The Two Gentlemen of Verona (Vol. 54)
The Two Gentlemen of Verona
For further information on the critical and stage history of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, see SC, Volumes 6, 12, and 40.
Critics past and present have observed that The Two Gentlemen of Verona is a play fraught with inconsistencies and marred by weak characterization and largely unmotivated reversals. As such the play, which was composed early in Shakespeare's career, has often been regarded as an example of the young playwright's inexperience. Despite the play's reputation as a botched attempt at dramaturgy, many modern critics have found much to be studied and valued in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Howard C. Cole (1989), for example, admits that the play contains many weaknesses, but observes that the combination of the earnest tone of the play and the “adroit burlesque” of the subplot reveals the ideals of love and friendship in a new way.
The ending of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which contains major reversals of fortune for the play's lovers, has been the subject of much critical discussion. William Rossky (1982) notes that the burlesque of the play's ending is unmatched by any other component of the play. Rossky argues that the play as a whole should be viewed as satire rather than as a failed attempt to dramatize the conventions of Renaissance ethical thought, and maintains that his view of the play is supported by both its comic patterns and by an awareness of Elizabethan attitudes regarding love and friendship. Like Rossky, Margaret Maurer (1989) focuses her analysis of the play on its ending. Maurer asserts that the minor inconsistencies throughout the play have a rhetorical relationship to the play's ending.
Another element of The Two Gentlemen of Verona that has been examined by modern critics is the relationships of the four lovers in the play: Valentine, Silvia, Proteus, and Julia. Claus Bratt Østergaard (1995) points out that the dilemma presented by the play is that in order to have love one must disregard friendship; yet the love one seeks depends on the friendship that has been disclaimed. Silvia and Julia, Østergaard argues, are “displaced representations” of the love between Valentine and Proteus. Østergaard goes on to demonstrate that Silvia and Julia are rivals who compete for love, and that their relationship is acted out through “symbolic representation” in the form of Valentine and Proteus, who are courting the two women. René Girard (1989) examines the relationships among the four lovers in terms of “second-hand” or mimetic desire. Girard demonstrates the significant role Valentine plays in the onset of Proteus's desire for Silvia. This passion, Girard argues, is generated by Proteus's disposition to desire what Valentine desires.
The plot and its reversals also have been the focus of many critical studies. Charles A. Hallett (1996) contends that a disjunction exists between the plot situations and the characters involved in those situations. Hallett further states that Shakespeare created characters within the Renaissance conventions of romantic love, but the play's plot does not enable the characters to behave in accordance with those conventions. Although Hallett views the reversals in the play as not believably motivated, he suggests that Shakespeare in this early play was experimenting with techniques including the 180-degree reversal, and that The Two Gentlemen of Verona is valuable as a document providing early evidence of Shakespeare's exploration of plotting techniques. Similarly, Larry S. Champion (1970) finds the plot reversals to be unsupported by credible motivation, and argues that Shakespeare was primarily interested in exploiting the comic potential of plot situations he knew to be popular with his audience. Champion maintains that Shakespeare's emphasis on plot is further evidenced by both his heavily stylized characterization and hyperbolic rhetoric.
Like Charles A. Hallett, Camille Wells Slights (1993) observes the influence of Renaissance conventions on The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Yet Slights maintains that the play's main theme is an exploration not of the conflict between the ideals of love and friendship, but rather of the Renaissance notion of what is considered the proper behavior of a gentlemen in courtly society. Slights compares the play to contemporary texts on gentlemanly behavior, including Castiglione's The Courtier, and argues that the play presents courtly discourse and eloquence in a positive light, but also demonstrates the fragility of this ideal.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: “The ‘Full Meaning’ of The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” in Comparative Drama, Vol. 23, No. 3, Fall 1989, pp. 201-27.
[In the essay below, Cole discusses the problems with dating The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and analyzes the sources from which Shakespeare may have drawn to craft the play. In his examination of the play's tone and themes, Cole contends that the comic scenes of the play do not simply satirize or criticize the ideals of love and friendship, but rather reveal these ideals “in a new light.”]
Speaking of Shakespeare's “continuous development,” T. S. Eliot once insisted that “the full meaning of any one of his plays is not in itself alone, but in that play in the order in which it was written, in its relation to all of Shakespeare's other plays, earlier and later: we must know all of Shakespeare's work in order to know any of it.”1 We must also, of course, know as much as we can about the works upon which Shakespeare's work was based, and about the traditions that enriched and defined them, especially if we seek the full meaning of a very early play, whose awkwardness may obscure the meaning its young author intended as well as its significance in the shaping of his whole career. If we measure The Two Gentlemen of Verona in these three ways—against the other early plays, against its own sources, and against the traditions those sources...
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Criticism: Beginnings And Endings
SOURCE: “The Two Gentlemen of Verona as Burlesque,” in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 12, No. 2, Spring 1982, pp. 210-19.
[In the following essay Rossky maintains that The Two Gentlemen of Verona, particularly the play's ending, is intended as a burlesque, rather than as a serious but ultimately failed attempt to portray the conventions of Renaissance thinking on ethics.]
Among the variety of critical approaches which attempt to explain why The Two Gentlemen of Verona is, or seems to our time to be, a Shakespearean failure, the most prevalent is the rationalization that the play is a serious dramatization of conventional Renaissance ethical thought, especially on the supremacy of friendship over love—ideas quite different from our own, meaningful to Elizabethans though hardly to us.1 A few critics, however, have of late tentatively or fleetingly suggested that the play is essentially a burlesque.2 The position of this essay is that the play is, indeed, a good-humored satirical lark, most of all in its controversial ending, and that this view is supported by examination not only of its comic patterns but also by Elizabethan attitudes toward friendship and love.
Paradoxically, a confirmation of this view appears in the comments of those who have attacked the play as a ridiculous failure. H. B. Charlton's denigrating comparison of scenes...
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SOURCE: “Figure, Place, and the End of The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” in Style, Vol. 23, No. 3, Fall 1989, pp. 405-29.
[In the essay that follows, Maurer demonstrates that a rhetorical relationship exists between the inconsistencies within The Two Gentlemen of Verona and the play's ending.]
After dinner read “Two Gentlemen of Verona”. … That play disgusted me more than ever in the final scene, where Valentine, on Proteus's mere begging pardon, when he has no longer any hope of gaining his ends, says: “All that was mine in Silvia, I give thee!” Silvia standing by.
Cross, ed., George Eliot's Life, 1:273-74
Speed. Mr. Pope, by mine honesty, welcome to Padua. Alex. Pope. Forswear not thyself, sweet youth, for this is not Padua.
One big and many little things bother readers about The Two Gentlemen of Verona. The play's ending raises to a crucial level a pervasive uneasiness about the way the lovers treat one another. In addition, in an unusually large number of small places a reader has difficulty rationalizing details of the text with the story's internal logic and external verisimilitude. Both orders of problems resist solution, but they are remarkable for seeming somehow of a piece; and most resemble difficulties in other Shakespearean plays. Yet commentators do not press these...
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Criticism: The Four Lovers
SOURCE: “Love Delights in Praises: A Reading of The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” in Philosophy and Literature, Vol. 13, No. 2, October 1989, pp. 231-47.
[In the following essay, Girard studies the role of mimetic desire in the relationships among the four lovers in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and argues that Proteus's desire for Silvia is generated by his predisposition to favor whatever Valentine desires.]
Valentine and Proteus have been friends since their earliest childhood in Verona, and their two fathers want to send them to Milan for their education. Because of his love for a girl named Julia, Proteus refuses to leave Verona; Valentine goes to Milan alone.
In spite of Julia, however, Proteus misses Valentine greatly and, after a while, he, too, goes to Milan. The two friends are reunited in the ducal palace; the duke's daughter, Silvia, is present and Valentine briefly introduces Proteus. After she departs, Valentine announces that he loves her and his hyperbolical passion irritates Proteus. Once alone, however, Proteus has his own announcement to make: he no longer loves Julia; he, too, has fallen in love with Silvia:
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.(1)
If there ever was a “love...
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SOURCE: “Jealous Gentlemen: A Reappraisal of The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” in Shakespeare Jahrbuch, Vol. 131, 1995, pp. 116-27.
[In the following essay, Østergaard analyzes the dynamics of the relationships of Valentine, Proteus, Julia, and Silvia, and observes that the women may be viewed as the “displaced representations” of the love between the two men.]
Valentine and Proteus are the The Two Gentlemen of Verona, fast friends since childhood. Valentine leaves for Milan, where he falls in love with Silvia, but Proteus prefers to stay at home with his Julia. So the friends must part. The play opens with the fact of this separation and with their respective attempts to persuade the other to come along or stay at home—whereupon both resolve to go their separate ways. An emblem, so far, of childhood which cannot last forever and of the onset of manhood which enforces a separation between friends. However, since the gentlemen claim their respective loves, at home and abroad, the leave-taking promises not to disturb their friendship but to continue it in a state of mutual, if distant, harmony. Nevertheless, this harmony is not the end of the play, but the beginning of what is to follow: an introduction of love as something you desire over and above friendship. It gradually becomes clear that if you have love, friendship is precluded and vice versa. So being in love with a woman...
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Criticism: Plot Strategies
SOURCE: “The Comedies of Action,” in The Evolution of Shakespeare's Comedy: A Study in Dramatic Perspective, Harvard University Press, 1970, pp. 25-38.
[In the excerpt that follows, Champion argues that the reversals in The Two Gentlemen of Verona emphasize Shakespeare's focus on plot over characterization as well as his interest in experimenting with comic form.]
The Two Gentlemen of Verona is certainly among Shakespeare's earliest attempts to adapt the material of romance to the stage and to devise a comic perspective to control it.1 Admittedly his effort in this play is only partially successful. Intemperate young lovers, crossed by fate and fortune and caught in an emotional morass which blinds reason and leads the victim to betray friend, parent, and self in the mad pursuit of the adored; capricious yet faithful mistresses, who are nurtured by inordinate flattery and stolid fidelity but whose own faithfulness proves stronger than any adversity this side of death; an irate father, determined to wed his daughter to his own choice based on financial and social status and staunchly opposed to the heart's choice which disregards such matters; a daughter imprisoned in a high tower and a banished lover—direct results of the father's convictions in action; the father's candidate, the foolish rival wooer, whose claim to distinction is a loquacity which at least partially...
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Criticism: Renaissance Ideals
SOURCE: “Common Courtesy in The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” in Shakespeare's Comic Commonwealths, University of Toronto Press, 1993, pp. 57-73.
[In the following essay, Slights asserts that The Two Gentlemen of Verona explores not the theme of love versus friendship but rather the proper function and behavior of a gentleman in courtly society.]
‘he being understood May make good Courtiers, but who Courtiers good?’
(John Donne, ‘Satyre V’)
Unlike The Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew, which build on contrasts between the civilized and the uncivilized, The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Love's Labor's Lost explore the manners and values of courtly society. In The Comedy of Errors, the physical danger threatening anyone outside the social group frames and conditions all the dramatic action. The violence of the physical world that originally dispersed the family, the Ephesian law that threatens aliens with death, and the harsh ministrations of Doctor Pinch that isolate transgressors produce the farcical confusions that can end only when everyone is recognized as belonging to Ephesian society. In The Taming of the Shrew, the contrasts between the savage and the civilized—between the bestial Christopher Sly and the aristocratic Lord, the wild Kate and the...
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Goldberg, Jonathan. “Shakespearean Characters: The Generation of Silvia.” In Voice Terminal Echo: Postmodernism and English Renaissance Texts, pp. 68-100. New York: Methuen, 1986.
Examines the significance of Silvia's name to her character and to her destiny within The Two Gentlemen of Verona. The critic goes on to demonstrate the relational significance between name and character within several other Shakespearean texts.
Hallett, Charles A. “‘Metamorphising’ Proteus: Reversal Strategies in The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” in Two Gentlemen of Verona: Critical Essays, edited by June Schlueter, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1996, pp. 153-77.
Examines the reversals experienced by the principal characters in The Two Gentlemen of Verona and contends that the reversals are unconvincing and unmotivated.
Holmberg, Arthur. “The Two Gentlemen of Verona: Shakespearean Comedy as a Rite of Passage.” Queen's Quarterly 90, No. 1 (Spring 1983): 33-44.
Emphasizes the importance of seeing a live performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona in order to understand the play as symbolic of the rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood.
Jaarsma, Richard J. “The ‘Lear Complex’ in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” Literature and Psychology XXII, No. 4 (1972):...
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