Ladies and gentlemen (not of Verona),
Here we go! Two Gentlemen of Verona is a story of love and friendship, and the conflicts that nearly tear both apart for two men. Reading this play so soon after Romeo and Juliet, we might discuss how Two Gentlemen anticipates and provides a foil for the later play (if not As You Like It or Twelfth Night).
So often Shakespeare offers us pairs for comparison. Here we have Proteus, the inconstant (yes, that's a synonym for "protean") lover vs. Valentine (from the Latin for "strong") the true, faithful lover; and Julia, who sticks by her wayward man vs. Sylvia, who is kept away from her faithful man. What is revealed by these juxtapositions?
For me Two Gentlemen also has a number of disturbing elements for the contemporary reader. I'll ask about two:
First, I am frustrated by Julia's pursuit of Proteus, despite his cruelty. Helena, in Midsummer, has a similar turn, pursuing the scornful Demetrius: "What worser place can I beg in your love," she asks him, "Than to be used as you use your dog?" Yipes. Get thee to a therapist!
Julia's sad codependency is amplified by this play's persistent drumbeat of anti-woman slurs. Lucetta tells us, "I have no other [reason] but a woman's reason: / I think him so because I think him so" (1.2.23-24). Ah, yes. Women's intuition. Who needs all that reasoning stuff; leave that to men.
More shocking is Julia's statement that "maids in modesty say 'no' to that / Which they would have the profferer construe 'ay'!" (1.2.58-59). This is Shakespeare the frat boy, contending that women say 'no' when they mean 'yes.' Valentine reiterates this point later when he says "A woman sometime scorns what best contents her" (3.1.93). Perhaps it is the political correctness in me, but I find these moments jarring, not because I believe they no longer happen (they do), but because the misogyny I hear in them comes primarily from the women. Shakespeare uses their own words against them.
It's not like the men don't get a chance too. We get unadorned misogyny lite when Lance describes his future wife: "To be slow in words is a woman's only virtue" (3.1.335). Would that Lance were as virtuous. My question is this: In this play about betrayal and faithfulness, the women are blameless. Yet the portrayal of Julia and the sexist comments cut against the purity of their constancy. What is Shakespeare up to here?
Second, the ending. (Spoiler alert for those of you still finishing the play!) I count five abrupt "conversions," moments where a character changes and does the opposite of what would be consistent with normal human reaction. First, after attempting to rape Sylvia and having Valentine declaim his treachery and betrayals, Proteus about faces and apologizes ("forgive me"). Second, Valentine, despite the great wrongs done him, not by an enemy but by his closest friend, relents and accepts Proteus' apology ("I am paid"). Third, after jilting Julia and pursuing Sylvia full force despite her persistent rejections, Proteus tosses her over for Julia(!) in two lines ("What is in Sylvia's face but I may spy / More fresh in Julia's"). Fourth, Thurio, having vied for Sylvia's love longer than anyone else in the play, disposes of her immediately when faced with a threat from Valentine ("I care not for her"). And fifth, even though he has castigated Valentine for his improprietous love of Sylvia and banished him and finds him living with bandits, the Duke treats him like a prodigal son ("Thou art a gentleman, and well derived").
The time it takes for all these sudden shifts? 110 lines. Now, really. The success of a play, although it ought to be due to the writin' or the actin', is more frequently in its ability to establish a willing suspension of disbelief and maintain it, so that theater-goers can leave the imaginative space of the theater and say to themselves 'I have been in the presence of truth.' Act 5, scene 4 tears through the tissue of that belief like hob-nailed boots through rice paper.
How, I ask, do you stage this? How do you choreograph these characters so that the resolution does not seem like a 6-year-old's version of deus ex machina? Want a final challenge? After the fifth conversion, you only have 15 lines of play left. Ouch.
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