Thursday, March 8, 2007

RE: Two Gentlemen of Verona - Just Say No

Just an aside,

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.

Feeling cocky,

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