Childhood Friendships in ShakespeareDr Gemma Miller will deliver…

Childhood Friendships in

Dr Gemma Miller will deliver her talk, ‘Like Juno’s swans’: Childhood Friendships in Shakespeare, as part of this season’s Adult Course, running from 29 May – 2 June. The course explores Shakespeare and Friendship and is designed to complement this season’s Globe Theatre season. Learn more about the Adult Course

The plays in the Globe’s 2018 Summer Season and Tour contain multiple references to friendship. Hamlet tasks his friend, Horatio, with telling his story after he has gone; Antonio offers to lay down his life for Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice; and Emilia’s loyalty to Desdemona leads to her death in Othello. But what is particularly striking about the plays this season is their emphasis on childhood friendships. None of these friendships is dramatised but rather recollected, eulogised and mourned. They signify something lost in the transition from childhood to adulthood — the loss of innocence, of purity, and of certainty.

In the early modern period, children were considered to be humans-in-development, both closer to nature and closer to God than adults. Writing in 1627, John Earle claimed that ‘[a] Child is […] a man in a small letter, yet the best copy of Adam before he tasted of Eve or the apple.’ This language is reflected in Polixenes’s recollection of his boyhood friendship with Leontes in The Winter’s Tale:

We were as twinned lambs that did frisk i’th’ sun
And bleat the one at th’other. What we changed
Was innocence for innocence. We knew not
The doctrine of ill-doing nor dreamed
That any did. Had we pursued that life,~
And our weak spirits ne’er been higher reared
With stronger blood, we should have answered heaven
Boldly, ‘Not guilty,’ the imposition cleared
Hereditary ours.


In other words, a child is ‘[t]he best copy of Adam’ before the complication of heterosexual desire. And without this complication, of course, there would be no plot.

If we analyse the language used by Shakespeare’s characters to describe their childhood friendships, we’ll see that it is suffused with natural imagery: ‘like the elements’ (The Two Noble Kinsmen, 1.3.61) ‘like Juno’s Swans’ (As You Like It, 1.3.72), ‘as twinned lambs’ (The Winter’s Tale, 1.2.67), ’[t]wo lovely berries moulded on one stem’ (A Midsummer Night’s Night’s Dream, 3.2.212). The images, moreover, suggest an indistinguishability between the two young friends. They are souls intertwined into one juvenile organism before they are forcibly disentangled, whether that be through death, separation or marriage.

The childhood friendships recollected in these plays are almost exclusively same-sex relationships. This is perhaps unsurprising when you consider that between the ages of five and seven, boys were removed from their mothers and ‘breeched’ (dressed in breeches) in preparation for manhood. However there is an erotic undertone to the language used to describe these friendships. That undertone is in tension with the images of prelapsarian innocence and threatens to disrupt the plays’ movement towards heterosexual coupling.

In the comedies (A Midsummer Night’s Night’s Dream, As You Like It), the girlhood friendships of Helena and Hermia and Rosalind and Celia are discarded in favour of heterosexual courtship. The women are only permitted to revivify their childhood friendships — albeit paler, less intense versions of those friendships — once the marriages have been secured. But in the less generically stable plays (The Two Noble Kinsmen, The Winter’s Tale), childhood friendships signify something more complex, and they are less easily reconciled with the marriage plot.


The Lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 2013 

The French essayist, Michel de Montaigne, cautioned in 1580 that women are not ‘firm enough to endure the strain of so tight and durable a knot’ as friendship. Yet The Two Noble Kinsmen’s Emilia puts up a strong defence of juvenile female friendship when she states ‘the true love ’tween maid and maid may be / More than in sex dividual’ (The Two Noble Kinsmen, 1.3.82). Emilia abjures marriage, choosing to hold onto the memory of her dead childhood friend. She eventually succumbs only as an act of pity and duty rather than one of love.  

In my seminar on childhood friendships in Shakespeare, we will explore the different ways in which childhood friendships are depicted in the Globe’s Summer Season plays. We will look in particular at how the depiction of childhood friendships both reflects and interrogates early modern thinking; the function of juvenile friendships in terms of plotting; the gendering of childhood friendships; and the ways in which directors have manifested these friendships in performance.

Lead image: Playng Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank: Othello, 2015