The household and family have received considerable interest in studies of early modern English drama, but less attention has been paid to how writers represent intimate affective bonds on the stage. Emotion is intangible; yet many writers convincingly convey the intensity of emotional bonds through rhetoric. Rhetoric is a mainstay in representations of social networks, naturalizing social ties in the family and even in larger social and political groups.
Studies of early modern English family life have mainly surveyed the state of the family and household, exploring hierarchies, divisions of labor, marriage, and parent-child relations. While these studies filled a major intellectual void in a modern understanding of English household life, little attention has been given to the role that language plays in the family. Friendship studies have been more attuned to language, attending to the economics and erotics of friendship. None of these studies, however, probes language as a primary function of the bond. My approach, bringing speech-act theory and considerations of symbolic capital to the fore in conjunction with feminist, cultural, social, and linguistic studies, demonstrates how people do things with words. This speech-action is a critical function of family life, social alliances, kinship, and friendship in William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, The Two Noble Kinsmen, A Midsummer Night's Dream, As You like It, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Thomas Heywood's A Woman Killed with Kindness , Thomas Middleton's A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, and female-authored plays such as Margaret Cavendish's Bell in Campo and Aphra Behn's The Lucky Chance.
The language that friends and families use to call on common and highly emotional bonds has been appropriated by numerous social and political groups. The discourses of family and friendship, taken up by social activists, generals, queens, and presidents, have the ability to move people to action. At the same time, bond discourses and rhetoric are closely tied to identities because group membership brings people together under assumed commonality, while concurrently defining them. Language allows people to create and recreate themselves, while navigating social relations.