And So We Begin
By Dennis Abrams
And first up…The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Is it actually the first play Shakespeare wrote? Honestly…no one knows for sure. Some have this play listed first, others have A Comedy of Errors, others have one of the Henry VI plays… I’m inclined to go with Verona based on structure, its simplicity, and just a gut feeling.
It was probably written between 1591 and 1592, and like most of Shakespeare’s plays, the plot was not entirely his own. (Only Love’s Labour’s Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and The Tempest are original stories.) Two Gentlemen is derived from a number of sources: Jorge de Montemayor’s pastoral romance Diana (1559), provided the basis for the Proteus-Julia story; Thomas Elyot’s 1531 version of the tale of “Titus and Gisippus” from Boccaccio’s Decameron influenced the Proteus-Valentine-Silvia triangle; and further details were lifted/appropriated/borrowed from Ovid, from Lyly’s Sapho and Phao (1584), and from Brooke’s Romeus and Juliet (1562). In fact, only the Lance and Crab scenes (which I suspect you’ll find, as I do, are the best parts of the play), are entirely Shakespeare’s own.
When the Elizabethan schoolmaster and writer Francis Meres published his Palladis Tamia. Wit’s Treasury. Being the Second Part of Wit’s Commonwealth in 1598, it included a list of Shakespeare’s plays that had been performed up to that date; and one called “his Gentlemen of Verona” was at the top of the list. Did that mean it was the first play he wrote? The most highly thought of? Not necessarily. Most critics agree that despite the play’s more than occasional moments of brilliance, it is obviously the work of a talented but still inexperienced playwright, still learning the essence of his craft. The play uses a tiny cast (Shakespeare’s smallest), often using only two or three actors on stage at a time, and the script is riddled (as you’ll notice) with a number of inconsistencies – Italian geography among others – all evidence, perhaps, of Shakespeare’s struggles to bring the play together.
But for all its problems, the play is funny, moves along quickly, and is a great introduction to themes that Shakespeare will expand and refine in his later plays: a love triangle that impels one heroine to take refuge in a friar’s cell to escape an unwanted marriage when her lover is banished (Romeo and Juliet), a plucky second heroine, dressed as a boy, who is compelled by circumstances to court another woman on behalf of the man she loves (Twelfth Night); a clumsy would-be lover who hires musicians to serenade the woman he loves with a lovely song (Cymbeline), a set of outlaws in the woods who decide that a wandering nobleman should be their leader (compare to the exiled court in As You Like It and the sailors and pirates in Twelfth Night and Pericles); an elopement plot with a rope ladder (Romeo and Juliet, plus Merchant of Venice.) And there’s more: the clown who speaks the truth in a series of malapropisms, the duke-father who gives the law and also gives (or refuses to give) his daughter’s hand in marriage; and the pair of men who are described as like twins or brothers when young men but are individuated – and made rivals – by love.
As Marjorie Garber points out, it is “on its own terms, a lively and often funny play, which contains, among its other assets, a genuinely comic early clown and one of the most beautiful lyric songs in all of Shakespeare. Two Gentlemen is not concerned with developing characters who posses 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 form any obligation to exhibit complex and nuanced motivations.”
In other words, this one is mostly for fun and fun only.
And now, a few pointers to help you with your reading:
1. Go slow, as slowly as you can. Listen to the music of his language. Shakespeare uses every opportunity available to insert witticisms and verbal play into nearly every line. Especially when you first begin reading him, you need to take your time just to figure out exactly what he’s saying – and that gets easier and easier the more you read him. But consider yourself lucky – audiences in his time had to pick all up of his complexities up through watching and listening to a single performance.
2. Keep your eyes (and ears) open for puns. Shakespeare is a great one for puns and word play, and catching them makes his plays more interesting, humorous, and let’s face it, naughty and raunchy.
3. Get used to his misdirection. Shakespeare rarely just says something directly – he puts a twist on every line, asking you to make the connections. So you have to learn to read what’s happening behind his ever-present metaphor and metonymy (having something stand in for something else that is connected to, as when Polonius says of his son, “Let him ply his music.” Here the word “music” refers not only to playing and dancing, but to all of the pleasures (and vices) that Laertes might be engaging in. Once we see it’s meant to be racy, it’s a great euphemism.)
4. USE the notes at the bottom (or the side of the page). And even more importantly, keep a dictionary handy. In the plays, sonnets and dramatic works, Shakespeare used 17,677 words, 1700 of which were first used by him. I don’t know all of them, and I’m betting that neither do you. Also, the notes will sometimes admit that nobody else knows what a particular word or line means either.
Camille Paglia explained, “The sixteenth century transformed Middle English into modern English. Grammar was up for grabs. People made up vocabulary and syntax as they went along. Not until the eighteenth century would rules of English usage appear. Shakespearean language is a bizarre super-tongue, alien and plastic, twisting, turning, and forever escaping. It is untranslatable, since it knocks Anglo-Saxon root words against Norman and Greco-Roman importations, sweetly or harshly, kicking us up and down rhetorical levels with witty abruptness. No one in real life ever spoke like Shakespeare’s characters. His language does not ‘make sense,’ especially in the greatest plays. Anywhere from a third to a half of every Shakespearean play, I conservatively estimate, will always remain under an interpretive cloud. Unfortunately, this fact is obscured by the encrustations of footnotes in modern texts, which imply to the poor-cowed student that if only he knew what the savants do, all would be clear as day. Every time I open Hamlet, I am stunned by its hostile virtuosity, its elusiveness and impenetrability. Shakespeare uses language to darken. He mesmerizes by disorienting us. He suspends the traditional compass-points of rhetoric, still quite firm in Marlowe, normally regarded as Shakespeare’s main influence…Shakespeare’s language hovers at the very threshold of dreaming. It is shaped by the irrational. Shakespearean characters are controlled by rather than controlling their speech. They are like Michelangelo’s Mannerist sculptures, restive under night visitations. Consciousness in Shakespeare is soaked in primal compulsion.”
5. That being said, don’t give up on a line until you’ve given it a few tries. Read it out loud. Listen to a recording of the play. And if you still don’t get it, move on. You’ll still get the gist of what he’s saying. And if you don’t…ask me.
6. Know whose words you should pay special attention to and those you can give less importance to. Each play has its “smart guys” (normally fools and clowns, workmen, faeries, the hero or heroine and the bad guy and daughters) and dullards (those getting in the hero’s way, flunkies and straight guys). The introductions will give you a good start, and the rest you’ll figure out within the context of each play. In Hamlet for example, don’t worry too much about Claudius or Gertrude; Hamlet and Polonius demand and reward close attention.
7. Note when Shakespeare switches from prose to poetry, and note again how he often rhymes the last couplet of speeches for effect.
8. With all that being said, know that you’re going to be reading the greatest stylist the world has ever known. The more you look and the more closely you read, the more you’ll find: emotionally, intellectually, and poetically. Every play is a treasure trove.
I’d like to finish with this, from Harold Bloom:
“Immerse yourself, say for several days together, in reading Shakespeare, and then turn to another author – before, after, or contemporary with him. For experiment, try only the highest in each grouping: Homer or Dante, Cervantes or Ben Jonson, Tolstoy or Proust. The difference in the reading experience will be one of kind as well as of degree. That difference, universally felt from Shakespeare’s time until now, is expressed alike by ordinary and sophisticated readers as having something to with our sense of what we want to call ‘natural.’ Dr. Johnson assured us that nothing could please for long except just representation of general nature. That assurance still seems unassailable to me, though much of what is now exalted each week could not pass the Johnsonian test. Shakespearean representation, its supposed imitation of what is held to be most essential in us, has been felt to be more natural than anyone else’s mirroring of reality ever since the stages were first staged. To go from Shakespeare to Dante or Cervantes or even Tolstoy is somehow to have the illusion of suffering a loss in sensuous immediacy. We look back at Shakespeare and regret our absence from him because it seems an absence from reality.”
And with that. The weekend’s reading:
The Two Gentleman of Verona
Acts 1 & 2
And enjoy your weekend.