illustrated in notions of blood brothers and boon companions that often characterize heroic male couples in literature from Homer to Hemingway” (Gonzalez-Casanovas, 161).  Antonio and Bassanio’s friendship in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice agrees with this.  The three broad reasons why Renaissance men become friends are because it is natural, it is the right thing to do, and it is beneficial.

The first kind of friendship is “that of nature” (Gonzalez-Casanovas, 168).  Friendship between men is considered to be “most manly” (Plato, 192a).  Many men acquire emotions and grow attached to other men who are of the same class, those of the same age, or those who have the “same sponsor”; what starts as a plain friendship, ultimately turns into one that involves emotions of love (Gonzalez-Casanovas, 175).  To have such a relationship is “both exclusive and innate” (Halperin, 43).  After all, men are by nature stronger and more intelligent and therefore, they will associate with whom they can relate to (Plato, 181d).

The male friendship is an obligation derived from religion and reason.  Because friendship causes men to love and “the ancient wise men declared true love is the most important of all obligations,” friendship is an important obligation (Gonzalez-Casanovas, 168).  Renaissance men become friends because it is the Christian thing to do.  “The chivalric and courtly mirror of intimate male friendship should serve as a central feature of his effort to show the most sublime and passionate form of human love for the human figure of Christ” (Gonzalez-Casanovas, 176).  A man improves himself and his relationship with Christ by placing himself in a male friendship (Gonzalez-Casanovas, 186).  Additionally, Sir Kenneth James Dover believes “there is nothing man can do about reality except understand it rationally (7).  Plato in Tom Griffith’s translation of the Symposium of Plato goes on to say “acts with good sense and justice among us…brings us complete happiness, enabling us to be companions and friends” (188d).  Friendship is “distinguished” from sexual love because the “partners” choose one another due to their morals and moral behavior (Gonzalez-Casanovas, 157).  Therefore, rationality as well as religion causes Renaissance men to become friends.  Furthermore, “there must in effect be an actual partnership so we have an instance of Philia whenever a pair or group of human beings is interacting in a way intended to benefit one another through beneficence or co-operation according to some shared conception of benefit” (Gonzalez-Casanovas, 169). 

Male friendship, in fact, provides a unique attachment, emotional intimacy, and someone to rely on.  The Renaissance male friendship is a unique attachment because it is “something only males can have” (Gonzalez-Casanovas, 179).  “Embraces,” declarations of love, and physical and emotional intimacy are the traditional ideas of Elizabethan friendship (Bray, 46).  While some men find friendship because of long interaction and strong affection, others find male friendship in order to gain something like happiness (Gonzalez-Casanovas, 168).  Either way, Renaissance men sought out male friendship so that they could have someone to rely on (Bray, 45).  Moreover, if a man has a male friend that is always there for him, their friendship will strengthen, until the relationship surpasses the test of the good and the bad situations in life. 

In the beginning of Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice, Bassanio is in need.  Antonio wishes to know his friend’s problems and offers everything at his friend’s disposal: “I pray you, good Bassanio, let me know it; And if it stands, as you yourself do, Within the eye of honor, be assured My purse, my person, my extremest means Lie all unlocked to your occasions” (Shakespeare, Act 1, Scene 1, Lines 135-139).  Antonio feels for Bassanio and makes it known that Bassanio may rely on him for any purpose; Antonio wants his friend to be happy no matter what and even at his own expense.  Bassanio does trust and confide in Antonio: “To you Antonio, I owe the most in money and in love, And from your love I have a warranty To unburden all my plots and purposes How to get clear of all the debts I owe” (Shakespeare, Act 1, Scene 1, Lines 130-134).  However, this also shows the audience how unequal the friendship is and why it is problematic. 

The two friends contradict each other.  Bassanio is young and carefree, and Antonio is older and very generous.  It is evident that Antonio is friends with Bassanio because he has strong feelings for him; Bassanio is his companion.  On the contrary, Bassanio appears to be Antonio’s friend only so that he himself can gain from the friendship; Antonio is his benefactor, advisor, and confidante.  Antonio gives unconditionally and Bassanio takes what Antonio offers without any kind of indication of repayment.  What does Antonio get out of the friendship?  Bassanio leaves Antonio hanging, thus establishing Antonio’s role as the giver and Bassanio’s role as the taker.  Research has led to the conclusion that no matter how different friends are, if they can rely on each other, then they can remain friends.  The test of Antonio and Bassanio’s friendship comes later in the play when Antonio becomes the one in need, which means that Bassanio must convert to the part of the giver in order to sustain their friendship.

            Bassanio comes to Antonio’s aid when the broken bond made between Antonio and the Jew merchant named Shylock puts Antonio on trial.  Antonio didn’t pay Shylock 3,000 ducats Antonio has, in fact, made this bond for Bassanio’s sake and when Antonio isn’t able to pay up due to failed shipments he is being forced to give a pound of flesh to Shylock.  Bassanio appears in court and offers the Jew twice the amount of money Antonio owes.  Although Shylock rejects the money, even if it were 6 times the amount owed, Bassanio proves to Antonio by showing up that Antonio can rely on him to always be there when needed.  Bassanio additionally tells Antonio how much he means to him: “Antonio, I am married to a wife, Which is as dear to me as life itself, my wife, and all the world Are not with me esteemed above thy life.  I would lose all, ay, sacrifice them all Here to this devil, to deliver you” (Shakespeare, Act 4, Scene 1, Lines 280-285).  Because both Antonio and Bassanio can rely on each other, they can both benefit from the relationship.  Their friendship is more equal and the two are able to stay friends.

            To sum up, it is natural, good, and advantageous for a Renaissance man to befriend another man.  Within that friendship, the two men build a close relationship that is theirs alone and they aid each other through thick and thin despite their personal differences.  The relationship of Antonio and Bassanio from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice supports this idea and gives the impression that a friendship is fair and legitimate only when both members contribute and gain equally.