April 16, 2009 by Reader's Connection
William Shakespeare`s birthday is bearing down on us–April 24th is as good a guess as any–and I’m celebrating by reading The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Question: What’s the real name of the play? Is it The Two Gentlemen of Verona or just Two Gentlemen of Verona?
Answer: Different editions have different titles, but the longer version seems to be correct.
Shakespeare anticipated many modern literary developments. This may have been one of them. He created a The that comes and goes.
Q: Does this play have lots of famous quotes in it, like Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet?
A: Not so many. But if you’ve seen the movie Shakespeare in Love, parts of this play will seem familiar. It’s the one—with the dog—that’s being staged for Queen Elizabeth early in the film
Q. What happens in the play?
A: The two young gentlemen of the title are Proteus and Valentine. (Proteus was a sea god who could change his form at will, and you’re already familiar with the other gentleman’s name.) Valentine is departing to seek his fortune, and thinks Proteus is foolish to hang around Verona, just because he loves Julia, a local girl. (Julia loves him, too, we learn in the next scene.)
Proteus’s dad gets tired of having his son hang around, and forces him to leave town. Proteus must follow Valentine’s trail and learn the ways of life at court. When Proteus arrives, he learns that Valentine, who used to poke fun at him for being so in love, has himself fallen in love with Silvia, the Duke of Milan’s daughter.
Ay, Proteus, but that life is altered now.
I have done penance for contemning love.
Whose high imperious thoughts have punished me
With bitter fasts, with penitential groans,
With nightly tears and daily heart-sore sighs;
For, in revenge of my contempt for Love
Love has chased sleep from my enthrallèd eyes,
And made them watchers of mine own heart’s sorrows.
O gentle Proteus, Love’s a mighty lord . . .
II, iv, 126-134
Love is indeed a headstrong lord. Proteus falls head over heels for Silvia, and behaves like a creep for the rest of the play.
I will forget that Julia is alive,
Remembering that my love her is dead,
And Valentine I’ll hold an enemy,
Aiming at Silvia as sweeter friend.
II, vi, 27-30
The Duke wants his daughter to marry the wealthy but uninteresting Thurio. Valentine and Silvia have plotted an escape, complete with a rope ladder. In order to foil their plan, Proteus betrays them by telling the Duke all about it, and the Duke promptly banishes Valentine, who goes off to the woods and is drafted to be the leader of a gang of outlaws.
Silvia repels the advances of Proteus, whose earlier love, Julia, appears in Milan disguised as a pageboy and witnesses some of Proteus’s caddish behavior. Everyone somehow ends up out in the woods, where Proteus decides to rape Silvia.
Nay, if the gentle spirit of moving words
Can no way change you to a milder form,
I’ll woo you like a soldier, at arm’s end,
And love you ‘gainst the nature of love—force ye.
I’ll force thee yield to my desire.
VALENTINE [Coming forward]
Ruffian, let go that rude uncivil touch;
Thou friend of ill fashion!
V, iv, 55-61
Valentine–who is the leader of a band of outlaws, now, and sort of in charge–has seen what Proteus has become, and condemns him heartily. But Proteus apologizes in a weepy way, and Valentine is so moved that he tells Proteus he can have Silvia, if he really wants her. This is the weirdest moment in the play. Silvia’s reaction to Valentine’s handing her over to his would-be-rapist pal goes unrecorded—she has no more lines for the rest of the play. V’s offer to P. is often left out when the play is staged.
Julia comes out of her pageboy disguise, and spews some well-deserved wrath on Proteus.
Behold her that gave aim to all thy oaths,
And entertained ‘em deeply in her heart.
How oft hast thou with perjury cleft the root!
O Proteus, let this habit make thee blush;
Be thou ashamed that I have took upon me
Such an immodest raiment, if shame live
In a disguise of love.
It is the lesser blot, modesty finds,
Women to change their shapes than men their minds.
V, iv, 102-110
Proteus remembers that he loves Julia, after all. Sixty-four lines later a double wedding has been planned.
Come, Proteus, ‘tis your penance but to hear
The story of your loves discoverèd;
That done, our day of marriage shall be yours:
One feast, one house, one mutual happiness.
V, iv, 171-174
End of play. I have omitted discussion of a number of characters, most importantly the two “clownish servants,” the wisecracking Speed, servant to Valentine, and Launce, servant to Proteus. Speed is most celebrated for making fun of his master’s love-antics, while Launce is known for complaining about Crab, his unfeeling dog.
My mother weeping, my father wailing, my sister crying, our maid howling, our cat wringing her hands, and all our house in a great perplexity, yet did not this cruel-hearted cur shed one tear. He is a stone, a very pebble stone, and has no more pity in him than a dog.
II, iii, 6-10
Q: The whole thing sounds ridiculous.
A: Yes, I know. It’s one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays–or one of the earliest plays that he co-authored. Clifford Leech, the editor of the Arden edition of the play, finds a total of 41 inconsistencies or oddities. He comments: Of course there is hardly a Shakespeare play which does not contain contradictions of detail, and Shakespeare notoriously played freely with place and time. Yet The Two Gentlemen takes these things to extremes.
I agree, though, with Marjorie Garber, who writes in her book Shakespeare After All, that Two Gentlemen
is actually, on its own terms, a lively and often funny play [and] not concerned with developing characters who possess individual psychology: the wavering affections of a young man forthrightly named Proteus and the glorious banality in love thoughts and lover’s behavior that attach to another young man called Valentine should exempt these Shakespearean striplings from any obligation to exhibit complex and nuanced motivations. The play is a kind of love cartoon . . .
Q: Does the library have a DVD version of this love cartoon?
A: We have a DVD copy of the the BBC-TV 1983 version of the play. And we have the BBC version on VHS also.
I have to admit, though, that when I first tried to watch this DVD, the words of another great critic came to mind: Lester Bangs, the rock critic who was portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the movie Almost Famous.
In his article about the “British Invasion” of the 1960’s, in the The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, Bangs wrote about the group Gerry and the Pacemakers that “they looked just about as twerpy as humanly possible,” and that goes for most of the members of the BBC cast.
Q. So I shouldn’t watch the DVD?
A. Oh, sure you should. I was just warning you, in case you had twerpiness allergies. There are favorable reviews of the BBC’s version in Two Gentlemen of Verona: Critical Essays.
The DVD brings the play to life, and it has some surprises.
Q: Like what? Name one surprise.
A: One of them involves the Duke of Milan. As I read the play, I thought of him as a standard shnooky uncomprehending father figure. But he’s cagey, in an unproductive way, in the movie. When Proteus tells the Duke about Valentine’s plan to steal his daughter, his speech–even by Proteus standards–is gooey with hypocrisy.
My gracious lord, that which I would discover
The law of friendship bids me to conceal,
But when I call to mind your gracious favours
Done to me, undeserving as I am,
My duty pricks me on to utter that
Which else no worldly good should draw from me.
Know, worthy prince, Sir Valentine my friend
This night intends to steal away your daughter;
Myself am one made privy to the plot.
I know you have determin’d to bestow her
On Thurio, whom your gentle daughter hates,
And should she thus be stol’n away from you,
It would be much vexation to your age.
Thus, for my duty’s sake, I rather chose
To cross my friend in his intended drift,
Than, by concealing it, heap on your head
A pack of sorrows, which would press you down,
Being unprevented, to your timeless grave.
Proteus, I thank thee for thine honest care . . .
III, i, 4-22
Printed on the page, the Duke’s response seems to spill out in an immediate, gullible response. But the BBC’s Duke (the actor’s name was Paul Daneman) gives Proteus a stare that might even frighten Crab, Launce’s unfeeling dog. The Duke knows this young galoot is up to something.
Q: Does the library have recordings of the play?
I think it’s great that Valentine’s servant Speed is played by a grown-up actor (Nicholas Murchie).
The teenager or pre-teen (Nicholas Caby) who played Speed in the BBC-TV version could be pretty funny. (At the beginning of Act II, he’s so appalled by the goofy love rituals being practiced in Milan that he looks around with his mouth hanging open.) But there are passages where a more mature actor works better for me.
Q: Such as?
A: At the end of that first scene in Act II, Valentine is so busy swooning over Silvia that he doesn’t want to be bothered with lunch.
Why muse you, sir? ‘Tis dinner time.
I have dined.
Ay, but hearken, sir: though the chameleon Love can feed on the air, I am one that am nourished by my victuals: and would fain have meat. O, be not like your mistress, be moved, be moved.
In the BBC-TV version, you get to see Speed dragging his master off to dinner, which is funny. But in the BBC Audiobooks CD, Speed is a rough-voiced adult, and you can hear his desire to dig into some veal.
Q: Wait a minute! I just realized something! You’re old!
Q: Weren’t there boy players in Shakespeare’s time? Weren’t the women all played by young men or boys? And weren’t there whole companies of boy players?
A: Yeah. So?
Q: Well, since The Two Gentlemen of Verona is about young people who are just finding out who they are, doesn’t it make sense to have some of them played by human beings who don’t seem fully formed?
A: Umm . . .
Q: So isn’t it anti-Shakespearean for you to gripe about twerpiness?
Aren’t you just revealing your . . .
A: I am one that am nourished by my victuals. I’m going to lunch.