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:
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?
How now, sir? What, are you reasoning with yourself?
Nay, I was rhyming. ‘Tis you that have the reason.
To do what?
To be a spokesman from Madam Sylvia.
To yourself. Why, she woos you by a figure.
By a letter, I should say.
Why, she hath not writ to me!
What need she when she hath made you write to yourself? Why, do you not perceive the jest?
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:
What’s your will?
That I may compass yours.
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:
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.
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?