In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, William Shakespeare is learning the craft of playwriting, with plot elements, characters, and comic situations that will reappear in later plays. The work also mirrors the literary vogues of its time, particularly the popular prose romances of the day—forerunners of the sentimental novel and the twentieth century psychological novel—that trace the turbulence of adolescence and of youth. Some of Shakespeare’s later comedies and his Romeo and Juliet (pr. c. 1595-1596, pb. 1597) reflect a similar concern. Himself then the father of a daughter approaching her teens, Shakespeare may have been especially sensitive to the problems of youth.
Proteus and Valentine are Italianates—young gentlemen sent abroad to acquire perfection at a foreign court. Proteus’s name, a common Elizabethan label for the Italianate, further establishes that identification. Critics have made much of the geographical “inaccuracy” of Valentine’s departure for Milan by boat, ignoring the fact that Shakespeare was too well read and too familiar with the geography of Europe not to know that travel from the real Verona to Milan would have to be land. As in his other plays, Shakespeare uses place names for their connotations. Verona was the home of the lovers Romeo and Juliet, Milan the fashion center of Europe and the seat of the imperial court. With this Verona and this Milan he can retain the three worlds of his source, Jorge de Montemayor’s prose romance Diana (c. 1559): the world of lovers subject to parental oversight, the sophisticated world of the court, and the green world of the forest.
In the first world, Proteus, like Felis in Diana and Euphues in John Lyly’s romance of that name (Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit, 1578), lives through the wild emotional swings and naïve tentativeness of adolescence, and he submits tamely to his elders. He is in love with love and has an idealized vision of the court, where he hopes to achieve perfection.
In the second world, the world of the court, Proteus is metamorphosed by self-interest and begins to assume poses. His desire for Valentine’s Silvia leads him first to disloyalty to both his friend and to Julia and eventually to outright treachery. At the end, rejected by Silvia after his final pose as a knight errant who rescues her from...
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