I come across the word "love" between friends a lot in Shakespeare, and I always like how they can say they love each other in a platonic way. However, I've noticed that it's not uncommon among people I talk to to take this as a sign of romantic or sexual love. I don't want to be that guy and naively say that two men (it's usually men) aren't together, but I feel like I'd need more to go on. Am I wrong to think that these characters are more comfortable expressing platonic love more than we are?
The quick answer is yes. We know that in the early modern period (and before) men were more comfortable expressing their love for one another, because it was more socially acceptable to do so. It was completely normal for men to kiss, and hug each other in public, for instance. Shakespeare’s England was what is known as a ‘homosocial’ society, which is to say that (mostly non-sexual) same-sex relations between men were privileged socially, so for instance trade deals, and even marriages were often facilitated to improve the social relations between men.
This means, on some level, that there was a valorisation of same-sex relationships, and of perfect friendships, especially between men. The idea was that men, having a higher intellectual capacity than women(!), would be able to form a more perfect relationship with one another than a heterosocial relationship could ever achieve. In the language of the time (and before) these same-sex relationships were called ‘amity’, and you’ll find many examples of ‘perfect amity’ spoken of in contemporary literature if you look for it.
The difficulty from a modern perspective is that these passionate relationships between men could be entirely non-sexual, but they could also include physical intimacy. For instance, in the case of Michel de Montaigne and Étienne de La Boétie, Montaigne explicitly denies ‘the license of the Greeks’ as ‘rightly abhorrent to our manner’, although he speaks ardently of his love for his friend. In Sir Thomas Elyot’s Boke named the Governour, on the other hand, there is the exemplary tale of amity which heavily implies that there is a sexual relationship between Titus and Gysippus, the two friends. There is the sense that friendship is treated as a spectrum up to and including physical intimacy; it simply isn’t as sharply distinguished as it is these days. But if we’re talking strictly Shakespeare, most depictions of male friendship tend to show the failures of amity because of relationships with women, because as a tradition it’s being displaced or because the nascent forces of capitalism are destroying the way generosity works. It’s not that Shakespeare doesn’t believe in same-sex relationships (far from it), it’s more that he doesn’t show much faith in the possibility of ‘perfect’ amity in a complex society (The Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Merchant of Venice are two of many examples).
What’s really remarkable about this period is the means by which these socially acceptable forms of homoerotic behaviour are distinguished from the illegal and morally problematised idea of ‘sodomy’. You see, most of the people engaging in same-sex intimacy would not have considered themselves sodomites, hence why James I could have eroticised relationships with his favourites while decrying sodomy and effeminacy. Sodomy was a narrow category that often treated the case of an older man forcing himself on a younger male of a similar social class (a master doing it to a servant was seldom legally challenged). Because of these various distinctions, and because of the blurry line separating friendship and sexual attraction there were remarkably few recorded legal cases of sodomy from the early modern period.
The basic contention in academia has been that sexual identity, like gender identity, is an ideological construct. It’s not that people don’t naturally experience sexual desire for someone who might be considered the same gender, it’s just the categorisation of such desires that is a social construct. So while it might not be correct to call an early modern person or character homosexual, by the same token, they can’t be called heterosexual either.
I’m afraid that this won’t make things any easier for you if you’re trying to separate platonic relationships from sexual or romantic ones, because that enterprise is anachronistic by nature. But then it’s anachronistic on either side whether you’re trying to establish that two men are friends or lovers, since lovers can be friends (and to add to that the word ‘friend’ could mean lover).