O heaven! were man but constant, he were perfect.
I’m going to read (and – in the spirit of full disclosure – watch on DVD) all the plays in chronological order, and post every Saturday in this category. The chronology I’m using is the Wells-Taylor one, which states Two Gentlemen of Verona as Shakespeare’s first play, written in 1590-91; other dates vary from 1587 to 1593. This play certainly is one of Shakespeare’s earliest works, and definitely his earliest comedy. It shares many things the later comedies – mistaken identities, cross-dressing women, wronged lovers, journeys, and foolish lovers. Shakespeare would later use elements of this play elsewhere – the setting of Verona in Romeo and Juliet, the best friends as romantic rivals in Two Noble Kinsmen, two similarly confused pairs of young lovers (and the flight to the forest) in The Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Two Gentlemen of Verona tells about two friends, Proteus and Valentine. Valentine goes to the court of Milan and falls in love with Silvia; Proteus soon follows him, leaving behind his girlfriend Julia. Proteus then too falls in love with Silvia, and betrays his friend to Silvia’s father in order to win her for himself. Julia follows Proteus to Milan, disguised as a boy, and becomes his page. Valentine flees Milan and is believed dead by all but Silvia, who goes looking for him. Proteus follows her, and Julia/Sebastian follows him. Valentine is of course alive, and witnesses Proteus try to seduce (and when that fails, threat to rape) Silvia. In the ensuing chaos, the two friends have it out, Sebastian’s true identity is revealed, and the rightful lovers restored. Some outlaws get pardoned, Valentine and Silvia get her father’s blessing, and everyone returns to Milan happy. It’s an ending that makes me think of this:
Hard as you may try, you cannot quite imagine the lovers ever really being happy with each other, nor the friendship of Valentine and Proteus to remain as it was. Can Julia trust Proteus’ fidelity? Can anyone trust a man who so spectacularly disrespects and betrays the friend he has sworn to love? Will Valentine always be the victim of his foolishly good nature? Are he and Silvia going to be the dullest couple ever? The critically most controversial moment is in Act 5, Scene 4: Proteus, having been caught red-handed by his best mate, passionately regrets and pleads to Valentine to forgive him. Easily persuaded (really, these blokes are useless), Valentine absolves him, and then speaks these ambiguous words:
And, that my love may appear plain and free,
All that was mine in Silvia I give thee.
What exactly does he mean? Is he really offering Silvia to Proteus for keeps? Is he making a gesture in the spirit of “if she prefers you, you have her”, or is he saying that he loves Proteus like he loves Silvia/that his love for Silvia will not diminish his affection for his friend? This play is regularly accused of misogyny, and it’s easy to see why – after all, this is a play that essentially praises male friendship as far superior to any romantic relationship, and presents Proteus (who’s a tool) and Valentine (who’s an idiot) as the heroes, while Silvia is often just a plot device (her last line is “O heaven!” just before Proteus tries to rape her – she doesn’t say a word throughout the denouement that follows) and Julia, rather than kicking Proteus to the curb after his betrayal, is all too keen to have him back. Finnish author Miina Supinen described the young men in Shakespeare’s comedies as being much like girlfriends in modern Hollywood movies – they are good-looking, a bit daft, and mostly just stand around while the women (and older men) crack on; while Two Gentlemen of Verona really is a play about relationship of its two protagonists rather than a romantic comedy, this is not an entirely inaccurate description. Neither Proteus nor Valentine (nor Thurio, the suitor favoured by Silvia’s father) exactly come out looking good, while Julia coins the clever plan to disguise as a boy for her own safety and go after Proteus, however undeserving, and even the boring but faithful Silvia takes matters in her own hand and goes to Valentine’s rescue.
Is it any good?
Two Gentlemen of Verona reads very much like a play that is easily made unbearable by a bad staging (while some other works are hard/impossible to ruin); given a good production, it can be entertaining though, even if it isn’t exactly profound.
This play is used in a number of scenes in the film Shakespeare in Love. Judi Dench as QEI commends the dog playing Crab, and when Gwyneth Paltrow, disguised as Master Kent, auditions for Shakespeare’s new play, she reads the song “Who is Silvia?”. And of course, the new play in the making is set in Verona as well…
What say thou?
My favourite exchange comes from Act I, Scene I:
The shepherd seeks the sheep, and not the sheep the
shepherd; but I seek my master, and my master seeks
not me: therefore I am no sheep.
The sheep for fodder follow the shepherd; the
shepherd for food follows not the sheep: thou for
wages followest thy master; thy master for wages
follows not thee: therefore thou art a sheep.
Such another proof will make me cry ‘baa.’
Crab the unruly dog, of course.
Photo by Karl Hugh, courtesy of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, St. George News.
Royal Shakespeare Company performance from September 2014, directed by Simon Godwin and starring Mark Arends as Proteus, Michael Marcus as Valentine, Pearl Chanda as Julia and Sarah MacRae as Silvia. 4/5.