Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Two Gentlemen of Verona - Just Say No

Coalition of the Will-ings,

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.


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