Monday, March 5, 2007

RE: Two Gentlemen of Verona - An Hypothesis

Ladies and gentlemen,

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.


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