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.