Ladies and Gentlepods,
What follows is a bit of a random collection of semi-organized thoughts,which may or may not help forward our discussion.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona, often dated earlier in the order of Shakespeare’s plays and sometimes referred to as Shakespeare’s “worst play,” strikes me as a very simple re-telling of a story Shakespeare’s audience must have known (The History of Felix and Philiomena, acted 3 January, 1585). It feels very much to me as if Shakespeare was experimenting in some ways and embellishing his tale less for increased character or thematic depth than for a shallowly literate audience, possibly the Court and certainly the law Students who seemed attracted to the Bard from the earliest days.
None of the characters really gains much of our sympathy. Sure, the women are by far the most interesting characters and have to put up with the various male stupidities of the men who surround them, but there’s not much new there—except to see that Julia, not Sylvia would appear to be the favored, quasi-Elizabeth tall blond (Helena, etc.), while the famous Sylvia turns out to be short and dark (Hermia, etc.), which may simply show the power the “Who is Sylvia?” song (and Schubert’s breathlessly beautiful setting thereof) have had on our collective imagination. (In the play, Sylvia scorns the song much as she scorns Proteus and Thurio, who have set her up to hear it.)
Of course, Proteus is the stinker here, but when you think of a couple of the ways he is treated, his behavior seems more “after the convention” than anything we should worry about. First, he is in the process of falling in love with Julia, when his father yanks him away from home and sends him off to Milan to join Valentine. Then there is the really quite uncomfortable interchange between the two young men, when Valentine runs Proteus over the coals by comparing their two sweethearts and slamming Proteus for Julia’s inferiority to Sylvia (2.4.126-82—just try reading aloud line 180 and stressing the “my” in the phrase “my happiness,” and you’ll get a sense of Valentine’s shallowness). Proteus enters this scene as a skeptic and accuses Valentine of “braggardism,” but it is too late and his annoyance at Valentine’s shallowness may well be a factor in his falling for Sylvia. This, and the love-at-first-sight conventions somewhat mitigate Proteus’ failures in my eyes. Proteus’ soliloquy in 2.6 has some greater depth to it—at least as a study of one man’s thinking of all the reasons not to do something in order that he may do it (Macbeth).
After listening to the play, as I did, I decided that the ever-weeping clown (probably played by Will Kemp) was not a very good idea. There is only so much humor that can be got out of maudlin weeping-humor, and I’m glad Shakespeare never took this route again.
Small Notes: Like other early plays, this one raises the question of exactly how a well-to-do young man gets “finished”—stay at home, learn courtly ways at another court, become the leader of a desperate band of former “gentlemen” (a trick Gilbert and Sullivan used quite often)?
2.1.18—Here is an early (and good) Shakespearean description of the voguish “malcontent” (“malcontents” being the subject of my dissertation). Thus, one could argue, Proteus is a very early precursor of Hamlet.
2.1.91ff. It’s hard not to like Sylvia (and Julia), when one sees her practical skepticism and witty repartee. I think a careful comparison of the two women may be one of this play’s most productive reader-activities.
2.5.43—Jews get dumped on at least three times in this play; it’s uncomfortable.
One of my sources lists some of the similarities between this play and others:
1) Valentine's attempt at rescuing Silvia from her controlling father, and his subsequent banishment, is distantly reminiscent of what happens to Romeo in Romeo and Juliet.
2) Shakespeare returned to the subject of close friends fighting over a woman at the very end of his career, in The Two Noble Kinsmen.
3) Valentine's and Silvia's plan to elope in the night and their interactions with Proteus and Julia in the forest, are reminiscent of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
4) This could very well be the first play where Shakespeare utilized the plot device of having a female disguise herself as a male, later used in such plays as As You Like It and Twelfth Night.
5) Launce is noted to have many similarities with the character Launcelot Gobbo, from The Merchant of Venice. Not only are their names similar but also their manners of speech, their occupations, and their similar dramatic functions in their respective plays.
Finally, David Bevington tries valiantly in the introduction to my version of the play to make us feel more at ease with it. He seems to maintain the notion that it is primarily about trust, that it “is in part a comedy of forgiveness, anticipating later plays in which the romantic protagonist is equally culpable and yet equally forgiven: Much Ado, Measure for Measure, All’s Well, Cymbeline.” I, however, have some trouble taking the two male lovers all that seriously, so I am not sure. He also refers to the resolution in the woods as taking place in the first of Shakespeare’s “green worlds,” which I accept, AND asserts that “the buffoonish comedy of Launce and Speed performs a function similar to that of romantic improbability of undercutting the Petrarchan seriousness of the love story.” This last rests a little less easily with me, as I found it hard to be serious about the love story at all.
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