THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA

WHAT LIGHT IS LIGHT IF SYLVIA BE NOT SEEN?

Lance (Euan Morton), Crab (Oliver the dog), and Speed (Adam Green) in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 2012 production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona was my second play for the month of March, and it was a very sharp change from Romeo and Juliet. This play was very strange, and certainly not one of Shakespeare’s best. But I think I would be very excited to see it performed live because it would be a guaranteed good time.

I really did love Valentine – his brainless nature is so charming. I loved the whole letter writing gag in the second act. Sylvia has Valentine write a letter on her behalf so that she may give it to a man she’s been admiring. That man, of course, is Valentine. But when she hands it back to him, he is incredibly confused, and thinks she means for him to write a better one. Valentine’s man Speed cannot even begin to fathom his master’s stupidity:

SPEED [aside]
O jest unseen, inscrutable, invisible
As a nose on a man’s face, or a weathercock on a steeple!
My master sues to her, and she hath taught her suitor,
He being her pupil, to become her tutor.
O excellent device! Was there ever heard a better?
That my master, being scribe, to himself should write the letter?

VALENTINE
How now, sir? What, are you reasoning with yourself?

SPEED
Nay, I was rhyming. ‘Tis you that have the reason.

VALENTINE
To do what?

SPEED
To be a spokesman from Madam Sylvia.

VALENTINE
To whom?

SPEED
To yourself. Why, she woos you by a figure.

VALENTINE
What figure?

SPEED
By a letter, I should say.

VALENTINE
Why, she hath not writ to me!

SPEED
W
hat need she when she hath made you write to yourself? Why, do you not perceive the jest?

VALENTINE
No, believe me.

Poor, sweet Valentine. He is just constantly clueless, but so kind and gentle. His name fits him very well. This play is full of opposites: where Valentine is an airhead, Speed is clever. Where Proteus is intelligent and devious, Lance is dimwitted and not crafty in the slightest.

What I love most about Valentine in the above scene is how willing he is to do whatever Sylvia wants. He had just been telling Speed how much he admires Sylvia, but he doesn’t act jealous or angry at the idea of writing a letter to another man for her.

Speaking of Sylvia, she is just wonderful. I preferred her to Julia. Sylvia has Proteus running after her for most of the play, spouting off silly poetry and trying his best to woo her despite the fact that he had promised himself to Julia. But Sylvia is not impressed, and does not waver in her dedication to Valentine for even a second:

SYLVIA
What’s your will?

PROTEUS
That I may compass yours.

SYLVIA
You have your wish: my will is even this,
That presently you hie you home to bed.
Thou subtle, perjured, false, disloyal man,
Think’st thou I am so shallow, so conceitless,
To be seducèd by thy flattery,
That hast deceived so many with thy vows?
Return, return, and make thy love amends.
For me, by this pale queen of night I swear,
I am so far from granting thy request
That I despise thee for thy wrongful suit
And by and by intend to chide myself
Even for this time I spend in talking to thee.

None of this stops Proteus though, and that’s only part of the reason I can’t stand him. The theme of opposites comes in once again – Proteus is everything that Valentine is not. He is sly, and would do anything to get what he wants. He lies, he betrays his best friend – there is just no end to Proteus’ faults. I am so glad that Sylvia called him out every chance she got.

And poor Julia, dressed as a man, had to watch the love of her life pursue another woman. Julia was unable to call Proteus out as much as Sylvia did – not only because she was in disguise, but because she spent most of the play hurting.

This entire play is silly – so silly, that this post is going to end up being a lot shorter than my other ones. I want to jump straight to the ending, because it was just ridiculous. By the time the end rolls around, Valentine is the leader of a troupe of outlaws.

In the woods, Proteus decides that he’s going to make me like him even less by handling Sylvia against her will so that he’ll “force [her] yield to [his] desire.” Luckily, Valentine shows up and saves his lady love. The play should have then ended with Proteus getting locked up, Julia realizing that she’s better than him, and Valentine whisking Julia back to the city. But no. After Valentine expresses his deep disappointment in Proteus, this happens:

PROTEUS
My shame and guilt confounds me.
Forgive me, Valentine. If hearty sorrow
Be a sufficient ransom for offense,
I tender ‘t here. I do as truly suffer
As e’er I did commit.

VALENTINE
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.

???

???

As you know by now, I am a big fan of the Folger Shakespeare Library publications. So after reading the ending and being completely baffled, I flipped to the back to read The Two Gentlemen of Verona: A Modern Perspective by Jeffrey Masten. Dr. Masten suggests that this scene in particular is the reason that this play isn’t very popular. As modern individuals, we cannot begin to understand what Shakespeare was thinking. Dr. Mastern quotes Arthur Quiller-Couch, who says that this incident is part of a behavior “of refining, idealising, exalting [friendship] out of all proportion, or at any rate above the proportion it bears, in our modern minds, either to love between man and woman or to parental love.”

So there you have it. Who knows how this play was received when it was first put on? All I know is that The Two Gentlemen of Verona would not be a 2017 hit.

Or maybe it would. After all, who doesn’t love a play with a dog?

ROMEO AND JULIET

O JULIET, I ALREADY KNOW THY GRIEF

Image result for romeo and juliet 1968
Romeo (Leonard Whiting) and Juliet (Olivia Hussey) in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet.

In 2017, Romeo and Juliet is known as nothing but a series of cliches. It’s still popular, yes, but it’s also quite popular to cast a cynical eye on it and call it silly and frivolous. If you’ve been reading this blog at all, you may have realized that I’m more or less the Queen of Cynics, and have been since I was a preteen. But – brace yourself – I could not find it in me to hate Romeo and Juliet. In fact, I rather love it now. It’s almost an embarrassing admission to make, but I’ve made it and now we can move on.

It took me five days to read Romeo and Juliet, and nearly every person who found out I was reading it mentioned something about the stupidity of both Romeo and Juliet. One of my sisters was surprised to hear me defend the play at all. But it wasn’t difficult to defend it, and that is because I don’t think Romeo and Juliet are stupid. They’re in love – Shakespeare was probably in love. And while I’ve never been in love myself, I had to sympathize with them.

I am smitten with the masquerade scenes. There is so much to notice – Tybalt’s fiery anger toward Romeo, Capulet’s insistence at keeping the peace, and Romeo – oh, Romeo – flush with emotion:

ROMEO
O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in Ethiop’s ear –
Beauty too rich for use, for Earth too dear.
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows
As yonder lady o’er her fellows shows.
The measure done, I’ll watch her place of stand
And, touching hers, make blessèd my rude hand.
Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight,
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.

I understand anybody who finds themselves annoyed with Romeo. I’m quite aware that he can be a bit too dramatic, and that he was just pouting over Rosaline a few scenes ago. But what he had with Rosaline wasn’t love  – this is love. Rosaline is easily dismissed not because Romeo is a dog, but because his love for Juliet is true and all-encompassing. He is stricken by her, as we can see in his flowery and beautiful language.

Romeo’s dramatic and lovesick nature is very nicely balanced out by Mercutio and Benvolio. And, wouldn’t you know it, I love Mercutio. Nothing I say could compete with Stephen Greenblatt’s words: “For Mercutio […] words are fantastic trifles in a world fit only for satire, sexual teasing, and make-believe.” Mercutio’s sharp wit quickly won me over, and I was just devastated when Tybalt killed him. Well, half-devastated and half-pleased, since Mercutio insisted on going out with a bang:

ROMEO
Courage, man, the hurt cannot be so much.

MERCUTIO
No, ’tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door, but ’tis enough. ‘Twill serve. Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man. I am peppered, I warrant, for this world. A plague o’ both your houses! Zounds, a dog, a rat, a mouse, a cat, to scratch a man to death! A braggart, a rogue, a villain that fights by the book of arithmetic! Why the devil came you between us?  I was hurt under your arm.

ROMEO
I thought all for the best.

MERCUTIO
Help me into some house, Benvolio,
Or I shall faint. A plague o’ both your houses!
They have made worms’ meat of me.
I have it, and soundly, too. Your houses!

Also, and I’m not saying this because I like Tybalt (I do, actually), but it stings that Mercutio’s death was an accident. I have no doubt that the two of them were fighting to humiliate, not to kill. In contrast, we could say that Romeo was out for Tybalt’s blood, if only because he was so overcome by the death of his friend.

Juliet is often reduced to a simpering silly maid – and although she can be silly, she isn’t always. During the infamous balcony scene, she comes across as having more sense than people give her credit for:

ROMEO
Lady, by yonder blessèd moon I vow,
That tips with silver all these fruit-tree tops  –

JULIET
O, swear not by the moon, th’ inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.

ROMEO
What shall I swear by?

JULIET
Do not swear at all.
Or, if thou wilt, swear by thy gracious self,
Which is the god of my idolatry,
And I’ll believe thee.

ROMEO
If my heart’s dear love –

JULIET
Well, do not swear. Although I joy in thee,
I have no joy of this contract tonight.
It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden,
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say “It lightens.” Sweet, good night.
This bud of love, by summer’s ripening breath,
May prove a beauteous flower when next we meet.
Good night, good night. As sweet repose and rest
Come to thy heart as that within my breast.

And she tells him to send word to her tomorrow, but only if his love is true and his intentions are to marry her. Juliet is no fool! She knows her worth, and she is cautious to a degree. She doesn’t even speak in absolutes: this new-found love may prove to be something more.

If we speak of Juliet, then we must mention her nurse. I love how supportive Juliet’s nurse was of her relationship. Who are we to call it silly if Juliet’s own mother figure helped to push her forward? Juliet’s nurse is so loving and merry that it’s difficult not to see her as Juliet’s actual mother. She cares for Juliet more than anything, and only wants to see her happy.

I want to talk about Juliet’s parents for a moment, because along with the Montagues, they are part of the larger problem. Juliet is incredibly young – two weeks away from her fourteenth birthday. And while I initially applauded old Capulet for telling Paris to wait a while, I was incredibly annoyed with his reaction to Juliet’s refusal to marry:

CAPULET
How, how, how, how? Chopped logic? What is this?
“Proud,” and “I thank you,” and “I thank you not,”
And yet “not proud?” Mistress minion you,
Thank me no thankings, nor proud me no prouds,
But fettle your fine joints ‘gainst Thursday next
To go with Paris to Saint Peter’s Church,
Or I will drag thee on a hurdle thither.
Out, you green-sickness carrion! Out, you baggage!
You tallow face!

Juliet is Capulet’s only daughter, so you’d think he’d try to treat her gently and with love. Neither of her parents think to ever properly talk with their daughter. They have raised her to hate the Montagues – and it is their silly grudge that stops Juliet from telling them the real reason she doesn’t want to marry Paris. And, of course, Romeo’s parents are at fault for this too: their own son cannot share the joy of his love with them because all he knows is their hatred of the Capulets. When Romeo and Juliet act rashly, it is not because they are inherently foolish, it is because their families have led them to believe that there is no other choice.

Before I move on, can I just say I was in hysterics when it was implied that Paris was harassing Capulet for Juliet’s hand at like 5am? Old Capulet mentions that the time is so late, it may as well be day. I sat there in tears for a good three minutes. This is who they want to be their son-in-law?

Father Lawrence, Verona’s resident fuck-up, gives Juliet a potion that makes her appear to be dead for 42 hours. But his message to Romeo never reaches its destination, and we are left with a tragic, tragic end. Poor Paris, who is clearly nocturnal, is caught up in all of this as he visits the Capulet’s monument to pay his respects to Juliet. The play ends sombrely: “There never was a tale of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” And only when Romeo and Juliet die can their families finally let go of their grudges for one another, which is sad in and of itself.

What was going on with Shakespeare? How on earth does on go from writing something like Titus Andronicus to writing Romeo and Juliet? He must have been in love. In Women of Will, Packer says: “[…] Ultimately, we learn about life through living, through our relationships with other people. And the only way to understand the deeper sexual/spiritual love is through experiencing sexual/spiritual love. So I declare: Shakespeare knew it. He lived it. And the language to say it flowed from his pen because of it. And he didn’t just experience it from the man’s point of view. He experienced the woman’s position just as deeply, felt her emotional journey as if it were his own.”

Romeo and Juliet is a curious play because the titular characters are equals. Shakespeare does not gloss over Juliet’s challenges – in fact, we see them in plain view. I would expect to read about Romeo’s personal problems, but it is interesting to also see Juliet’s, especially because Shakespeare was a man. The success of this play is a testament to his skill as a writer. In it, we find the very essence of passion and love, written out in plain words. And maybe Packer is right – it feels real because, for Shakespeare, it was.

To round off this play, I watched the 1968 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet (pictured above). I found both Romeo and Juliet to be very well-cast and charming. There was perhaps a touch too much wailing for my liking, but I was overall happy with what I had chosen to watch. I was not happy, however, with Mercutio: I think they played him as too much of an ass. Mercutio can be ridiculous, but he is closely associated with the Prince. I think they went overboard with his antics. Mercutio is wild, but I think it would be better to have a less in-your-face approach to his character. He can still be funny without being annoying and unlikable. Overall, however, I felt like it was quite close to the original text (typically my only requirement for these films!) and I had a good time watching it. I was kind of relieved to see Mercutio go, however, which is a bit sad considering how in love with him I was while reading.

I love that Romeo and Juliet is so well-known and so intertwined with the human experience. I love that people pin their love letters to the wall below Juliet’s balcony in Verona. I love that you can go see a statue of her, tragic heroine that she is, and place your hand upon her breast for good luck. Romeo and Juliet isn’t silly in the slightest – it tells us of the power of love, and (if you’re me) makes you want to experience it, if only for a while.

I will be moving on to The Two Gentlemen of Verona next week! I know nothing about it, so hopefully I have a good time. I hope to see you then!