The Two Gentlemen of Verona (Vol. 63)
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, 40, and 54.
One of Shakespeare's early comedies (written circa 1590-91), The Two Gentlemen of Verona has never been as highly acclaimed as his later romantic and comic works. Considered by most as an apprentice-like romantic comedy, critics perceive the play to be marred by problematic plot development, uneven verse, and an awkward ending. These shortcomings have led many scholars to question both the circumstances of its composition and the authenticity of Shakespeare as its author. Some critics view The Two Gentlemen of Verona as an example of the playwright's early work and point to the flaws in the play as evidence that it was composed when Shakespeare was still a young playwright who had not yet perfected his craft. Other critics contend that the problematic fifth act and ending are proof that the play was hastily completed by Shakespeare to fill a gap in his theater company's repertory schedule. However, there is little evidence that The Two Gentlemen of Verona was ever performed during Shakespeare's lifetime. The main source of the play is Jorge de Montemayor's Spanish romance Diana Enamorada (1559; English translation 1598), a tale of an unfaithful lover and his mistress. Shakespeare followed this and other sources closely, molding the action of the play to explore the themes of love and friendship. While many issues and themes have been addressed in the critical appraisals of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, most commentaries on the play address both the flaws of the play as well as its influence on Shakespeare's later comedies.
As is typical of most Shakespearean comedies, there is a contrast between the idyllic setting of the forest or country versus the worldly and sophisticated environment of the court where Proteus and Valentine begin their educational journey. In contrast to the main characters of Proteus and Valentine, note Marvin Felheim and Philip Traci (1980), the characters of Speed and Launce comment on, as well as parody, the situations in which the main characters find themselves. In the course of the play, Proteus and Valentine must finally learn that the well-mannered court of Milan is not an appropriate place for an education, but that true love and real life only exist outside this arena. Settings such as the forest offer reform, a refuge, and a place where innate virtue is recognized and rewarded. According to Felheim and Traci, all these themes, though not as skillfully explored in The Two Gentlemen of Verona as in Shakespeare's later plays, provide the groundwork for many of his later, more successful, romantic comedies.
Since the early twentieth century, study of The Two Gentlemen of Verona has focused heavily on Shakespeare's treatment of the romantic material in the play. Muriel C. Bradbrook (1989) states that the play is built on the conventions of love and friendship, and that Shakespeare used these to explore the moods embodied in the comedy. In her discussion of the setting, Bradbrook calls the play an evocative drama that is more closely related to Shakespeare's final romances, such as The Tempest, rather than to later comedies, despite the fact that The Two Gentlemen of Verona shares its Italian setting with the later comedies. The critic also proposes that the play, which includes a great deal of parody, is founded upon the courtly assumptions of the “game” of love. Frederick Kiefer (1986) examines the role of love letters in the play, characterizing them as experimental theatrical props that serve multiple functions. According to Kiefer, love is connected with reading and writing throughout the play, and the letters are integral to the advancement of the plot, to the revelation of character, and to the evocation of emotions. In fact, Kiefer feels that contrary to the generally held opinion that this play is an apprentice piece, the use of letters in The Two Gentlemen of Verona reveals it as a skillfully composed and thoughtful effort. Kiefer points to the letters in the play as a highly effective plot device, serving to move the action forward both for comic purpose and tragicomic direction.
Like most other Shakespearean comedies, the main action of The Two Gentlemen of Verona focuses on the contrast and interaction of male and female characters. Jonathan Hall (1995) characterizes this type of involvement in the play as a study of the contrast between male inconstancy and female constancy. According to Hall, the evil of inconstancy is a male failing, and this male changeability is seen by the critic as more than just an unfortunate inclination of the sex. Instead, Hall calls it the source of cultural dislocation in the play, in which the foundations of the patriarchal order are dishonored. The resistance of the female characters to male rhetoric, says Hall, allows the women the power to help restore the men to the truth, just as the women in Love's Labour's Lost do. The female characters in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, like Shakespeare's other redeeming heroines, combat the threats to the patriarchal order.
A study of contemporary records indicates that The Two Gentlemen of Verona was not successful in performance during Shakespeare's lifetime. In fact, the first record of its performance occurs a century and a half after Shakespeare’s death, when David Garrick, a noted eighteenth-century actor and manager, directed an altered version of the play. In their essay detailing the major productions of the play, Carol J. Carlisle and Patty S. Derrick (1997) note that The Two Gentlemen of Verona has seen more productions in British provincial and American regional theaters than it has on major stages in England or the United States. According to Carlisle and Derrick, although The Two Gentlemen of Verona is a charming play, a production needs to overcome its weaknesses, somehow turning these to advantages in order to stage it effectively. The play's major flaws, note the critics, include a formulaic plot, thinly-drawn characters, and an “absurd” conclusion. The critics point to Shakespeare's method, so notable in later comedies, of balancing romance and humor and note that it has been employed much less skillfully in this early attempt, thus making it difficult to translate the text into theatrical terms. Regardless of the obstacles inherent to the staging of the play, Carlisle and Derrick contend that The Two Gentlemen of Verona is becoming better known in the theater and that it will continue to present a challenge because it demands a significant collaboration between the author and the theater.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” in Realism in Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies: “O Heavenly Mingle,” University Press of America, 1980, pp. 51-65.
[In the following essay, Felheim and Traci discuss The Two Gentlemen of Verona as a comedy based on realism, characterizing it as a play about change and growth.]
Proteus: Yet writers say: as in the sweetest bud The eating canker dwells, so eating Love Inhabits in the finest wits of all
(I. i. 42-44).
The theme of The Two Gentlemen of Verona centers in the idea of change, a concept embodied in the very name, Proteus, of one of the two gentlemen. When we first meet the young men, they are provincials, “… living dully sluggardiz'd at home” (I. i. 7), in Verona. And, as Valentine asserts, “Home-keeping youth have ever homely wits” (l. 2). His thesis is almost immediately demonstrated in the scene between Proteus and Speed (ll. 70ff.) where the lugubrious wit of gentlemen and clown alike is amply shown in a discussion about sheep and shepherds.
Valentine is not alone in his view that “shapeless idleness” (l. 8) tends to demoralize the young. A bit later, Proteus' uncle requests Panthino “to importune” Proteus' father, Antonio, “to let him [Proteus] spend his time no more at home” (I. iii. 13-14). Antonio agrees that a youth...
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Criticism: Love And Courtesy
SOURCE: “Love Letters in The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. 18, 1986, pp. 65-85.
[In the following essay, Kiefer asserts that in The Two Gentlemen of Verona love is linked to reading and writing, and characterizes the play's love letters as effective theatrical props used to propel the action forward and to display character.]
The two gentlemen of Verona are what their youth and courtly upbringing predispose them to be—bookish. Appropriately, the word book appears in their opening conversation when Proteus, contemplating the dangers his friend may encounter on a journey, pledges, “I will be thy beadsman,” and Valentine replies, “And on a love-book pray for my success?” (I.i.18-19).1 The expression love-book anticipates the conjunction of love with reading and writing that characterizes the entire play. This conjunction is apparent in the first scene when, the conversation having turned to love, both Proteus and Valentine solemnly cite what “writers say.” It is also apparent when the two gentlemen, each having fallen in love, become writers themselves. Their writing takes the form of letters to their ladies, and those letters in turn beget additional letters as the initial talk about what writers say gives way to a blizzard of paper. No other Shakespearean comedy contains so many letters; no other devotes so many scenes to...
(The entire section is 8750 words.)
SOURCE: “Love and Courtesy in The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” in Shakespeare in his Context: The Constellated Globe, The Collected Papers of Muriel Bradbrook, Vol. IV, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989, pp. 44-57.
[In the following essay, Bradbrook explores the play as a comedy of manners, suggesting that it is more closely affiliated with Shakespeare's last romances than his later comedies of love.]
It is a great honour to be invited in this ancient city to celebrate a poet who wrote of this region with varying degrees of knowledge but always with reverence, as of a visionary country, a country of the heart. On the stage of his day, Italy was depicted either as very beautiful or very, very wicked. There was nothing in between a country full of lovers and a country full of murderous ducal feuds. No ordinary lives at all; the moonlight of the summer garden was heavenly or else the ‘smiler with the knife beneath the cloak’, Iago or Iachimo, trapped the unpractised alien. From the beginning to end of his career Shakespeare turned to Italy, and his last play celebrated a unification which had happened between parts of the British Isles; he shows the heiress of Milan betrothed to the heir of Naples.
Today I wish to look at his comedy of courtly love, named from this city—The Two Gentlemen of Verona, for him par excellence the City of Lovers. I would place it in 1593,...
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SOURCE: “Patriarchy Rescued in The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” in Anxious Pleasures: Shakespearean Comedy and the Nation-State, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995, pp. 116-26.
[In the following essay, Hall contends that the female characters in The Two Gentlemen of Verona have a redemptive role, in that they help their male counterparts to restore patriarchal order by the play's end.]
A remarkable number of Shakespeare's comedies focus on the contrast between male inconstancy and female constancy. Indeed, with the single exception of Troilus and Cressida, it seems possible to assert that there are no inconstant heroines, although the comedies which feature the lovers' debates (The Taming of the Shrew and the Beatrice-Benedick plot in Much Ado about Nothing), might be said to make the constant/inconstant opposition irrelevant. Still, the generalization seems valid. In the comedies, the evil of inconstancy to the given word is a male failing. It does not affect the heroines except insofar as they may be bewildered by the changeability of the men (e.g., The Comedy of Errors, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and A Midsummer Night's Dream).
The romances frequently make the constant heroine a redemptive figure in the fallen male world, and this enables us to grasp what is at stake. In this drama, male changeability is not just an...
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Criticism: Staging And Production
SOURCE: “The Two Gentlemen of Verona on Stage: Protean Problems and Protean Solutions,” in Shakespeare's Sweet Thunder: Essays on the Early Comedies, edited by Michael J. Collins, 1997, pp. 126-54.
[In the following essay, Carlisle and Derrick provide an overview of the major theatrical productions of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, noting the importance of collaboration between all members of the theater—including directors, actors, and designers—and the author in order to produce a successful staging of the play.]
In the theater, as in the study, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, possibly Shakespeare's earliest comedy, has traditionally been one of his least popular plays. By our present count, there have been just twenty-four productions of it on the London stage since Shakespeare's time, and seven of these were first seen elsewhere.1 At Stratford-upon-Avon there have been only ten since the annual Festivals began there in 1879. Most of the productions in these two major centers have been in the twentieth century, the greater number in the second half. The play has also been produced three times by the BBC, twice on radio and once on television. In New York, as one would expect, Two Gentlemen has had a much slighter stage history than in London,2 and at the “other Stratford” in Ontario it has had just four productions in a forty-year history....
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Beadle, Richard. “Crab's Pedigree.” In English Comedy, edited by Michael Cordner, Peter Holland, and John Kerrigan, pp. 12-35. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Examines the role of the dog, Crab, in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and discusses the influence of the “clown-and-dog” tradition on Shakespeare's use of Crab in the play.
Berryman, John. “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” In Berryman's Shakespeare, edited by John Haffenden, pp. 314-17. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1999.
A brief overview of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, including comments on the sources and dating of the play.
Brooks, Harold F. “Two Clowns in a Comedy (to say nothing of the Dog): Speed and Launce (and Crab) in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” Essays and Studies, n.s. 16 (1963): 91-100.
Suggests that the comic characters in the play are paralleled in the major themes.
Jaarsma, Richard J. “The ‘Lear Complex’ in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” Literature and Psychology 22, No. 4 (1972): 199-202.
Explores the similarities between the way father-daughter relationships are portrayed in King Lear and The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Rossky, William. “The Two Gentlemen of...
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