Friday, March 16, 2007
I am repeatedly amazed at the transformation each of these plays we read seems to go through as a result of our conversations. After reading a play, I have never been quite sure where to begin, and looking over our previous discussions I find that we all often get off to a slow start. Yet by the end of the second discussion period we have established a variety of lively strands, and my impression and appreciation for the play has deepened.
This was certainly the case for me with Two Gentlemen of Verona. I presented a set of relatively generic questions, with the exception of my specific concern about how one stages the abrupt set of forgivenesses at the end. Ernst invigorated the conversation with a wonderful set of posts examining the "central essence" of the play. Was it friendship? Forgiveness? Love? I especially enjoyed his presentation of and response to Bill Matchett's Shakespeare and Forgiveness take on Two Gentlemen of Verona. I agree that friendship is an underserved theme in the play, and that forgiveness may be central but is not resolved satisfactorily by the end. Ernst's further refining the play's essence to "pastoral romance" is compelling; in addition to revising my reading of the play in interesting ways, his comments put the play in a context that will be more accessible to our future readings of plays like As You Like It. And the inter-contextuality of these plays, as well as our perceived growth of Shakespeare the dramatist, is one of my favorite aspects of our group.
I also very much enjoyed Ernst's supplemental materials. I really don't think any other book club would have me up at 2:00 a.m. (with grades due soon) reading Boccaccio's Decameron, or stealing moments from a busy day to search the Internet for extant online copies of Damon and Pythias.
Gil took my complaint about sexism and turned it into a provocative piece on "coyness," which has both caused me to rethink some of the modern criticisms I have made in the past and deepened my understanding of the relationships between men and women in this play. Gil also alluded to a question I am looking forward to discussing again as we get further into Shakespeare's career, writing "I think by Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare is more sure-handed in his parody and put-down of the conventions of romantic love…". Among these conventions, it seems to me, is the Petrarchan imagery we have frequently referred to. And, having just been through Twelfth Night with students who saw Orsino the same way Gil sees Romeo and Juliet, I wonder how long these conventions will be a foil for his romantic plots.
I think there is a parallel to this use of established convention as foil for Shakespearean view in the history plays. When we read the Henry VI plays we talked a lot about the passing of the chivalric age, and reading 1 Henry IV this month with my students, the same observation has come up: Hotspur as old honor and chivalry; Hal as modern politician, not anti-chivalric, but not governed exclusively by an out-dated code. Food for thought as we go into the second tetralogy later this year.
And is there a similar trait in the tragedies? For example, is it the conventions of revenge tragedy that turn up revised and evolved in Hamlet?
I worried a year ago, privately, that we might get eight or ten plays in and run out of gas or lose interest. Today, I feel the opposite. I feel that each play and subsequent discussion has increased my desire to get the rest and to hear your thoughts, ideas, and reactions. If we stopped today, after ten plays, I would feel a sense of real accomplishment, but I would also be tremendously disappointed. I look forward to our group that much.
Sunday, March 11, 2007
Gil asked, oh weeks ago, why the two women in Two Gentlemen of Verona are "vastly superior creatures to the two men?" I propose the following response and question.
First, I expect that what we mean by "superior" here is that they are more constant in their love (not like wavering Proteus), more balanced in their love (not like Petrarchan Valentine and Proteus), and more possessed of wit (the reverse of foolishness) with which to test the validity of their suitors' love.
Second, let's reach back to the previous comedies we've discussed. Perhaps the easiest parallel for our superior women/foolish men question is Love's Labor's Lost. In that play Shakespeare gave us four women vastly superior to the four men who pursue them (after giving up on their oath to avoid them). Gil noted in one of his posts that the men's oath "is artificial, pretentious, mannered, affected, self-deceptive. …Of course, it gives way immediately to necessity, but it takes four more acts for them to discover they must learn who they are …". I don't think Proteus and Valentine are on as much of a journey of self-discovery, but I do think that neither is, at the beginning of the play, completely whole. Proteus, most clearly, learns something by the end of the play. He has loved Julia, jilted Julia, and reclaimed Julia ("Bear witness, heaven, I have my wish forever."). Valentine's love, true from the get-go, must be proved, but he gets off lighter than Berowne et. al. His heroic acts and moral ascendancy, saving Sylvia from a would-be rapist, saving her father from aristocratic brigands, are the stuff of time-constrained TV drama, but both elevate him from sighing lover to serious man.
In Comedy of Errors, we have something slightly different. Adriana and Luciana are less the model women we find in Two Gentlemen of Verona's Sylvia and Julia, or Love's Labor's Lost's Princess and Rosaline, and perhaps a step closer to Kate and Bianca in Shrew. But I would argue that they are still superior to the two Antipholuses. The Ephesian Antipholus is a boor, both inconstant to his wife and prone to over-the-top fits of temper. (Ant: "And did not I in rage depart from thence?" Dro: "In verity you did. -- My bones bear witness.") The Syracusian Antipholus is our somewhat callow Petrarchan lover. When he falls for Luciana, he deifies her, comparing her to "a God," a mermaid, a Siren, all at once. Yet he is like Valentine in that his love cannot be accepted until he has proved himself. The difference between Two Gentlemen of Verona and Comedy of Errors is in the degree of farce, so that Valentine's own actions validate him while Antipholus is validated by the resolution of the farce plot.
[As an aside, I'd like to see a production of Two Gentlemen of Verona played as a full on farce, just to see where that would get us: the letter scenes, Lance and Crab, the rope ladder stuff, the aristocrat thieves, the whizz-bang five-for-a buck forgivenesses at the end. I think the success of a production of this play is not in the lines, but between them.]
I'm not sure what to do with Taming of the Shrew, which seems to me the most balanced comedy in terms of male/female foolishness. So, I'm going to leave it out at this time. Perhaps one of you will take it up in light of what follows. Why are the women of these other comedies superior? Could it be that Julia gives us the answer?
It is the lesser blot, modesty finds,
Women to change their shapes than men their minds. (5.4.116-117)
Therefore men's inconstancy is the greater blot. And Shakespeare's comedies have provided us, so far, with men who are inconstant of mind. Berowne and friends cannot even keep their own oath. Nor Proteus. The Petrarchan lovers – Romeo, Orsino, Valentine, Antipholus, and our four lack-wits writing bad sonnets in Love's Labor's Lost – are inconstant in that they confuse the ideal of love with the object of love. To begin in Petrarchan mode as Romeo does with Rosaline is to love Love rather than the girl. Love itself, then, becomes the object with which the man is unfaithful to his "true" love. I need lines to support this, but it's what has been scratching at the back of my mind for a while.
Proteus follows Julia's comment, emphasizing this general failing on men's part:
O heaven, were man
But constant, he were perfect; that one error
Fills him with faults, makes him run though all th' sins;
Inconstancy falls off ere it begins. (5.4.118-123)
The comic male, then, is the inconstant male, the imperfect male -- in action, in love, in mind. And this imperfection is put in relief by women's comparable constancy. It would be interesting to read this feminine superiority and constancy (and wit) as Shakespeare-the-feminist. But I wonder if the women's ideal construction in his comedies suggests that they are, more, foils for the men's more dynamic journey and comic presentation? (That's my question.) Are these plays that focus most on the male experience? And if so, is the viewer presented with a comic mirror in order to see in the male reflection anything on a scale from didactic (look on these male fools and mend thy ways!) to pure entertainment (ha ha, she's got him writing a letter to himself!)? Yes, it should be said that comedy consistently provides us something of both, but we do not always take it that way. How many of us sit in front of reality TV and think "arguing like a dim-witted moron with my wife is counter-productive"? Alas, we more likely laugh, and point, and mumble through our mouthful of beer and Doritos: "whatta moron."
Stones. Glass houses. That's entertainment.
[Note A: I have not had room here to make my argument about women's superior wit. I will save that for another day.]
[Note B: The other half of Julia's comment defining women's "blot" is that they "change their shapes." This can be read as a basic shot against the dressing up women do, or to paraphrase Hamlet: God has given them one face, and they make themselves another. But I also like the reading that points to disguise, and here we find Rosalind (of As You Like It), Julia, Viola, Jessica. We are never expected to see these transformations as character flaw. In fact, they are a device by which the woman discovers truth. Interesting.]
Thursday, March 8, 2007
In the Farrelly Brothers' There's Something About Mary – and I know after that opening phrase you're wondering how the heck we're gonna get to Shakespeare – Ben Stiller's character, Ted, takes the male portion of the audience through one of the greatest examples of "cringe humor." Moments from the beginning of a fantasy prom date with the eponymous Mary, young Ted uses the bathroom and gets his "frank and beans" caught in his zipper. Ouch.
I am reminded of this by Gil's citing of William H. Carroll's interpretation of the letter scene in Act 1, scene 2 of Two Gentlemen of Verona. It seems, the critic suggests, that we are to acquaint the letter with a penis. Now, I'm not a prude. And I'm not above recognizing a little phallic imagery in my literature. In Arthur Penn's film Bonnie and Clyde, Bonnie goes to town with Clyde after she meets him. The first time Cylde shows her that he has a gun, he removes it from his pants and holds it at crotch level, barrel out. Bonnie reaches out and caresses it. Very phallic. Yet I'm looking at the running gag with Proteus' love letter, and I don't see it. But let's take Mr. Carroll at his word for a sec, just for fun.
After the letter is introduced with a very unsexy "peruse this note, madam," Julia responds with the following lines. I will interpret as lecherously as possible in parenthesis.
Line 43: "Now, by my modesty, a goodly broker!" (A "broker" here is someone, or something, that would act as a go-between, or would "go between" them, as Proteus's manhood would if the letter were a metaphor for, uh, "country matters," as Hamlet says. Or rather, it would go between Proteus and Julia's modesty, perhaps a euphemism for her sex. Thus, we can see her comment as a stage direction, instructing her as to where to hold the letter while she contemplates it – "by" her "modesty.")
Line 44: "Dare you presume to harbor wanton lines?" (Well, "wanton"; we can assume that Julia perceives a lewd intent on Proteus's part. Later we will learn that the letter harbors no such wantonness, but rather a lot of love-struck drivel. Therefore, it must be the letter itself that is lewd, or maybe he wrote it on paper shaped like a bull's pizzle.)
Line 45: "To whisper and conspire against my youth?" (I read this as more gossipy than lascivious, but we could interpret this to suggest that Proteus is asking for sex, if we associate youth with virginity – maybe he says he wants to make a woman of her, for example. And if the letter does suggest this, then the physical letter itself may be, if we, um, extend our metaphor, a representative of his member.
Lines 46-47: "Now trust me, 'tis an office of great worth / And you an officer fit for the place." (The "it" here of "'tis" refers, I think, to Julia's youth. But "it" as I know from working with male adolescents is one of the more flexible words in English when it comes to references to genitalia. This gives a whole new meaning to "honey, I'm going to the office!" Let's award Julia this double-entendre, and agree that because she is a virgin, hers is indeed of great worth. The "you" then becomes less Proteus and more a piece of Proteus -- and before you can yell "Hold thy piece!", Julia is suggesting he fit it into "it."
And to come full circle, if Proteus and Julia consummate their relationship in this way, he will have "broke 'er" hymen (line 43).
Alrighty. Have we adequately erected Mr. Carroll's metaphor? Good. Now letter = phallus. What happens to the letter next? Uh, Julia gives it to Lucetta. (Fit giant question mark over cartoon character's head now.) And Lucetta makes off with it. Julia wants it back. Lucetta returns, with the letter, drops it, and retrieves it. Methinks our phallus is becoming a bit bruised. In explanation of the "took up so gingerly" line that Gil quotes, I think if I found a penis lying on the ground, I'd pick it up gingerly too. Shades of John Wayne Bobbitt come to mind.
To return, here I envisioned a scene played rather farcically – Lucetta holding the letter over her head, Julia whacking her ("How now, minion!") and grabbing letter.
Having retrieved the desired "phallus," Julia proceeds to … rip it up. Ouch. Frank and beans! I pause to consider what it would be like to have the Farrelly Bros. direct Two Gentlemen of Verona. (Except Peter Farrelly already did, and called it Dumb & Dumber.) Of the letter at this point, I would point out two things. First, no more of Julia's language can really be taken lewdly, so the phallic imagery, uh, wilts. Second, none of the language Julia finds on the pieces of the letter indicate any wantonness at all.
To conclude, I think Carroll's phallic symbol relies on a heavy-breathing interpretation of just five lines, and fails him after that. If I were to even propose an interpretation along this line in my class, my students would almost certainly ask "Aren't we reading too much into this?" Maybe. Carroll's problem here is a simple one: his interpretation tiresomely suggests that he knows how Shakespeare intended the letter to be seen.
And as all good New Critics know, that's bad criticism. One must always avoid the intentional phallusy.
1. Damon and Pythias was written 30 years before Two Gentlemen of Verona, telling a story that everyone knew in a style that was totally antiquated by Shakespeare’s time. Its main theme is the inspirational power of self-sacrificing friendship. There are no women in the play; there is no pastoral-romance in the play; the characters are simple, and the vast majority of the play’s lines are devoted to satire of (1) tyrants, (2) courtly intrigue, and (3) sycophants. I feel very little commonality between it and Shakespeare’s play.
2. The play was written for choirboys to put on for a private audience—in this case a collection of University students and courtiers. “Commoners” would not have seen it. There were many plays so written and performed, and I’m sure sophisticated, London-based players were aware of them and their plots, but companies like Shakespeare’s and Marlowe’s were, in a general way, writing plays for a different audience—one ranging from commoner-groundlings to drop-in courtiers and students—in outdoor theatres. The so-called "children’s companies" were no great threat to publicly-performing companies like The Lord Admiral’s Men or the Queen’s men or the Lord Chamberlain’s Men until the mid-nineties, when far more sophisticated writers like George Chapman and Ben Jonson began writing plays for them and the plays were put on inside warmer buildings (for a price). That situation created the “little eyasses” Hamlet cries out against.
3. Damon and Pythias was, Like most plays of its time, written (mostly) in “fourteeners,” 7-foot, roughly iambic lines: di-da, di da, di-da, di-da, di-da, di-da, di-da. These lines were often written in rhymed couplets. We are more familiar with this pattern than we might think. For, if you take two such lines and break each up into four stresses and then three stresses each, you have a ballad stanza:
Di-da, di-da, di-da, di-da (Alas, my love, you do me wrong)
Di-da, di-da, di-da; (To cast me off discourteously)
Di-da, di-da, di-da, di-da (For I have lov-ed you so long,)
Di-da, di-da, di-da. (Delighting in your company.)
You can imagine how ballad stanzas would have broken up the natural flow of speech or serious thought or, at best, made them sound absurd. Fortunately, not too many years before the writing of Damon and Pythias, a couple of members of Parliament wrote a serious play in iambic pentameter (The Tragedy of Gorboduc), and by the late eighties, thanks to Kyd and Marlowe, unrhymed iambic pentameter became the language of upper-grade popular plays. Boy! Was Shakespeare born at the right time, or what!
And example of two “fourteeners” from Damon and Pythias (the verse is so irregular that two t0ogether are hard to find):
“But now, whereas I have felt the king’s liberality,
As princely as it came, I will spend it as regally.”
Shakespeare makes fun of such old-fashioned play-speech in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (although it’s written out differently on the page:
“Asleep, my love? What dead, my dove? O Pyramus arise!
Speak, speak. Quite dumb? Dead, dead? A tomb must cover thy sweet eyes.”
4. Finally, I found myself amazed (I had forgotten) at how much satire it contained—either by making caricatures of court types or by bringing in characters who would give us brief lectures on court evils (mind you, the playwright carefully says that nothing here is directed at Elizabeth’s court. Here is the moderate counselor talking to the tyrant Dionysius:
“To put to death presently whom envious flattery accused
It seemeth of tyranny; and upon what fickle ground all tyrants do stand.
Athens and Lacedemon can teach you, if it be rightly scanned.”
This moderate counselor, whose name is Eubulus (which means moderation) is borrowed from the afore-mentioned Gorboduc, where his function is the same. The play also borrows one of my favorites, Grim the Collier (who already has his own play), a normally populist sort of grumpy guy who complains about how hard the lower classes have it, but who, in this play (put on for aristocrats) is maltreated by a couple of servants (see plot below). The play also contains lots of physical clownery, such as the business with Grim mentioned above and the beating up by Stephano of Carisoppus, the slimy sycophant. I am sure kids loved putting on such rough-and-tumble scenes.
Well, so much for one brief introductory lecture on the nature of mid-fifteenth-century English courtly drama.
Damon and Pythias
Richard Edwards (1564)
Genre: Play, Tragi-Comedy.
Country: England, Britain, Europe.
Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London
This play is the first acknowledged tragi-comedy in English and was written by Richard Edwards for a court performance by the Children of the Chapel Royal at Christmas 1564-5. It would have been staged in the main hall of the palace and, in the tradition of the performance of classical drama, in front of “houses” made of timber frames covered in painted canvas (representing, in this case, the court of Dionysius and the town of Syracuse). Written in a mixture of irregular rhyming couplets, ballad metre, regular stanzaic poetry and both popular and serious song, it is an interesting attempt to use differing poetic forms to create both character (Prologue 14-26) and dramatic pace and structure.
Published in 1571 (reprinted 1582), it may have been used as a school text and was certainly well known in Oxford colleges until the middle of the seventeenth century. It makes extensive use of proverbs in both Latin and English but wears both its learning and its morality lightly. A professional production with an all-female cast was given a single performance at the Globe theatre in London, 10 September 1996.
The archetypal story of the friendship of Damon and Pythias (sometimes Phintias), both followers of the philosopher Pythagoras, is ubiquitous in classical literature. Edwards would have known it from both Cicero (De Officiis, 3.10.45 and Tusculan Disputations, 5.22) and from Sir Thomas Elyot, Book of the Governor, 1531 (2.11). The story concerns the power of friendship in the face of state tyranny, but the play also sets out to confirm the legitimacy of theatre. The ingenuous disclaimer “We talk of Dionysius' court, we mean no court but that” (Prologue 40) of course invited the audience to make comparison with the court of Elizabeth I.
The pleasure-seeking philosopher, Aristippus (like Dionysius, an historical figure), is in competition with the sycophant, Carisophus, but agrees to be friends with him for expediency's sake. Damon and Pythias arrive, dressed as mariners to indicate their sea-journey from Greece, and accompanied by their slave Stephano. Carisophus, who makes a living sequestering the wealth of those he arrests on trumped-up charges, determines to entrap them. Stephano is instantly suspicious of the atmosphere of fear in the town and warns his masters, but Damon ignores him. Carisophus arrests Damon for taking more than a tourist's interest in the fortification of the city and Dionysius sentences him to summary execution. Pythias sings a heart-broken lament in anticipation of his friend's death. He approaches Aristippus, who is sympathetic but too frightened to intercede for him. The King's minister Eubulus (whose name literally means “good advice”) bravely urges clemency, “A cruel king the people hateth”, but Dionysius is determined: “Let them hate me so they fear me” (Scene 10, 169-70). Damon asks to be allowed time to return to Greece to settle his affairs. Dionysius gives him two months, provided he can leave a substitute in his place, but thinks that no-one would be so foolish as to agree. Pythias, however, offers himself. Damon departs and Pythias is taken to prison by the gruesomely comic hangman, Groano. Stephano surprises Carisophus ransacking Damon's lodgings and beats him up.
Scene 13, the longest in the play but only tangentially connected to the main storyline, shows the boisterous playground friendship of Aristippus's and Carisophus's pages, Will and Jack. They waylay Grim the collier (an adult part, probably played by Edwards himself) and get him drunk. He makes a good living supplying charcoal to the royal kitchens and asks if it is true that Dionysius gets his own daughters to shave him. Grim fancies being polled (shaved) by beautiful young women. Jack pretends he will give him a similar luxurious experience, but while doing this, polls (steals) his purse.
Carisophus, who has fallen out of favour at court, calls on his friend Aristippus to come to his aid. Aristippus refuses on the grounds that true friendship only exists where people love each other “not for profit but for virtue” (Scene 14.42). The day fixed for Pythias's execution arrives. Eubulus's controlled poetry in the face of tragedy causes the Muses themselves to be revealed singing a lament. Pythias, however, is overjoyed at the thought of his sacrifice for friendship's sake. At the last moment, Damon returns. The two friends now argue as to which them should die. Dionysius is overwhelmed and asks them to admit him into friendship with both of them. Stephano is freed and Carisophus beaten out of the court. The play ends with a song, wishing such faithful friends for Queen Elizabeth.
Wednesday, March 7, 2007
I remember a lyric from some old musical: “A boy chases a girl, until she catches him.”
Ernst wondered what the play has to say about love, and Randall expressed frustration with Julia’s pursuit of Proteus, but there is a curious sidebar to this, “courtship” and coyness in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Act I scene 2: The play has opened with Proteus’s declaration of love for Julia, which outweighs his friendship for Valentine and the possibilities of educational benefits from travel. His apostrophe:
“Thou, Julia, thou hast metamorphis’d me,
Made me neglect my studies, lose my time,
War with good counsel, set the world at naught;
Made wit with musing weak, heart sick with thought” (I.i.66-69)
appears to establish the primacy of love, an overwhelming – and debilitating – emotion. Its power metamorphoses, and here love itself is described, and this declaration does not seem particular to Proteus despite his shape-shifting name. Speed will use the same image to describe Valentine, once he is smitten with Sylvia: “now you are metamorphis’d with a mistress, that when I look on you, I can hardly think you are my master” (II.i.30-32).
Soon after Proteus’s declaration, we meet this beloved Julia who confers with her companion, Lucetta. “But say, Lucetta, now we are alone,/ Woulds’t thou then counsel me to fall in love?” “Ay, madam, so you stumble not unheedfully?” Among a catalogue of suitors, Lucetta endorses Proteus, her reason for preferring him is merely “I have no other but a woman’s reason:/ I think him so, because I think him so.” So both Proteus and Lucetta acknowledge love is irrational, though Lucetta seems to add that woman is the weaker vessel. Lucetta delivers a letter from Proteus, which Julia, modestly (?), refuses. Alone, Julia regrets such girlish decorum. She wishes she had looked over the letter—no, it were shame to call Lucetta back—yet Lucetta is a fool not to force the letter on her, “knowing I am a maid,” since virgins, “in modesty, [must] say ‘no’ to that/ Which they would have the profferer construe ‘ay’” (I.ii.55-56). Thus, dissembling rejection of love is a code of virginal behavior, in which no, of course, means yes (a whole 20th century fire-storm about date rape is herein created), and there follows much business with Proteus’s letter—it is dropped, stooped for, left lie, picked up, torn up without being read, the scraps thrown down, until, alone, Julia collects and kisses the scraps and tries to reconstruct the text from the shredded fragments.
I’ve seen a reference to a production in which the letter is comically duct-taped together. Well, OK, but William C. Carroll, editor of the New Arden, really loses it commenting on this scene, noting “The letter is an eroticized symbol for Proteus’s phallus throughout this scene: it is ‘took up so gingerly,’ and Julia complains that Lucetta is ‘fingering’ the letter’s pieces.”(Arden Two Gentlemen of Verona, 155). All I want from this scene is that love for a maid, and a woman, is a matter to be coyly resisted. Julia is alone when she weighs her desire to accept against the decorum of resistance.
In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet, on her balcony, confesses her passion for Romeo when she thinks she is alone, but when he is discovered eavesdropping, she offers to pretend to be similarly coy, so he will think she practices socially acceptable feminine coquetry rather than honest passion. Anyway, what I get from this scene, following Proteus’s frank description of love, is a female side, where decorum, modesty, and uncertainty interfere. Of course, this dissolves by the time the letter is reassembled, Julia replies, and she and Proteus are pledged to each other forever. Love triumphs everlastingly (heh, heh).
There also is male commentary on female coyness. In Act 3, scene 1, the Duke, deciding to remarry in order to disinherit the disobedient Sylvia, asks Valentine for dating advice, how he might court a lady in Milano, though she be “nice and coy.” (Remember the Duke is also trying to entrap Valentine to uncover his duplicity in eloping with Sylvia.) Valentine says diamonds are a gal’s best friend.
“Win her with gifts, if she respect not words:
Dumb jewels often in their silent kind
More than quick words do move a woman’s mind
A woman sometime scorns what best contents her.
[if she rejects a gift] Send her another; never give her o’er,
For scorn at first makes after-love the more
If she do frown, ‘tis not in hate of you,
But rather to beget more love in you
Take no repulse, what ever she doth say;
For ‘get you gone,’ she doeth not mean ‘away!” (III.i.89…101)
Here’s more stuff about “no’ means ‘yes’: “a woman sometime scorns what best contents her” (93). Though more crass, Valentine’s analysis of a mature woman’s coquetry describes what becomes of Julia’s initial no-means-yes confession.
Lastly, Launce speaks of his own love for a milkmaid, and he has written a list of her qualities and her faults. Launce and Speed analyze the document: she can fetch and carry; she can milk; she can wash and scour. Speed adds, as a fault, that she is slow in words, but Launce rebuts “O villain, that set this down among her vices! To be slow in words is a woman’s only virtue” (III.i.334). At the production I saw in Boulder, the audience audibly grumbled at this. Launce strode to the edge of the stage, out of character, and said “Don’t blame me. I didn’t write this stuff.” And that, friends, other than Crab, is what I remember from The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
This detour on the behaviors of women ends with its opposite—Proteus, now smitten with Sylvia, notes that he is repaid for his betrayal of Valentine, his breaking of faith with Julia, even his injustice toward the unsympathetic Thurio, “yet, spaniel-like, the more she spurns my love/ The more it grows, and fawneth on her still” (IV.ii.14).
I’m afraid this is only a little parlor piece, and does not yet address Ernst’s provocative hypothesis. I hope to try to say something about it still, and I fear, Ernst may be convincing me that Two Gentlemen of Verona is really far more interesting than I have allowed myself to accept, except, of course, for Act 5, scene 4, which I still believe Shakespeare wrote on opening day, thrusting the lines into the actors’ hands after they had already begun the first performance.
Monday, March 5, 2007
With under a week to go in our Two Gentlemen of Verona discussion, I see Ernst already has his final thoughts in my mailbox, while I'm still thinking about answers to the eight interesting questions he posed previously. I feel like I've been standing in front of the menu at Manny's Tortas, trying to figure out if I want a #2 or a #5, but the line is building up behind me, so it's time to order.
Ernst asks: "What does the play SAY about love?" I hope my starting here indicates that I agree with the basic premise that the play is more about love than friendship, and that's because I'm still miffed that the gross betrayal of one's friend, no matter how shallow he may be, is a serious matter, one not easily set straight by an "I'm sorry."/"Hey. No problem." Such a betrayal has real consequences, and Two Gentlemen of Verona is not concerned with Proteus and Valentine's friendship after the first act.
There are also serious consequences to betrayal in love, but as we see in Shakespeare elsewhere being in love means never having to say you're sorry. Romeo bumps off Juliet's favorite cousin and gets himself banished from Verona (and her) hours after their marriage; she gets over it.
Before he realizes that his servant is really a woman masquerading as a young man, Orsino is ready to hate Viola/Cesario, calls her "dissembling cub," banishes her from his presence. In addition, his "thoughts are ripe in mischief" against Olivia, who he knows loves Cesario. Sebastian turns up, and everything is made right. Never mind that Olivia thought she was marrying Cesario (and his beautiful, feminine language), not a twin brother, or that Orsino had pursued Olivia for four-and-a-half acts and was intensely distressed at her love for Cesario. Her love for Sebastian, on the other hand, he lets slide. Nor is he that concerned that his close confidant has duped him. Rather he sees the twins, realizes Cesario is a woman and says to himself, somewhat abruptly, "I shall have share in this most happy wrack." My students roll their eyes.
Then there's Claudio and Hero in Much Ado About Nothing. He, fooled into believing she has been unfaithful, cruelly abandons her in the church on their wedding day. Yes, there is a test before he can get her back, but she never questions his lack of faith in her in the first place.
My point is Shakespeare's lovers throw rationality to the wind when it gets to Act 5 (or Act 3 in Romeo and Juliet's case). Love is after all a product of the heart and not the mind. But what kind of heart? Can we characterize it?
The Duke, Sylvia's father, tells Valentine that "love is like a child / That longs for everything that he can come by" (3.1.124-125). I find this infantilization of love interesting. I don't think this refers to Cupid, the "blind bow-boy," who seems more Puckish than child-like in Romeo and Juliet and Love's Labor's Lost. Considering that this comment comes from the Duke, who has been told of Valentine's plan to steal his daughter, we can hear a certain remonstration in the comment. Love longs for anything, even if it is inappropriate. It is undisciplined. It is at once appetite-driven and immature. Does this reflect what we see in Two Gentlemen of Verona? Sure. Valentine does not have Sylvia's father's blessing, so he simply attempts a heist, a transgression, an act that is ignorant of self-denial or propriety. And Proteus, once he's out of sight of Julia whose love he has, sees Sylvia and wants her, an inconstancy worthy of Aesop's dog who sees his reflection in the water and drops the bone in his mouth in order to grab the new one.
(I really like Ernst's reading that suggests Proteus's pursuit of Sylvia has more to do with irritation with Valentine, but his soliloquy in 2.6 suggests that his desire is real.)
But let's not just take the Duke's word for it. In Act 1, scene 2, Julia rejects a letter from Proteus, asking her maid to return it to him. Immediately she wants it back, but her pride makes it difficult to ask. She chides herself,
"Fie, fie, how wayward is this foolish love
That like a testy babe will scratch the nurse
And presently, all humbled, kiss the rod!" (1.2.60-62)
It doesn't surprise me that Julia's image of the child love is more maternal than the Duke's, but hers echoes the spontaneous yet fickle nature that both images imply. As a parent, I know how demanding, at times tyrannical, children can be. I wonder if Shakespeare's use of this simile impugns love as much as it seems to. In both cases, an opposition is set up – the willful child love against the weary adult world. This adult world may exist beyond the lover; that is, it is not Valentine or Julia in either case who represent the mature world. Rather, they are forced by love to act in a way that runs against civilized behavior.
Thus, what Two Gentlemen of Verona tells us about love is that it drives us to do foolish things (a theme played more deftly in Twelfth Night) because it turns a natural order – parents ruling children – around. All the lovers in the play reject, at some point, the natural order. They disrespect their elders, or betray their friends, or put their future at risk, or disguise themselves rather than reveal themselves, or act unnaturally, or ignore shameful behaviors. In Twelfth Night, love makes alazons of us all. In Two Gentlemen of Verona, love makes harried, irrational parents of us all, deriding others who fail to discipline their unruly children while plying our own screaming kids with candy. Love, thy name is Baby Snooks.
Sunday, March 4, 2007
In his short monograph, Shakespeare and Forgiveness, our friend Bill Matchett writes of Two Gentlemen of Verona:
“Forgiveness [the general subject of his essay] first becomes central to the plot with Two Gentlemen. As a convenient device for letting comedy end happily, pardon can be handled briefly; forgiveness, which necessarily involves problems of character, cannot. In Two Gentlemen, in his attempt to handle character change as briefly as he handled pardon, Shakespeare fell on his face. There is much to be said of this delightful play in other contexts, but its hasty ending is a disaster involving far-fetched ingenuity from directors attempting to save or make sense of it.
“The plot is built on the traditional conflict between the claims of love and those of friendship, with the medieval assumption that male friendship’s claims transcend those of heterosexual love. Friendship is noble; love is tinged with ignoble lust. In deciding to woo Sylvia, his friend Valentine’s beloved, Proteus is perfectly aware of his own guilt:
To leave my Julia shall I be forsworn;
To love fair Sylvia shall I be forsworn;
To wrong my friend I shall be much forsworn . . . . (II.vi.1-3)
"The additional emphasis of the move from 'shall I be' to 'I shall be much' shows his acceptance of the priorities, and Proteus arrives at his worst heresy when he decides 'I to myself am dearer than a friend' (23).
“These assumptions are emphasized again in Sylvia’s protest when Proteus is pursuing her. It is not his disrespect to her that she finds worth mentioning, but rather:
Thou counterfeit to thy true friend!
Who respects friend?
All men but Proteus. (V.iii.53-54)
"From here, the scene proceeds to attempted rape:
[Matchett here quotes lines 55-72]
"This is bad enough, with its mixed metaphor of the hand’s bosom and Valentine’s 'I am sorry, I must never trust thee more' sounding like Aunt Polly who has caught Tom Sawyer with his hand in the cookie-jar, but worse is to follow:
My shame and guilt confounds me.
Forgive me, Valentine. If hearty sorrow
Be a sufficient ransom for offense,
I tender it here; I do as truly suffer
As e’er I did commit.
Then I am paid;
And once again I do receive thee honest.
Who by repentance is not satisfied
Is nor of heaven nor earth, for these are pleased.
By penitence th’Eternal’s wrath’s appeased;
And, that my love may appear plain and free,
All that was mine in Sylvia I give thee. (73-83)
"What Shakespeare gives us here is the outline of forgiveness: without flesh, it is ridiculous. It is not just that poor Sylvia has not been consulted nor her forgiveness asked—that 'O heaven!' (a challenge for any actress) turns out to be her final line in the play. Concern for Sylvia is a modern objection to the whole male-dominated love-and-friendship archetype. The major problem is that, even within the assumptions of the pattern, we can trust neither Proteus’ conversion nor Valentine’s forgiveness when they are presented so schematically. Both repentance and forgiveness demand more scope if they are to carry conviction.”
After this, Matchett goes on to discuss Romeo and Juliet as a much improved (if still imperfect) example of putting some meat on the bones of (at least) repentance.
Of course, Matchett is building an argument regarding Shakespeare’s growth regarding these themes over the course of his entire career and, I would suggest, focusing less on the central essence of Two Gentlemen of Verona, which is the question WE are facing.
[Note: one of the earlier forms of this story appears in Boccaccio’s Decameron (Tenth Day, Eighth Story), which which is summarized:
“Sophronia, believing herself married to Gisippus, discovers she is the wife of Titus Quintus Fulvus, and goes with him to Rome where Gisippus later arrives in dire poverty. He is under the impression Titus has scorned him, and accuses himself of having murdered a man, so that he may be put to death. Titus recognizes him, and to save his friend [italics mine], takes the guilt upon himself. The true murderer, however, on beholding Titus’ noble action, gives himself up, whereupon they are all set free by Octavianus. Later, Titus gives his sister in marriage to Gisippus, and shares all his goods with him.” ("Hey, Sis; I got a good friend here …”)]
I have wondered from the start just what the “central essence” of Two Gentlemen of Verona is. And it certainly seems to me that, even though the play touches on friendship and forgiveness, the two are really minor themes. Rather, as I have suggested before, the play is much more easily seen as a kind of pastoral romance (albeit a clumsy one). It is about people who leave a civilized place, travel to a different, quasi-pastoral place, are changed, and come home (well, Proteus comes home, anyway). I note, by the way, that a likely antecedent for this play is the Queen’s Men’s Felix and Felismena (ca.1585) and, to a lesser extent, its source, a Portuguese pastoral romance called “Felix and Felismena” from Jorge de Montemayor’s Diana Enamorada, published in 1542.
I will note that, in this source, the titular (and central) characters are the equivalents of Julia and Proteus in Two Gentlemen of Verona, and not the two men involved. Of course, there was also a tragic-comic play by the English poet Richard Edwards twenty years earlier than Felix and Felismena (1564): Damon and Pythias. This play may have influenced Shakespeare and suggested naming the play after the men involved, but, in the early '90s, pastoral romances (Greene, etc.) were more in vogue, and Felix and Felismena was still a relatively fresh memory.
So I am searching for a reading that will lead to a more satisfying production of the play, and I am wondering whether it might not make for a better whole if we saw it more as a pastoral romance than as an attempted essay into the archetypes of friendship and forgiveness. When, for example, I look for the more interesting issues in the play, I, like Matchett, see both friendship and forgiveness as being rather shallowly handled. What do we learn? That friendships break up when a woman is involved, that forgiveness is a good thing. Ho-hum. The issues I find more interesting are: (1) The ways both Valentine and Proteus contribute to their friendship’s downfall; (2) the difference between the more down-to-earth/slightly-skeptical Proteus and the romantic Valentine in both the this-worldly Verona and the other-worldly Milan; (3) the delightful wit, beauty and grace of Julia and Sylvia, and (4) the place in Shakespeare’s development of comic characters of the play’s “clowns.” (Still a topic for investigation, I think.)
Yes, we are left with Proteus’ crass behavior in Milan. The only way I can see this treated theatrically is to consider the notion that he, like others in similar romances, is under some sort of deranging spell once he is forced by his father to forsake his fiancée and travel off to the magical land of Milan (no Fiat factories there yet—although it was, in fact, considerably larger—120 thousand in 1600—than Verona). The romantic Valentine is not similarly affected, but then, romantic that he is, he is already predisposed to existence in a magical world populated by grim dukes, a beautiful maiden, and bands of aristocratic robbers.
All of which brings me to an imagined production (caution: I have directed only children’s plays and served as a dramaturge for a few others.) In this production, I could imagine "Verona" on a movable stage, which would start downstage right. I would put Milan and its woods (not yet destroyed to produce fuel for iron-smelting) downstage left at a somewhat lower level than Verona. I would put some sort of "water" between the two and emphasize the voyage from one place to another—perhaps by using a small boat/ship drawn from place to place by one of the clowns. After Valentine and Proteus go off to Milan, I would perhaps pull “Verona” upstage some, but not so far that we fail to remain aware of its being the home base of the story and (for a while) the platform from which Julia considers what is happening out there in the wider world. I would hope a clever director could find a clear way of showing Proteus as “touched” or under some sort of spell once he travels to Milan—through lighting, perhaps.
Anyhow, that’s as far as I can see into my glass ball. But the basic idea is there: make it a pastoral romance, with all its fun and charm, and avoid trying to wrench it into a study of either forgiveness or manly friendship. It is neither of these.