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Shakespeare Invented the Bromance

August 31, 2011

Believe it or not, but the concept bromance extends further back than the epochal Volleyball scene in Top Gun. Seriously! It does!

Taking a page from a previous post (Fart Jokes in Pre-Renaissance Literature, And Stuff) I’m examining the concept of bromance in literary fiction (1) since the top-whatever lists of bromance on the web always include movies but never the printed word.

Which is strange, because the antecedents of Maverick/Goose, Rocky/Apollo, Riggs/Murtaugh can be traced to novelists examining bromantic relationship hundreds of years earlier.

You do yourself a favor and think about it. You’ve got epic bro love between Darcy and Bingley in Pride & Prejudice. Young budding bromance with Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. But let’s go back a little more, ok?

I think the invention of the literary bromance begins, and some may argue ends, with Shakespeare. (2) The bro-bard provided us not only with numerous neologisms, but also the ur-text of all bromances: Hamlet and Horatio.

Now, Shakespeare was pretty adept at capturing bromances between other characters – think Mercutio and Romeo, Rosencratz and Gildenstern in Hamlet, just to name a few.

But NOTHING compares to Hamlet and Horatio!

The guys are total bros. Maybe they bunked together at the University of Wittenberg too – I don’t know. Point is, H&H can offer some serious lessons in being the ultimate winger.

Trust your Bro
Your Uncle killed your old man, your Mom married your Uncle, you’ve got these two sketchy dudes Rosencrantz and Gildenstern up in your business – who do you turn to? Your bro! Basically, Horatio is the only one Hamlet can trust. Talk about a winger! Here’s Hamlet in Act III asking Horatio to do him a solid by keeping an eye on Claudius during the play that Hamlet commissioned to ascertain Claudius’ guilt in his father’s death:

Observe my uncle. If his occulted guilt
Do not itself unkennel in one speech,
It is a damned ghost that we have seen,
And my imaginations are as foul
As Vulcan’s stithy. Give him heedful note
For I mine eyes will rivet to his face,
And after we will both our judgments join
In censure of his seeming.

Hamlet can’t turn to his family or his girl (and let’s not get started with Polonius) but he knows his bro Horatio will back him up. Which leads us to:

Which leads us to….

Be a Bro in Good Times and Bad
Being a bro doesn’t mean just being a drinking buddy – sometimes you gotta step up to the plate and be there for your bro when times are hardest. Horatio ditches his studies at Wittenberg to come support Hamlet when his old man is stretched out on the pine. Check it:

My lord, I came to see your father’s funeral.
I pray thee, do not mock me, fellow-student;
I think it was to see my mother’s wedding.
Indeed, my lord, it follow’d hard upon.

Hamlet’s rightfully steamed that his Mom married Claudius right after King Hamlet’s death (“the funeral baked meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables”) and makes somewhat of a sarcastic comment, though Horatio takes it in stride and offers an understanding response. That’s just being good people and doing right by your bro, you know?

Watch Your Bro’s Back

Hamlet wants to go off and chase the ghost that appears in Act I, though Horatio tells him to pump the breaks a bit:

What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,
Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff
That beetles o’er his base into the sea,
And there assume some other horrible form,
Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason
And draw you into madness?

Being a good bro doesn’t mean being a doormat and going along with anything and everything. Sometimes you gotta speak up and tell your bro he’s making a mistake.

Let Your Bro Know How You Feel
Bros can be open with their feelings and have a general rap session where they talk about how they feel about each other. It’s like opting for a bro-hug instead of a high five – sometimes you gotta show your bro-love. Here’s Hamlet giving some to his bud Horatio in Act III:

And blessed are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well commeddled
That they are not a pipe for Fortune’s finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of hearts
As I do thee.

You know when Iceman says to Maverick “you can be my wingman any time”? Well, they were basically expressing the above sentiment. Shakespeare just said it better, brah.

Support Your Bro to the End
As Hamlet’s dying, Horatio offers to drink the poisoned wine so he can die at the same time as Hamlet:

I am more an antique Roman than a Dane:
Here’s yet some liquor left.

Talk about taking a grenade for your bro!

Hamlet declines Horatio’s offer though, asking him instead to keep Hamlet’s rep intact (“If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart, Absent thee from felicity a while, And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain To tell my story”) as Fortinbras is poised to take over the Kingdom. Horatio explains what happened to Fortinbras and ‘Bras does H&H a solid by establishing that Hamlet was good people and ensuring him a proper burial.
Here’s ‘Bras:

Let four captains
Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage,
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royally. And, for his passage,
The soldiers’ music and the rites of war
Speak loudly for him.

Perhaps next post we’ll look at how bromance evolves in 19th Century British Literature. Stay tuned.


(1) This sounds like a college English class. Therefore I’m going to declare myself the Johnny Utah Professor of Bromantic Literature at Thanks, Bro

(2) Yes – slightly borrowing from Harold Bloom’s “Invention of the Human” thesis here.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 1, 2011 6:40 pm

    Excellent post, guys.

    I’m glad that someone finally traced the bromance back to its true roots. It’s pretty hard to find true bros that top that of Hamlet and Horatio, though I’m thinking that Roland & Oliver from The Song of Roland were pretty tight. They went through battle together and always had each other’s backs. Arthur and his knights were probably the first documented collection of bros.

  2. September 2, 2011 2:34 am

    Nice work Mandy. I like the Arthur and the knights band of bros idea.

  3. Rudy permalink
    October 21, 2012 4:36 pm

    Alexander the Great, Achilles, the Olympic gods during the Titanomachy, the Illiad, the Odessy, the Aniead, the Sacred Band of Thebes, the Spartan three-hundred. Shakesphere honed his understanding of being able to see it so easily from reading Greek history and epic style stories.

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