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Friendship in Hamlet Robert C. Evans In 1958, Harry Levin reported that in the previous sixty years a new item ofHamlet commentary had been issued every twelve days.1 By now the rate must be something closer to a new item every twelve hours or minutes. My chiefjustification for adding one more straw to the camel's back rests on the surprising fact that friendship—a crucial concern of classical and Renaissance thinkers—has not received much explicit or systematic attention as an important and pervasive theme in Shakespeare's great tragedy . Inevitably the topic is raised—usually in passing—in discussions of Horatio and of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but it has not received much sustained exploration.2 My immediate purpose is merely to show that the theme of friendship does run throughout the entire play—that it appears even where it might seem present only slightly. While trying to establish its general importance, I also hope to focus on a few scenes and characters in some detail, as well as to discuss in broader terms how Shakespeare's concerns with friendship help enrich his tragedy.3 Hamlet seems at least in part a play that is very much about friendship: a play about finding, making, losing, and keeping friends. It explores, from numerous perspectives, one of the most significant and inherently complex of human relationships—a relationship particularly fascinating to Renaissance thinkers, for many of whom friendship (in the words of Clifford Davidson) "is not only a radiant ideal but is also an expression of a most necessary kind of good will that makes society cohesive."4 I The play's concern with friendship is sounded at once: "Who's there?" (1.1. 1).5 Quite literally, Barnardo wants to know not only who is there (whether the unseen figure is a friend or foe) but also why he is there (whether his intentions are friendly). This opening epitomizes the entire play and particularly Hamlet 's position at court: surrounded by darkness, a lone figure needs to recognize his friends. Most humans can relate to this Robert C Evans89 need, and the play probably exercises such strong psychological appeal partly because we all, to one degree or another, resemble Barnardo and Hamlet in wanting to know whether the persons nearest us are persons we can trust. Determining one's friends is only one dilemma the tragedy portrays and confronts, but it seems to be a dilemma immediately and forcefully relevant to most human lives.6 Barnardo's nervous question is answered by an apparently unfriendly and certainly formal challenge (1.1.2), which in turn elicits an equally formal, impersonal response that is also a pledge of public allegiance or political friendship (1.1.3). Only when Francisco uses a familiar personal name (1.1.4) do tensions relax: we realize, precisely when they do, that these men already know each other and perhaps are even friends. This intuition seems confirmed when Barnardo solicitously urges Francisco to get to bed (and thus to peace, quiet, and comfort). Like so much else in this play, however, these apparently caring words can also be interpreted in another way: as a calculated maneuver to dismiss Francisco before the ghost appears. Neither reading need (or perhaps can) have priority: here as elsewhere in Hamlet, exchanges even between apparent friends can have multiple significations , andjust as it is sometimes hard but important to interpret the precise nuances of our own friends' speech, so it is usually difficult in Hamlet for either us or the characters to make absolutely unambiguous sense of anything said, not said, or implied. The play fascinates partly for this reason. Further evidence of friendship between Barnardo and Francisco comes in the latter's response to the suggestion that he head to bed (1.1.8-9). Francisco's immediate willingness (once he knows he is speaking to a friend) to share not only his physical but especially his deepest emotional feelings seems significant in a play whose central character finds it so difficult to share true feelings openly, except in soliloquy. Francisco is lonely, cold, and sick at heart, but he at least has a comrade to whom he can...


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pp. 88-124
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