A Reading of Two Gentlemen of Verona:
Let us say that Two Gentlemen is a play within a play. The “outer” and richer play is the story of the love between Julia and Proteus. Julia, a delightful character, shows wit, sympathy, tractability, and grace. Proteus is not unattractive himself, being very humble in courting Julia and showing himself as a reflective character who balances skepticism and romantic idealism. At the end of the first act, they declare their love for one another, trade tokens of affection, and kiss.
But of course, Proteus must be tested and, much like Othello and Orlando, etc., must move off to a pastoral “other world” to probe his mettle to some depth. In this other world, he fails miserably, although understandably. He is alone in another country; Valentine oppresses him with his over-the-top love-talk, and awkward circumstances drive him to fall for the reigning beauty of Milan, a “falling off” he laments but seems unable to repair. We have all been there, I suppose—at least I have.
What Proteus needs, of course, is Julia, who travels to the island herself, assesses and involves herself (in male disguise, natch) in recovering Proteus to his former self and, along the way, giving Sylvia helpful sympathy and helping clear the way for the Sylvia-Valentine match to go forward.
Then, at this play’s end, Proteus is redeemed and forgiven through Julia’s grace, the disguised are revealed, and we look forward to a couple of marriages.
The “inner” and less rich play involves the romantic Valentine, who sails off to his own personal “Belmont,” where he courts Sylvia (who is, however, no PORTIA, but, rather, the play’s secondary love-interest). Valentine also is beset by problems involving a rival (dullard of a) suitor, a jealous father, and a duplicitous friend who reveals his (dangerous/foolish) plan to carry Sylvia down his rope ladder and off to who knows where.
However, once again, Grace, in the form of Julia, arrives along with a gang of fantastical aristocratic bandits, and the competitor for Sylvia’ hand is revealed as a shallow fool. All works out; Proteus repents, the Duke ceases his opposition to Valentine, and, again, we look forward to a couple of marriages.
One of the things that threw me about the play at first reading was that Sylvia, the beauty queen of Milan, was NOT the center of the play, but, merely, a secondary character. Shakespeare, who may have anticipated my confusion, drives this home in the clever painting scene (4.4), where Julia looks carefully at both Sylvia-in-the-flesh and Sylvia-in-the-painting and deduces (I see no reason to doubt her evaluation) that the painter prettied up the portrait, and that Sylvia is, indeed, less beautiful than she (auburn hair is inferior to blond hair; short stature is inferior to tall [Elizabethan] stature, etc.). As I suggest above, the set-up in The Merchant of Venice, to which we are more used, is different.
So there’s a reading to run up the flagpole. And for those of you who don’t have time, consider starting with my reading and:
1. Saying whether or not it makes sense or, at least, clarifies the way the play goes.
2. Saying whether you think the play is about friendship (its generally accepted theme) or (as I would suggest) about love.
3. Which of the two male lovers is the more believable, realistic?
4. Which of the two “comedians” (Flash and Launce) is funnier? How are these two characters similar and/or dissimilar? Who are their descendants in later plays you know?
5. What does the play have to SAY about love?
6. What does it have to SAY about friendship?
7. Which character grows/changes the most?
8. How would you stage the play to keep the audience from seeing it as an inferior mish-mash?It’s amazing how losing a prostate sharpens (or dulls?) one’s mind.