Shakespeare: The Two Gentlemen of Verona

by Glenn on September 4, 2016

Two Gentlemen-1

A project that has sat on my list for a long time with little progress: To read (or, in some cases, re-read) all of the plays by William Shakespeare.

Many of Shakespeare’s plays I read in college or during the years I was an English teacher. I haven’t read them all and often those I have were for the necessity of a grade or to be prepared as an educator. Whether or not I have the good fortune of teaching again, I would like to be the kind of person who has read them all.

Inertia is tough to overcome, so the main rule I will follow is to read the play first before I read any introduction or commentary. Reading the plays is the goal and I don’t want to get bogged down in an introduction.

I have The Norton Shakespeare, Third Edition, edited by Stephen Greenblatt et al. If I read this cover to cover, I will consider myself having won the day, when that day arrives (I hope before the end of 2017).

In my dream world, though, I will truly immerse myself by reading the play, reading the Norton introduction, reading the appropriate chapter from the three commentaries I own (Isaac Asimov: Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare: A guide to Understanding and Enjoying the Works of Shakespeare; Harold Bloom: Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human; and Marjorie Garber: Shakespeare After All.) listening to a performance, watching a performance on screen, and attending a stage performance. That’s a lot, which may explain why it’s taken me so long to get started. I will read each play and if there’s space and opportunity for the rest, great.

And so we begin with The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

I wondered how much of the plot of a totally unfamiliar Shakespeare play I would be able to follow. It turns out I did pretty well. A couple of moments where I found myself confused were not because I wasn’t following the action, but because the action didn’t make sense and I was trying to go back assuming I had missed something.

Before I began, I made some notes for myself—mostly about the relationship of the characters to each other. Diagramming these relationships helped immensely as a change of scenes for Shakespeare often means a change of characters.

The “Two Gentlemen” are Valentine and Proteus, each of whom have a servant, Speed and Lance, respectively. Valentine has been sent away from his home to learn about the world as part of his education. He has sailed from his home in Verona to Milan (figure that one out with a map) where he has fallen in love with the beautiful Silvia (and she with him).

The problem is that Silvia’s father, the Duke [of Milan], has pledged her to Turio. Valentine would like to run away with Silvia.

Meanwhile (oh, by the way, time is a funny thing in Shakespeare’s plays and we’re never quite sure during the passing of time about how much time is passing—all we know is the order in which things are happening), Proteus’s father has the same idea for his son that Valentine’s father had for his son and wants to send him to Milan in Valentine’s footsteps to embark on his own educational journey. Proteus is not too eager, though, because he has a girlfriend, Julia. Before he leaves, they decide to declare their love by exchanging rings.

And then it gets weird.

When Proteus meets up with Valentine he discovers the plan for Valentine to leave town with Silvia. Proteus, for reasons that don’t make much sense beyond the fact that his name in Greek mythology means changeable and so he changes loyalties, decides to tell the Duke about Valentine’s plan. The plan is thwarted and Valentine flees to the forest where he, improbably, falls in with a gang of thieves and becomes their leader à la Robin Hood.

Proteus having betrayed Valentine, makes friends with Turio and comes up with a plan to help Turio win Silvia over. Proteus will woo Silvia for him. Unfortunately, Proteus falls for Silvia and begins to woo her for himself.

Before we ask, “Hey, what about Julia?”, enter some comedy. Proteus asks his servant Lance, to take a dog to Silvia. One supposes that the idea is to give her a little, fluffy dog to help win her heart. Instead, Lance gives her his dog, a very large and un-housebroken one. In a monologue, Lance tells the story of how his dog once urinated inside someone’s home. (For those who want to think of Shakespeare as highbrow, there’s that lovely image, which also includes the description of lifting of legs and references to odors.) When the evidence was discovered, the owner of the house announced he was going to beat the dog, but Lance stepped in to say, “‘Twas I did the thing you wot [know] of,” whereupon he was beaten. Then Lance observes to the audience, “How many masters would do this for his servant?”

Now, “Hey what about Julia?” She is home in Verona missing her guy very much. Her opinion of Proteus is rather exalted:

His words are bonds, his oaths are oracles,
His love sincere, his thoughts immaculate,
His tears pure messengers sent from his heart,
His heart as far from fraud as heaven from earth.

Unfortunately, Julia’s description of reality and actual reality don’t match. Proteus has betrayed his friend, Valentine. And now that he has betrayed his new acquaintance Turio, he has betrayed his once beloved Julia.

Back in Verona, Julia misses Proteus so much she decides to go and see him. She is nervous about traveling as a woman, so she talks with her servant about arranging her clothing and appearance to make her look like a man. There is a lot of talk about codpieces, which apparently were in fashion back then. Julia, disguised as a man and operating under the name Sebastian, shows up in Milan where she befriends Proteus and discovers him trying to win over Silvia.

Proteus asks Julia (Sebastian) to give a ring (the one he received from Julia) to Silvia. Proteus claims, “She loved me well delivered [who gave] it to me.”

Julia tries to understand what is going on with Proteus, so she asks if the one who gave him the ring is dead. Proteus says, “Not so; I think she lives.”

Julia is overwhelmed by this but decides to take the ring to Silvia. She asks of herself, “[W]hy do I pity him?” There isn’t an answer. Proteus has been forthcoming with Silvia who knows all about Julia and so Silvia refuses to accept the ring.

It’s a comedy, so it’s all going to work out in the end, I guess, but the play goes from weird to downright disturbing.

Everyone heads to the woods, which is a thing that sometimes happens in Shakespeare’s plays (As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example). Silvia hopes to be reunited with Valentine. Proteus, Julia, Turio, and the Duke chase after her. Proteus finds Silvia who tells him that she isn’t interested in him because of Julia.

In love / Who respects friend?

All men but Proteus.

And so Proteus decides that the love he can’t get with words he will take by force. He says, “I’ll force thee yield to my desire.” Basically, he announces he is going to rape her. Valentine has been in the shadows watching this and steps forward to intervene. Proteus says he is sorry and Valentine says that not only is all forgiven but he can have Silvia. What?

Julia (Sebastian) faints. Appropriate response. When she revives, Julia reveals her true identity at which point Proteus thinks Julia looks enough like Silvia and that he could be happy with her. Presumably, Valentine and Silvia get together, except that we haven’t heard Silvia speak since she cried, “O heaven!” when Proteus threatened to rape her. We’re not quite sure what she thought of Valentine giving her to Proteus. It’s a strange ending.

Comments and Commentators

It’s interesting to see where the various commentators focus their attention and the kind of personality that comes through on the page. Isaac Asimov goes to excessive (obsessive?) lengths to explain the unexplainable nautical trip from Verona to Milan.

“Verona isn’t a seaport, to be sure. It is sixty-five miles from the sea. Perhaps Valentine means to travel overland to Venice and take ship there; or to travel to the sea by way of the Adige River, on which Verona is located. …

“But Milan is not a seaport either (it is seventy-five miles north of Genoa) and cannot be reached directly by sea. One has the vision of Valentine traveling sixty-five miles to Venice, taking ship all around Italy to Genoa, a voyage of about one thousand four hundred miles, and then traveling seventy-five miles overland to Milan.

“This is scarcely necessary, since in actual fact Milan is only ninety miles due west of Verona over undoubtedly well-traveled roads.”

I just don’t think geography was that important to Shakespeare. Asimov says as much a moment later. But then he offers this odd line:

“It might just as well have been London and Amsterdam with an appropriate sea voyage between them.”

The analogy doesn’t quite work for me because these two cities (pre-Chunnel) actually have a sea voyage between them. Asimov approaches Shakespeare as a scientist, trying to make sense of it all.

Marjorie Garber does a great job of placing this “early romantic comedy” in context as a harbinger of things to come. She offers a list of the many “situations that will be expanded or refined in later plays”:

• “a love triangle” (Romeo and Juliet)
• “a plucky second heroine, dressed as a boy” (Twelfth Night)
• “a clumsy, inept would-be lover” (Cymbeline)
• “a set of outlaws” (As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and Pericles)
• “an elopement plot” (Romeo and Juliet with “a glance at” The Merchant of Venice)

One unfortunate aspect of this play is that the character Lance makes a couple of disparaging references to Jews.

A Jew would have wept to have seen our parting!

If thou wilt, go with me to the alehouse; if not, thou art an Hebrew, a Jew, and not worth [worthy[ the name of a Christian.

Garber notes,

“Launce’s* swipe at Jews cannot be wished away; here and elsewhere in the plays the social caricature of the hard-hearted or mercenary Jew is casually invoked, with the implication that most in the audience would recognize this characterization and agree with it.”

Bloom is the most judgmental of the commentators. He describe The Two Gentlemen of Verona as “the weakest of all Shakespeare’s comedies.” The thing is, he’s right. He simply has rejected any sort of diplomacy and refuses to mince words. He is certainly the most acerbic of the three critics I will be following:

“Never popular, whether in Shakespeare’s time or our own, the Two Gentlemen might merit dismissal were it not partly rescued by the clown Launce, who leaps into life, and Launce’s dog, Crab, who has more personality than anyone else in the play except Launce himself.”

Later, Bloom will add,

“Launce is so hearteningly a person (or rather person-with-dog) that I sometimes wonder why he is wasted upon The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which is not at all good enough for him.”

Bloom really cuts loose when he writes about the end of the play. Regarding Julia passing out, Bloom says,

“Julia’s reaction at least affords her some instant relief, while poor Silvia never utters another word in the play after she cries out ‘O heaven!’ when the lustful Proteus seizes her to commence his intended rape. What is the actress playing Silvia supposed to do with herself during the final hundred lines of The Two Gentlemen of Verona? She ought to whack Valentine with the nearest loose chunk of wood, but that would not knock any sense into the lummox, or into anyone else in this madness.”

Two potential themes for this play:

1. Women are more constant than men. Jean E. Howard in the Norton introduction writes,

“While Proteus is faithful neither to his male friend nor to his female beloved, the women are models of constant affection. Each, moreover, risks a good deal for her beloved. Julia courts public scandal by dressing as a boy and following Proteus to Milan; Silvia flees her father’s court to follow the banished Valentine in the forest. Each, moreover, is respectful to her female rival.”

I don’t know about two “moreover”s, but that about captures it.

2. Everything gets worked out in the forest. In the city, there are deceptions and betrayals, but in the forest everything becomes plain and a realignment takes place.

Each of the commentators takes time noting the many connections to Greek mythology in this play. It’s alarming to me how much of Greek mythology escapes me because of lapses in my own education.

Two Gentlemen is not one of the most quoted of Shakespeare’s plays. I did like this one particular metaphor:

Oh, how this spring of love resembleth
The uncertain glory of an April day,
Which now shows all the beauty of the sun,
And by and by a cloud takes all away!



*The Norton Shakespeare modernizes Launce to Lance, while both Garber and Bloom refer to Launce.