Two Gentlemen of Verona
By Dennis Abrams
Act Three: Proteus reveals Valentine’s plan to elope with Silvia to her father, the Duke, who immediately banishes Valentine upon pain of death. The duke then turns to Proteus to help Thurio win Silvia’s heart by slandering Valentine and praising Thurio. Proteus agrees to help, planning on winning Silvia’s love for himself. Launce, in the meantime, has fallen in love with a milkmaid, and recounts to a highly bemused and skeptical Speed the list of her many attractions
So what’s the play about? Is it about friendship? About being in love? Is it a mindless comedy that can and should be taken simply as read…or is there something else going on here? From Harold Goddard:
“At bottom, there seems to be just two ways of taking The Two Gentlemen of Verona:
1. We may consider it far and away the most juvenile work among the plays whose authorship has never been seriously questioned. There is much to back up this view. The play does reveal a certain skill in plotting, and…an effective use of disguise, though what is essentially the same situation is so much better exploited in Twelfth Night that the handling of it here seems relatively poor and thin. To more than offset its merits, however, the play contains some of the most boring ‘wit,’ some of the most amazingly motivated actions, and quite the most incredible ending to be found in Shakespeare. The two heroines, Julia and Silvia, redeem it to a slight extent. Julia especially, who is more individualized in her way, though, even allowing for the wretched specimens of manhood that charming women will fall in love with in real life, it is hard to find any reason except the requirements of the plot for Julia’s having considered ‘divine’ such a combined weathercock and cad as Proteus.
But how about Launce? someone will ask. How did such a masterpiece of characterization get into this early play? It is a question that must be confronted, unless we adopt the improbable hypothesis that he is a later interpolation. Launce – or rather Launce-and-his-dog-Crab, for the two are inseparable – is stamped with Shakespeare’s genius. He could walk into any play the author ever wrote and not jar us with any sense of immaturity in either conception of execution. Perhaps in this paradox we may find a clue to how Shakespeare wanted his play taken, how so apprentice-like a piece could have been produced so close chronologically to works that utterly surpass it.
Launce has more sense, humor, and intelligence in his little finger than all the other men in the play have in their so-called brains combined, and it happens that in the course of it he gives his opinion of each of the two gentlemen of Verona. Proteus, his master, he tells us, is ‘a kind of a knave,’ and Valentine, the other gentleman, ‘a notable lubber.’ Now, it happens that the play confirms these judgments to the hilt. Indeed, Proteus’ treatment, in succession, of Julia, Valentine, and Silvia makes the name ‘knave quite too good for him, as Silvia recognizes when she calls him a ‘subtle, perjur’d, false, disloyal man,’ or when she declares that she would rather be eaten by a lion than rescued by such an abject creature. We have his own word for it that he is a sly trickster, and the story proves him to be not only that but a perfidious friend, a liar, a coward, a slanderer, and a ruffian and would-be ravisher of the woman for whom h e had deserted his first love. And this, forsooth, is the man whom his friend Valentine describes as having spent his youth in putting on an ‘angel-like perfection’ of judgment and experience, until
He is complete in feature and mind
With all good grace to grace a gentleman.
Valentine, it is true, is a paragon of virtue compared with such a bounder as Proteus, but his estimate of his friend does little credit to his intelligence and is enough in itself to justify the label ‘lubber’ that Launce puts on him. But if Launce’s say-so is not enough, proof is afforded to an almost supernatural degree by the ‘ladder scene.’ How any man could act more inanely than Valentine does on that occasion it would be hard to imagine, if we did not have the final incredible scene of the play in which the same man outdoes himself.
Now if Launce had reached the same conclusions about these two gentlemen that the action of the play forces on us independently, it is hard to believe that Shakespeare was not in on the secret. It sets us wondering just what he meant by his title, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and how far he may have written the play with his tongue in his cheek. If there is anything in this suggestion, we may have to revise our opinion of its juvenility and consider whether some of its apparent flaws are not consciously contrived ironical effects. This is the second of the two possible ways of taking the play.”
Or, looking at it from another angle, Tony Tanner suggests that Proteus is the first in a long line of Shakespearean evil-doers:
“What we have, and arguably more interestingly, is the beginnings of a study of dishonourable conduct deliberately chosen, wrong-doing knowingly pursued. After Proteus come, with all their differences, Richard III, Don John (Much Ado), Bertram (All’s Well), then Iago, finally Macbeth – Shakespeare’s greatest exploration of conscious evil. Compared to Macbeth, Proteus is a rank amateur; but he is perfidious enough, and points the way. We can follow this in the three important soliloquies by Proteus (the soliloquy always being the privilege of the plotters and ‘practicers’ – both wicked and benign). In the first (II, iv, 190-213), he examines his instant desire for Silvia and forgetting of Julia:
Even as one heat another heat expels,
Or as one nail by strength drives out another,
So the remembrance of my former love
Is by a newer object quite forgotten.
The second soliloquy follows almost immediately, and constitutes a whole scene in itself (II, vi, 1-43). We hear him finding arguments to justify his imminent betrayal of Valentine and infidelity to Julia, invoking the irresistible power of Love – ‘Love bade me swear, and Love bids me forswear’. He knows what he owes to Julia and Valentine, but – as he sees it – ‘If I keep them, I needs must lose myself.’ That this particular ‘self’ might be better lost, he no longer allows himself to consider. He is resolved:
I will forget that Julia is alive,
Rememb’ring that my love to hear is dead;
And Valentine I’ll hold an enemy,
Aiming at Silvia as a sweeter friend.
I cannot now prove constant to myself,
Without some treachery used to Valentine.
What real constancy is, and might involve, is an important concern of the play. But to maintain that constancy requires ‘treachery’ is to engage in very special pleading indeed. It is of a piece with the twisted casuistry with which Proteus tries to put a gloss on an indifferent-to-all-other considerations lust. But he is determined to prove a villain, and immediately sets to work to ‘plot this drift.’ The third soliloquy (IV, ii, 1-17) shows him continuing in his resolve – ‘Already have I been false to Valentine,/And now I must be as unjust to Thurio.’ While not exactly wading in blood like Macbeth, he is getting deeper into infamy, beginning to discover the inexorable law whereby one bad deed invariably requires another, and so on ad infinitum. He is also beginning to realize that his plotting and wickedness will have been all to no purpose, since the truly constant Silvia will not be moved. Like Henry James’ Madame Merle, he is about to discover that he has been ‘vile for nothing.’ But by now he cannot stop himself.”
In either case, the point I’m trying to get at is that I think we underestimate Shakespeare at our own risk. What might appear on the surface to be a “meaningless” comedy is probably more than that. The bottom line, I think is this: We don’t need to make allowances for Shakespeare, we don’t have to say “well, times/attitudes were different then.” My guess is that if we find something or someone cruel, unconscionable, or intolerable (or the reverse), in any of his plays, or if we find something implausible or unacceptable – so did he. He is, as I think we’ll learn as we move through the plays, always ahead of us.
The next reading:
The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Acts Four and Five
And a warning: There is a passage, Act V, iv, 77-83) that will probably determine one way or the other how you feel about this play. In my post on Friday, I’ll attempt to prove that there’s something going on that is more than meets the eye.