Chaucer, Shakespeare, and the Lost Friendship Plays of the Admiral’s Men


Robert Stretter


From about 1594 to 1600, the Admiral’s Men, the principal rival to Shakespeare’s acting company, developed a specialty in male friendship plays, many of them based on medieval texts and most now unfortunately lost. Given Shakespeare’s knowledge of the work of his rival company, it is likely that his own drama was influenced by and responded to the friendship plays staged by the Admiral’s Men. This article focuses on “Palamon and Arcite” (1594), a lost dramatization of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale; and “Alexander and Lodowick” (1597), a lost play with origins in the legend of Amis and Amiloun, a widely-known medieval tale of friendship that itself likely influenced The Knight’s Tale. These plays suggest two things: first, that Shakespeare would have been thinking about Chaucer in the mid-1590s in contexts beyond his borrowings from The Knight’s Tale in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and second, that the transmission of medieval romance material, including Chaucerian romance, to Renaissance England is less direct than is often recognized. If “Alexander and Lodowick,” “Palamon and Arcite,” and several other similarly themed plays staged by the Admiral’s Men reflect a vogue for friendship plays in the 1590s, then Shakespeare’s treatment of male friendship must be understood in this context. In plays such as The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596) and Much Ado About Nothing (c. 1598-99), I suggest that Shakespeare offers a critique of the kind of triumphalist male friendship that seems to have been celebrated by his rivals at the Rose.

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