The Male Friendship Tradition
Male-male friendship has always existed. Unfortunately, so has the concept that it is somehow better than male-female friendship—frequently hand in hand (so to speak) with the disturbing claim that male-female and female-female friendship isn’t even possible. Shakespeare’s contemporary Montaigne is currently fashionable, but not, I think, for passages like this from his essay “On Friendship”:
To compare this brotherly affection with affection for women . . . it cannot be done; nor can we put the love of women in the same category. Its ardor, I confess . . . is more active, more scorching, and more intense. But it is an impetuous and fickle flame, undulating and variable, a fever flame, subject to fits and lulls, that holds us only by one corner. In friendship it is a general and universal warmth, moderate and even, besides, a constant and settled warmth, with nothing bitter and stinging about it. (“On Friendship,” The Complete Essays of Montaigne, tr. Donald M. Frame, p. 137)
If it’s bad enough to discover that Montaigne is the Billy Crystal of the early modern era—sexual attraction gets in the way of friendship between man and woman—consider his explanation; it’s because women are inferior.
Besides, to tell the truth, the ordinary capacity of women is inadequate for that communion and fellowship which is the nurse of this sacred bond [of friendship]; nor does their soul seem firm enough to endure the strain of so tight and durable a knot. . . . [T]his sex in no instance has yet succeeded in attaining it, and by the common agreement of the ancient schools is excluded from it. (“On Friendship,” p. 138)
From Aristotle onward the idea is that in a true male-male friendship the friends are so close as to be an alter ego, or other self, a thought expressed by many, many later writers. Here is Montaigne again (notice how “wives” comes after “goods” in the following list):
Everything actually being in common between them—wills, thoughts, judgments, goods, wives, children, honor, and life—and their relationship being that of one soul in two bodies, according to Aristotle’s very apt definition, they can neither lend nor give anything to each other. “On Friendship,” p. 141)
The term you’ll see in academic studies “of, relating to, or involving social relationships between persons of the same sex and especially between men” (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.) for close male-male (and female-female) relationships, and spheres in which they are predominant, is “homosocial.” So, for example, the locker room, the military, or the court of James I would be homosocial environments. I think the term is unfortunate. Ever since Freud we are conditioned to think that everything, all the time, is about sex, so the slide into “homosexual” is all too easy. You only have to change three letters. Homosocial environments can be conducive to homosexual conduct, I need hardly say, and there’s surely a sexual undercurrent in many close male-male relationships, but homosociality and homosexuality aren’t necessarily connected. In addition, since there is a controversy about Shakespeare’s sexuality, using “homosocial” in discussions of Shakespeare can convey unwarranted implications. Perhaps by design. For all these reasons, in preference to “homosocial” I’ll use the more recent term “bromance.”
What Is a Bromance?
As we understand the term today, a bromance is a close male-male friendship relation. (OED: “Intimate and affectionate friendship between men; a relationship between two men which is characterized by this. Also: a film focusing on such a relationship.” It’s amusing that the OED’s first recorded instance, from 2003, is to a use in the Usenet group rec.windsurfing.)
Trolling the Internet brings up examples like Kirk and Spock, Butch and Sundance, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. “Bromance” has also come to replace the term “buddy comedy,” i.e. a comedy revolving around such a relationship, such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Apply it specifically to romantic comedies (brom-coms?), and you’ll be able to see why I use it for Two Gentlemen. Proteus and Valentine are prototypical bromance buddies.
The Western Bromantic Tradition
Moreover, the buddies fall in line with a long bromance tradition in Western literature that is a crucial influence on Shakespeare. As noted, the theory of male-male friendship goes back at least to Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics; Shakespeare (with Fletcher) will return to it in The Two Noble Kinsmen, which is an adaptation of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale. And so on it goes, right up to The Hangover, Part 3.
I will only mention one of Shakespeare’s most important precursors. The story of Titus and Gisippus goes back to Boccaccio’s Decameron; Shakespeare followed an English version that appeared in 1531. Titus and Gisippus embody the “one soul in two bodies” idea by being twins. Gisippus is pressured into marrying Sophronia, with whom Titus falls in love so violently it makes him sick unto death. To save him, Gisippus gives him Sophronia, a gift effected by means of a “bed trick”; the identical Titus is substituted in the marriage bed for Gisippus, where he performs the formalities necessary for a valid marriage. In the second part of the story, Gisippus is accused of murder and Titus offers to take the rap. Greater love than this no bro hath! The main point of this very brief summary is to note that there is an offer of a woman by one friend to the other in one of Shakespeare’s sources. There are clear differences (for example, Titus didn’t try to rape Sophronia, she seems copacetic with the situation, though—like Silvia in Two Gentlemen—being a piece of property she doesn’t get to speak, and it is really surprising that Shakespeare didn’t use the bed trick), but the incident is there.
We’ll see the bromantic tradition working itself out as we proceed through Two Gentlemen, so let’s turn to that task now. Just keep in mind: Valentine and Proteus fit neatly into a (basically adolescent) tradition in which male friendship is more important than adult relationships with women.