The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Acts Four and Five
By Dennis Abrams
Act Four: Valentine and Speed are returning home to Verona through the woods after Valentine’s banishment when they are ambushed by “outlaws.” Impressed by Valentine’s bearing and demeanor, they ask him to lead them (or be killed). Meanwhile, back in Verona, Proteus is briefly troubled by his conscience but continues to court Silvia, who is shocked at his betrayal of both Valentine and Julia. When the disguised Julia arrives, she quickly learns what has transpired, and decides to bide her time. Silvia, on the other hand, has had enough, and enlists her friend Sir Eglamour to help her escape her impending marriage to Thurio and join with Valentine in Mantua. Meanwhile, Proteus has hired Julia (known to him as Sebastian) to deliver a letter and ring to Silvia – the very same ring that Julia had given him at the time of his departure. But Silvia, sympathizing with Julia’s plight, once again rejects Proteus’ advances. While meanwhile, Launce has been trying to sort out the problems caused by his misbehaving obviously untrained dog, Crab.
Act Five: News reaches the Duke that his daughter has fled Milan in search of Valentine, and when Proteus, Thurio and Julia hear of it, they all decide to go in search of her. Proteus finds her first, and rescues her from the outlaws who have captured her. But when she still continues to reject him, he decides to take her by force (rape I suppose one could say), not knowing that Valentine is watching. Valentine stops Proteus, rescues Silvia, and bitterly denounces the actions and treachery of his former friend. But when Proteus begs Valentine for forgiveness, Valentine not only immediately accepts his apology, but declares that Proteus can have Silvia after all. Hearing this, Julia/Sebastian faints – at which point her true identity is discovered, and she is reunited with Proteus. Valentine’s gang of outlaws enters with the captured Duke and Thurio. Thurio tries to stake his continued claim to Silvia, but immediately gives her up when threatened with physical violence by Valentine. The Duke consents to the marriage of Silvia and Valentine, and pardons all the Outlaws.
OK. As I wrote earlier, it seems to me that your perspective on the play is going to be shaped by the following passage. Proteus’ attempt to rape Silvia has been thwarted by Valentine. Proteus repents of his actions and apologizes to Valentine who says:
And once again I do receive thee honest.
Who by repentance is not satisfied
Is not of heaven nor earth. For these are pleased;
By penitence th’Eternal wrath’s appeased.
And that my love may appear plain and free,
All that was mine in Silvia I give thee.
In other words, as Tanner points out, “Silvia is offered by her lover to the man who, twenty-four lines previously (three minutes? two?) tried to rape her. Silvia herself doesn’t say another word for the remainder of the play – not surprisingly, you may think. But George Eliot described this moment as ‘disgusting’; and Quiller-Couch, who, you feel, knows a cad when he sees one, harrumphed that ‘there are by this time no gentlemen in Verona’. By and large, readers have been able, despite its psychological implausibility, to just about accept the immediate forgiveness – for forgiveness counts as a generosity and a grace, and is godlike. But there’s no doing anything about those last two lines. Either they have to be explained away (young Shakespeare in thrall to conventions he had not yet mastered); or allowed to stand as a scandal and disgrace – either as a sign of the playwright’s callowness, or as a whiff of a more barbaric age. Clearly, Valentine’s offer to Proteus is, by any standard and from any point of view, entirely unacceptable. But, before we retreat to the Club House with Quiller-Couch, we might ask, what was Shakespeare – what might he have been – doing?”
Personally, I think that Shakespeare, throughout the play, illustrates the ridiculous behavior of every man in the play except for Launce – be it the ladder scene, the outlaws offering to make Valentine their king “But if thou scorn our courtesy, thou diest,” everybody comes off badly. From Goddard:
“Leaving out a minor servant, an innkeeper, and a band of outlaws, there are eight men in the cast. We have taken a look [see my previous post] at the two gentlemen themselves and at Launce. The other clown, Speed, though he is intelligence itself compared with the gentlemen of the play, impresses us mainly as a mere trifler and trickster with words. That leaves the two fathers, Antonio and the Duke, and two other gentlemen, Sir Thurio and Sir Eglamour. The fathers are a typical pair of patriarchal tyrants. Proteus’ father sums himself up in one line.
For what I will, I will, and there an end,
And Silvia’s father discloses himself in one practice: he keeps his daughter under lock and key at night. Sir Thurio, ‘a foolish rival to Valentine,’ for Silvia’s hand,
Vain Thurio, whom my very soul abhors,
as that lady describes him, is a complete nincompoop, a sort of first sketch for Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night. In Sir Eglamour, whom Silvia engages to help her escape, we think at first that finally we have come on a chivalric figure.
O Eglamour, thou art a gentleman,
she declares, and even if she doesn’t, we are tempted to stress that ‘thou.’ But alas! when the two are met by outlaws, Sir Eglamour abandons the lady to them and runs – at top speed it is implied. Shakespeare was nothing if not thoroughgoing in this play. If there is anything in this ironic way of taking it, he apparently decided that it should live up to its title and that there should not be one genuine gentleman in it – except for Launce, who, by a stroke that seems almost to prove the poet’s sarcastic purpose, is chivalric to his dog to the point of Quixotism. Catch that thrust, and you see how delightfully the story of the clowns is integrated with the rest of the play. Launce, the gentleman! Or we might, without stretching it too far, include Speed and have the two gentlemen of Verona!
Compared with their crew of attendant gentlemen in the other sense, the two women are epitomes of virtue and intelligence. This, too, is prophetic of the superiority that Shakespeare almost always gives his heroines over his ‘heroes’ in comedy, and often in tragedy.
If one were to seek a passage brief enough to quote that illustrates the inanity of this play if taken at face value, one might choose the moment when the Duke, Silvia’s father, seeks Proteus’ aid in forwarding the match between Sir Thurio and his daughter:
Duke: What might we do to make the girl forget
The love of Valentine, and love Sir Thurio?
Pro: The best way is to slander Valentine
With falsehood, cowardice, and poor descent,
Three things that women highly hold in hate.
Duke: Ay, but she’ll think that it spoke in hate.
Pro: Ay, if his enemy deliver it;
Therefore it must with circumstance be spoken
By one whom she esteemeth as his friend.
Duke: Then you must undertake to slander him.
Pro: And that, my lord, I shall be loath to do.
‘Tis an ill office for a gentleman,
Especially against his very friend.
Duke: Where your good word cannot advantage him,
Your slander never can endamage him;
Therefore the office is indifferent,
Being entreated to it by your friend.
Pro: You have prevail’d, my lord.
It would seem impossible to go beyond that. But Shakespeare does go beyond it – far beyond – in the closing scene of the play. Since it is so long to quote, I will condense and paraphrase its salient points. If the effect is that of parody, I invite anyone who does not remember it to inspect the scene as Shakespeare wrote it and to see whether I have not been faithful to both thought and action. As for the verse, it will be an actual advantage to have that absent for the moment, for ‘poetry’ can conceal a deal of nonsense.
Proteus has rescued Silvia from the band of outlaws, who, he tells her, would have ravished her but for him:
Sil.: I’d rather have been eaten by a lion than rescued by you. You faith-
less man, you are a counterfeit friend.
Pro: What does friendship count for when a man is in love? If you wont
respond to gentle words, I’ll force you to yield to me.
Val.: (Coming forward): Ruffian! let her go.
Val: Never will I trust you again.
Pro: I’m ashamed of myself, forgive me.
Val: That’s all I ask. If that’s how you feel, I’ll take you back as my friend
and to prove that I mean what I say I hereby resign to you all my
claims to Silvia.
Jul: Oh, how unhappy am I in that case! (She faints. Then she comes to and the
rings reveal her identity.)
Pro: How? Julia!
Jul: Yes. You ought to blush that you made me dress in boy’s clothes. But it is
better for a woman to change her clothes than for a man
to change his mind.
Pro: You are right. What did I ever see in Silvia anyway that you do not
surpass her in?
Val: Good! Clasp hands on that.
Pro: Heaven knows this is what I wanted all along.
(Enter Sir Thurio and Duke)
Thu: There’s Silvia, and she’s mine!
Val: Stop, or I’ll kill you.
Thu: Take her, Valentine! I don’t care a straw for her. A man is a fool to risk
death for a girl who doesn’t love him.
Duke: Good for you, Valentine! You are a well-born gentleman. [He had
Shortly before called him a ‘peasant.’] Take my daughter.
Some commentators have tried to explain this psychological hash on the ground that Shakespeare had to have his ‘happy ending’ at any price. Others have tried to squirm out of the absurdity by talk about the Renaissance conception of friendship as transcending love. But the notes of disgust or apology on the part of the critics are too nearly unanimous to escape the inference that nobody likes the ending. Why, t hen, try to make ourselves think that Shakespeare liked it, except in an ironical sense, any better than we do? The two possibilities are plain. Either this is excellent burlesque of ‘gentlemanly’ manners and morals, or else the young author fooled himself as well as the rest of us by swallowing such silliness because it was sweetened by melodious verse. Take your choice. For myself, I prefer the alternative implying that one of the greatest geniuses of the ages was not quite a fool even as a young man.
The play, taken thus, is not satire in the usual sense. The satirist so hates the custom, institution, or human type he is exposing or deriding, that he ceases, like any man in a passion, to see truly. In lashing his victim he lashes himself into blindness. But Shakespeare is like Chaucer. He is so full of humanity, humor, and poetry that it is easy to miss the cutting edge of his condemnation.
If we reread the play in the light of this hypothesis, we see how full it is of hits at the education of the young Renaissance gentleman.
Home-keeping youth have ever homely wits,
says Valentine. It is about his wisest remark. In view of Launce’s homely wit and profound humor one wonders whether all the travel and adventure, the experiences of camp and court, the university training, the music and sonnet-writing that were demanded of the cultured young gentleman of the time were worth the trouble. One of the best strokes of all is the fact that the outlaws pick Valentine as their captain because he is a great linguist!
This interpretation of the play, I believe, both prophesies and is born out by what Shakespeare did in the rest of his works. From The Two Gentlemen of Verona to The Tempest, without any deviation, he drew one portrait after another of the fashionable gentleman, either Italian or after the Italian model, and there is no possible mistaking what he thought of them, no matter how good their tailors or how ‘spacious’ they themselves ‘in the possession of dirt’ (as Hamlet remarked of Ouric’s real estate). Boyet, Don Armadio, Gratiano, Tybalt, the Claudio of Much Ado, Bertram, Parolles, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, the ‘popinjay’ whom Hotspur scorned, Roderigo, Iachimo: these are just a few of the more striking examples, to whom should be added, in spite of the anachronisms, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Osric, Paris (in Troilus and Cressida), and even, in some respects, men like Bassanio and Mercutio, not to mention many of the anonymous ‘gentlemen’ and ‘lords’ scattered throughout the plays. Let anyone who doubts trace the word ‘gentleman’ with the help of a concordance in the texts of Shakespeare’s works as a whole. He will be surprised, I think, to find how often the situation or context shows it to be used with ironical intent.
There is a story that Abraham Lincoln, on being told that in England no gentleman ever blacks his own boots, asked in his quiet manner, ‘Whose boots does he black?’ If I am not mistaken, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, even more quietly, makes the same point.”
So what do you think? Is Goddard right? Is George Eliot? Is Harold Bloom when he notes, “What ensues between the two gentlemen is so manifestly peculiar that Shakespeare cannot have expected any audience to accept this, even as farce?”
And a couple of points:
1. Note that this will not be the only time in Shakespeare that the characters leave the city and go into the woods to find love and themselves.
2. And always keep in mind that whenever there’s a female character dressed as a boy, it would have been played by a boy actor dressed as a woman pretending to be a boy.
I’ll post again Sunday night.