‘You cannot see yourself so well as by reflection’: Dr Eric Langley on Shakespearean friendships both formative and infectious.
It is not often that I get asked to speak on cheerful topics: on amity, friendship, and comradery. As an academic, my writing has tended towards the gloomy, and gravitated towards the tragic: Renaissance attitudes to suicide; the period’s attitudes to narcissism; to plague and disease transmission; STDs; and melancholy. So when Dr Will Tosh of Shakespeare’s Globe approached me to give one of the first day’s lecture for this summer’s Shakespeare and Friendship course it was a welcome opportunity to think more cheerfully –not about the gloomy isolation of the narcissist, or the self-destructive solipsism of the self-slaughterer – but rather about the positive, incalculably valuable rewards of loving friendship, and to celebrate the importance of a giving relationship that allows what one Renaissance writer describes as ‘the transportation of two hearts into one body’, creating ‘an alter idem, another moity, another selfe’. It was an opportunity to watch as loving associates became ‘fast locked in a league of love’, and to listen to the ‘free and friendly conference’ of Shakespeare’s allies.
All of my own writing – both as an academic and as a poet – is based on a sense of what Nancy Selleck has described as “interpersonal identity”; that an individual relies upon interactions with others, and that those interactions define our sense of both what, and who we are. As the philosopher Charles Taylor explains, ‘I am a self only in relation to certain interlocutors: … conversation partners who … are essential to my achieving self-definition’. This seems both true and important to me: as a university lecturer, perhaps my sense of who I am is worked out in the lecture hall and classroom, performed in public, in dialogue with my students and colleagues; equally, as a poet, perhaps my writing only comes to fruition via some interaction with my readers, who then carry some responsibility for making what they will of each poem, or indeed, of making what they will of me. So it is with the friend: as Aristotle memorably says, the friend is a ‘kind of second self’ and as ‘we are not able to see what we are from ourselves’, we must rely upon our friend as a kind of mirror, who gives us back to ourselves, and reflects us back. As Shakespeare’s Cassius explains to the introspective Brutus, ‘you cannot see yourself / So well as by reflection’, and accordingly he offers to be his friend’s glass, his mirror, his alter idem, his unflattering but honest friend, and thereby to help ‘discover to yourself / That of yourself which you yet know not of’. Man, as Shakespeare says elsewhere, ‘knows not himself but by communication’, and the friend then, from whom we are un-dividable, plays a crucial role in what it means to be an in-dividual, paradoxically both individually distinct and yet indivisible from others.
And yet. It seems that my gloomier tendencies have emerged once again. Having been given this opportunity to celebrate the healthy interactions of a wonderful formative friendship, I have ended up offering a lecture that loses confidence in these communications, a lecture that remembers the other types of “communication” that inform Shakespeare’s life in a plague-ridden London: disease communications, the infectious contacts with sick interlocutors, the deadly interactions that transmit disease. In short, the friendly contact will be undermined by the recollection of these commonplace deadly contracts; each friendly touch becomes tainted by fear of the touch of plague (plaga: Lt., a strike, a blow). Having been asked to help kick-start the Globe’s celebration of Shakespeare’s friends – his Horatios, Mercutios, Hermias, Emilias, Berownes, noble Kinsmen, and gentlemen of Verona – I will spoil the celebration with the recollection of Iagos, Falstaffs, false friends, flatterers, and villains, who – rather than offer the balm of a medicinal and hospitable friendship – present only the poison of a hostile infectious interaction. Apologies!
Dr Eric Langley will deliver his talk ‘A Good Friend is a Great Medicine: The Curative and Poisonous Potential of Friendship in Shakespeare’s Theatre’ as part of Shakespeare’s Globe’s Adult Course from 29 May to 2 June.