“I think Crab, my dog, be the sourest-natured dog that lives.”

The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Acts One and Two

by Dennis Abrams

Engraving of Launce in Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona

Act 1:  Valentine and Proteus are best friends, albeit seemingly very different.  Valentine is ready to leave Verona and see the world, but to his disgust, Proteus is content to stay home with to remain close to his love, Julia.  But Julia, at least so far, has shown little interest in Proteus, and when her maidservant Lucetta gives her a letter from him, she tears it into little pieces and throws said pieces onto the ground.  But alas for Proteus, just when Julia seems to be showing an interest in him, his father Antonio decides that he should leave Verona and join Valentine at the Duke of Milan’s court.

Act 2:  Meanwhile, in Milan, much to his servant Speed’s amazement, Valentine has fallen in love with Silvia, the daughter of the Duke of Milan, who much prefers the rather dim-witted (but wealthy), Thurio for her.  Silvia, in turn, really does love Valentine but is hesitate to admit it, instead using the clever ruse of asking him to write a love letter supposedly for another suitor, but in reality intended for him.  Back home in Verona, Julia and Proteus vow their eternal love and exchange rings, while Proteus’ servant sadly bids farewell to his greatly grieved family.  Arriving in Milan, Proteus and Valentine are reunited:  Proteus meets Silvia; Valentine confesses to Proteus that he intends to elope with her and asks for his help.  But unbeknownst to him, Proteus has fallen in love with Silvia – he plans to tell the Duke of her plans to elope expecting that it will mean Valentine’s banishment from court, leaving him free to woo Silvia himself.  MEANWHILE…back in Verona, Julia, missing her Proteus, decides to follow her lover to Milan and enlists Lucetta to help disguise her as a boy for her travels.


Harold Bloom:  “Directors and actors would do well to stage The Two Gentlemen as travesty or parody, the targets being the two Veronese friends of the title.  Proteus, the protean cad, is almost outrageous enough to be interesting, but Valentine, aptly called a ‘lubber’ (lout) by Lance, becomes worth consideration only when we take his perverseness seriously, since it appears to go considerably beyond a mere repressed bisexuality.  The peculiar relationship between Valentine and Proteus is the play, one ought never to underestimate Shakespeare, and I uneasily sense that we have yet to understand The Two Gentlemen of Verona, a very experimental comedy.”

Maurice Charney:  “This play is the first of Shakespeare’s comic romances…The Two Gentlemen of Verona establishes the love theme as the basis for comedy, but it also uses a lot of wit and banter to undercut the worst excesses of romantic love.  Right from the beginning, Shakespeare insists on the doubleness of love, it is grand, transcendental, godlike, lyric, and sweet, but it is also highly conventional, frozen, mechanical, impersonal, and downright silly.  We see both extremes in this play.  It is useless to try to deal with the characters as if they were sensitive, intelligent, highly developed and psychologized persons.  By being votaries of love, they act in strange and seemingly inhuman ways.”

Indeed, as Marjorie Garbor asks, “is it that no one is serious here – or, alternatively, that everyone is serious.  Valentine follows one social script and then another; the stereotypical lover and the friend-by-the-book.  In both he is genially over-the-top.  Significantly, it is his witty, teasingly disrespectful servant, the page Speed (a close relation of the witty pages of the Elizabethan court dramatist John Lyly, Shakespeare’s contemporary), who had offered an extended and parodic gross account of Valentine in love with Silvia at the beginning of act 2 – before the audience gets a chance to see for itself the unparalleled Silvia:

Valentine:         Why how know you that I am in love?

Speed:              Marry, by these special marks:  first, you have learned, like Sir Proteus,

to wreath your arms like a malcontent; to relish a love-song, like a robin

redbreast; to walk alone, like one that had the pestilence; to sigh, like a

schoolboy that had lost his ABC; to weep, like a young wench that had

buried her grandma; to fast, like one that takes diet; to watch, like one

that fears robbing; to speak puling, like a beggar at Hallowmas.  You were

wont, when you laughed, to crow like a cock; when you walked, to walk

like one of the lions.  When you fasted, it was presently after dinner; when

you looked sadly, it was for want of money.  And now you are

metamorphosed with a mistress, that when I look on you, I can hardly

think you my master.

Similar catalogues of lover’s behavior will appear in later plays:  Benedick speaking of Claudio in Much Ado, Rosalind speaking of Orlando in As You Like It, Mercutio on Romeo, Polonius (rightly or wrongly) on Hamlet.  Elizabethan miniatures often showed images of the ‘lover’ in such elaborate and signifying disarray, sighing, arms folded.  ‘[Y] ou chid/at Sir Proteus for going ungartered,’ Speed reminds him, and now Valentine is in the same condition – and loving every minute of it.   That Silvia is much wiser about love than her suitor becomes immediately evident when she enters, and receives from Valentine a love letter he has written at her discretion, ‘[u]nto [a] secret, nameless friend of yours’; it takes the better part of the scene for him to get the point that the love letter he has written for her to send – and which he resents out of jealousy – is actually intended for himself.  The word ‘friend’ incidentally, resounds throughout this scene, as if to open up and complicate the Valentine-Proteus bond:

Speed:               Why, she hath given you a letter.

Valentine:         That’s the letter I writ to her friend.

Speed:               And that letter hath she delivered, and there an end.

‘Friend’ as a word meaning ‘a lover of the opposite sex’ appears with some frequency in Shakespeare’s plays in a romantic or erotic connection (for example, in the mention of Juliet’s pregnancy in Measure for Measure, ‘He hath got his friend with child” or in Iago’s salacious remark to Othello, ‘to be naked with her friend in bed/An hour or more’; or, closer in time to the early Two Gentlemen, Berowne’s abjuration of masked balls and other love games in Love’s Labour’s Lost, where he pledges to ‘never come to visor to my friend.’  When in act 2, scene 1, of Two Gentlemen the charged term ‘friend’ migrates, causally but insistently, from Valentine’s relation with Proteus to Valentine’s relation with Silvia, the whole apparatus of ‘friendship,’ like the similarly codified and conventionalized appearance of romantic love, seems deliberately to be placed under scrutiny.   The two codes are potentially at odds, and become…actually and comically at odds…near the end of the play.

This conflict is entirely characteristic of Shakespeare; particularly in his early playwriting career, who tends in play after play to exploit and explode conventional systems of social practice and belief by setting them at odds with one another, and by supplying them with adherents who apply the rules so strictly that their intrinsic folly and limitation are self-evident.  The comedy of a too-strict law can become tragic in an instant, as death threatens to follow upon the enforcement of an edict handed down from above.

We need no further evidence of the fragility of the models of love and friendship in Two Gentlemen  than the way the ‘low,’ or comic, plot of Launce the clown mirrors – and mimicks – that of the eponymous ‘gentlemen’.’  The play introduces two quite different comic servants:  the witty page Speed, always are of, and frequently obsessed with, wordplay (note his extended riff on mutton, sheep, and ‘baa’/’bah’ in act 1, scene 1), and the hapless Launce, a true Shakespearean clown, who speaks in malapropisms, and whose inadvertent language seems to know more ‘truth’ than he does.”

Speaking of which, I love Launce.  How can one not?  Garber goes on to point out that,

“In terms of literary style, we should note that this very early play already demonstrates Shakespeare’s superb command of the medium of prose, especially for comic effect.  Launce’s lengthy description of his leave-taking from the surly, ungrateful Crab, with the improvised puppet-show demonstration of how his parents responded to their son’s departure, is a classic outpouring of bathetic emotion, exhibited in soliloquy to the audience:

I think Crab, my dog, be the sourest-natured dog that lives.  My mother

weeping, my father wailing, my sister crying, our maid howling, our cat

wringing her hand, 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.  A Jew would have wept to have seen our

parting.  Why, my grandma, having no eyes, look you, wept herself blind at

my parting.  Nay, I’ll show you the manner of it.  This shoe is my father.

No, this left shoe is my father.  No, no, this left shoe is my mother.  Nay,

that cannot be so, neither.  Yes, it is so, it is so, it hath the worser sole.  This

shoe with the hole in it is my mother; that is my father.  A vengeance on’t,

there ‘tis.  Now, sir, this staff is my sister, for, look you, she is as white as a

dog is himself, and I am the dog.  O, the dog is me, and I am myself.  Ay, so,

so.  Now come I to my father.  ‘Father, your blessing.’  Now should not the

shoe speak a word for weeping.  Now should I kiss my father.  Well, he

weeps on.  Now come I to my mother.  O that she could speak now, like a

moved woman.  Well, I kiss her.  Why, there ‘tis.  Here’s my mother’s breath

up and down.  Now come I to my sister.  Mark the moan she makes. – Now

the dog all this while sheds not a tear nor speaks a word.  But see how I lay

the dust with my tears.

Any aficionado of modern stand-up comedy will recognize this as an opening monologue, and an accomplished one.  The whole family, from sister to grandmother to hand-wringing cat, is instantly and powerfully evoked, through none of them appear on the stage.  The byplay with the shoes is a kind of puppetry (hand puppets were very popular in public entertainments in the period), with the jest about the shoe with the hole in it representing his mother, and the equally broad joke on the malodorous shoe (Launce’s own, of course) and the mother’s unsweet breath.  Launce’s swipe at Jews cannot e wished away; here and elsewhere in the plays the social caricature of the hardhearted or mercenary Jew is casually invoked, with the implication that most in the audience would recognize this characterization and agree with it.  His namesake character in The Merchant of Venice, Lancelot Gobbo, shares Launce’s views of Jewish nature.  Launce’s inability to distinguish between himself and the dog (“I am the dog.  No, the dog is himself, and I am the dog.  O, the dog is me, and I am myself”) pokes fun at the identity crisis of his master, Proteus (“Julia I love, and Valentine I lose./If I keep them I needs must lose myself).  As for Crab the dog, he alone is described as unnatural.  For the dog was the most proverbial loyal and faithful of companions.  ‘There is not any creature,’ wrote Edward Topsell in his History of Four-Footed Beasts, ‘more loving to his Master, or more Serviceable…than is a Dog’”

Wordplay, friendship and love, plus Speed and Launce…not bad for the first two acts…


And two questions for the group:

1.  How did everyone do on their first reading?  If you’re anything like me, it took a few minutes (or more than a few minutes) to get into and settle into the voice, but somewhere in act two it started to click – at least for me.

2.  And for scheduling.  It occurred to me that going immediately from one play to another might be a little much.  So how does this sound – let’s say, for example, that this Wednesday’s “assignment” (for want of a better word) is act five of Two Gentlemen.  That would mean my Friday/weekend post would be a summation, etc.  But what would you think if, instead of immediately moving to the next play, I finish the summation (if need be), in my Monday post, include one of the sonnets with a paragraph or two of my thoughts, and finish with an introduction to the next play along with the “assignment?”  Let me know what you all think.

I’ll post again Tuesday night/Wednesday morning.  In the meantime – Acts three and four.


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24 Responses to “I think Crab, my dog, be the sourest-natured dog that lives.”

  1. Pat Rosier says:

    I like the idea of a sonnet with commentary between plays, and agree, Dennis, that following one play right after another might be a bit much.

  2. I almost always need a day or two after reading a Shakespeare play to let the totality settle into my mind. A timely gap between plays suits me well.

  3. Minnikin says:

    The Sonnet ‘interlude’ is a fantastic idea – a great way to become familiar with some (38!) of them.

    As regards the play, your advice on reading them (‘Go slow, as slowly as you can’) in your previous post was spot on. You really do need to ‘hear’ the lines as you read them…and while it takes some time to get into the style/rhythm of it, it does get easier as you go on. The quoted commentaries by Harold Bloom, Maurice Charney and Marjorie Garbor are great and help to clarify/get a grip of/question further some of the points within the play.

    The number of sexual innuendos/references was also interesting (even if it was the annotations which first made me aware of them!) perhaps emphasising Maurice Charney’s point about Shakespeare’s insistence on ‘the doubleness of love’ – the ‘grand, transcendental, godlike, lyric, and sweet’ in tandem with the ‘conventional…mechanical, impersonal, and downright silly’.

    • Minnikin: The number of sexual innuendos is fairly astonishing, I think. In just the first two acts alone, you’ve got plays on “horns” (cuckolds), “stick” (have intercourse with), “stones” (testicles), “rod” (obvious), “burden” (weight of bodies having sex), “stand” (erection), “shoe with the hole in it” (female genitalia), “staff” (penis), “codpiece…” And according to Eric Partridge, the author of “Shakespeare’s Bawdy,” Two Gentlemen is one of the less raunchy of the plays.

  4. I agree with the sonnet idea, not only to break up the plays but also because tackling all the sonnets in one go seems daunting.

    Otherwise, my reading of the play went very well, although I dismissed Launce somewhat. I know Shakespeare’s “fools” are often the most interesting so I am perhaps doing myself a disservice. Will pay more attention to him on my second reading.

    • Johann: Glad it’s going well, but yeah…it’s not only that the “fools” are the most interesting, but they’re usually there to comment on (and point out the foolishness) of the nominal hero’s actions.

  5. Chris says:

    It did take a while until I started getting comfortable (i.e. not bored) with the play, but around the 2nd act, my interest kicked in, and I didn’t want to stop reading! I’m reading much of it aloud to my cats who are even more mystified than I am. Proteus? What a jerk. Launce is hilarious.
    The plot is like shifting sands.
    I love your idea of an interlude with sonnets, Dennis.

  6. lxp says:

    I had to read Act I twice before I got back into the swing of things. I think the more slowly, the better. And reading out loud is a good way to both slow it down and feel the words. I like the idea of using the sonnets as “palate cleansers” between the plays. I think it’s important to take a bit of time for the play to “set” after reading it.
    And here’s something from Mark van Doren on TTGOV – “… a slight comedy and it minces uncertainly to an implausible conclusion, but it is Shakespeare’s own and it sets his course. His problem henceforth is not to keep his fun outside the range of feeling but to keep his feeling within the range of fun; or rather it is to mingle them so that wit and emotion are wedded in an atmosphere which is as grave as it is smiling, as golden as it is bright. This atmosphere, so natural to a man’s life, so easy to breathe, and so mellow in its hue, is uniquely shakespeare’s….”

  7. I am confused. in Act 4 scene 1 the third outlaw declares

    “Know, then, that some of us are gentlemen,
    Such as the fury of ungovern’d youth
    Thrust from the company of awful men:
    Myself was from Verona banished
    For practising to steal away a lady,
    An heir, and near allied unto the duke.”

    Isn’t this the same offense Valentine was banished from Verona? Why does Valentine say he is travelling from Milan to Verona? If this is true was he also banned from Milan. Or is Shakespeare simply confused?

    The reading is going well. I even have my wife reading with me. And she HATES Shakespeare.

    • Yes it is, but Valentine wasn’t banned from Milan. As I might have mentioned…there are a lot of details such as MIlan? Verona? How to get from one to the other? are…wrong. Now whether Shakespeare was mistaken or whether it was intentional (it’s in a non-real world, who cares if the details are right?) is another matter all together.

      • Minnikin says:

        and to add to that…

        The ‘Complete Pelican Shakespeare’ edition addresses directly many of the contradictions within this play including the confusing point you raised. In the introduction to the T.T.G.O.V. text, the original editor of the Pelican text, Berners A.W. Jackson, noted these peculiarities: ‘…and why does Shakespeare have the third outlaw banished from Verona (Valentine’s city) for what is essentially Valentine’s crime, plotting to steal away a lady closely related to the ruler?’.

        The editors’ don’t offer any explanations…but Harold Bloom’s quotation (cited earlier by Dennis) might deepen the mystery – “The peculiar relationship between Valentine and Proteus is the play, one ought never to underestimate Shakespeare, and I uneasily sense that we have yet to understand The Two Gentlemen of Verona, a very
        experimental comedy”.

      • Personally, I think there’s more going on here than “just” a comedy. That being said, it’s not the only time that Shakespeare has, shall we say…issues with geography. The legendary coast of Bohemia will be one of them.

    • Wayne: And of course, Valentine was banished by the Duke so he is returning home to Verona.

  8. artmama says:

    I’m happy to understand that it wasn’t just me noticing the frequent sexual references. They are everywhere! Thanks for all this support, Dennis and fellows. I couldn’t do it without you.

  9. dinotrader says:

    Act I: I think Julia tears the letter just a little, just for show. It would be whorish to show too much overt enthusiasm for a lover, “To plead for love deserves more fee than hate.” Yet she eventually picks it up and pours over the words. And then she writes back to Proteus; he lies about it to his dad when he says it’s from Valentine.
    Proteus is like a typical “spoiled rich kid” of today who would rather loll around the house than go out and get a job. He is failing to launch. Daddy finally puts his foot down and kicks him out.

  10. dinotrader says:

    Act II: I love Launce’s dog bit and the biting comments about his mama, though in this speech I think the reference to his sister being a staff just means she’s skinny as a beanpole.
    Again in this act I can relate young Proteus to some young men of today who think only of the next new sex that they might score. A crack addict, he has no sense of honor or responsibility when it comes to the next satisfaction before him; he will say whatever it takes and do whatever it takes. I call it the Peter Pan syndrome.

  11. Lesley says:

    What I noticed in the First Act was the back and forth between the servants and their masters/mistresses. Julia seeks the advice Lucetta. Pantino advises Antonio to send Proteus out into the world. Speed weaves through delivering messages and lively banter–a mecurial “stray sheep”. There is exchange between “higher” and “lower.”
    My observations lag behind our readings, but this first impression stays with me.

    • Lesley: There’s no “comment by” date on any of the plays. And honestly, that’s a comment and observation worth waiting for.


      • Lesley says:

        I am ordering the complete set of BBC productions to watch actual performances and staging. TWO GENTLEMAN OF VERONA wasn’t in any of the collections, so I ordered a used video off Amazon . I watched it last night, reminding me of the initial observation. The familiarity with the text makes the whole viewing experience more enjoyable.
        Looking forward to Julie Taymor’s TITUS with Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange tonight. I saw you posted an excerpt of this on one of your recent entries. This will be a great winter project which I wouldn’t do on my own. Thanks Dennis!

      • Lesley: How was the production? If you have the time and interest, maybe you could post your comments on each of them as we go along, and let us know what you think of them and how they change (or don’t change) your view of the play.

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