Study Guide

The Two Gentlemen of Verona

by William Shakespeare

The Two Gentlemen of Verona Essay - The Two Gentlemen of Verona (Vol. 63)

The Two Gentlemen of Verona (Vol. 63)

Introduction

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).

I

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 “cannot be a perfect man,”

Not being tried and tutor'd in the world:
Experience is by industry achiev'd,
And perfected by the swift course of time

(ll. 20-23).

Consequently, by the end of Act I, both young gentlemen are headed for the Court of the Emperor at Milan. Their exposure to “experience” and to “travel” will be their education. And so the comedy has as its base a very realistic situation:1 the need for young gentlemen to be educated in the ways of the world. The play follows its chief characters to Milan. Indeed, only six short scenes of The Two Gentlemen of Verona are set in the city mentioned in the title; three of these scenes make up Act I; three others are in Act II. After that, we are either in Milan (a total of eleven scenes) or in a forest on the frontiers of Mantua (three scenes). In these latter two settings the real education of Valentine and Proteus takes place.

At the beginning of Act II, we find Valentine at the Court. Curiously, from this point on there are no further reference to the “Emperor” who, according to Proteus, once “daily graced” (I. iii. 58) the life of Valentine. In this very much love-centered Court, Valentine has a more interesting instructor: Silvia, the daughter of the Duke. His training with her has already begun: at her command, he has been engaged in writing love letters for her. She, lazy but clever (at least more agile-minded than he), simply sends the letters back to him, a device which he fails utterly to understand. Fortunately, Speed prompts him: “… she hath made you write to yourself” (II. i. 144), and queries: “… do you not perceive the jest?” Valentine's education, alas, has not progressed as quickly as Speed's. He is blinded by love. Speed, whose name ordinarily belies his condition but who is generally on hand to parody the situation, has, after all, had experience of this kind before: in Verona, he delivered letters for Proteus to his love, Julia. Letters, then, represent no new educational experience for Speed. Valentine has so far learned little, but he is in no condition to apprehend much; he is in love. Thus the initial situation in Milan repeats that in Verona: a young gentleman in love. He has “learned,” as Speed points out,

(like Sir Proteus) to wreath your arms like a malcontent; to relish a love-song, like a robin redbreast; to walk alone, like one that had the pestilence; to sigh, like a schoolboy that had lost his ABC; to weep, like a young wench that had buried her grandam; to fast, like one that takes diet; to watch, like one that fears robbing; to speak puling, like a beggar at Hallowmas

(ll. 18-25)

The practice of writing letters, a task imposed upon him by Silvia, provides in truth an apt but difficult lesson for the schoolboy, Valentine.

By the end of Act II, both the young gentlemen of Verona are in Milan and both are in love with Silvia. Further, Proteus has admitted that in his new love he is both “forsworn” and “threefold” (II. vi. 3-5) perjured (he has left Julia, he loves Siliva, he wrongs his friend Valentine). So much for the “experience” provided by the Court in Milan: sophisticated and worldly, it is also, at least for Valentine and Proteus, exclusively love-oriented. Only the servants, Speed and Launce, perceive the absurdity of the situation; their actions provide a continual comment and parody.

If neither of the young gentlemen learns much (except perfidy on the part of Proteus) in Milan, that failure may be a revealing truth on Shakespeare's part. The corrupted, excessively mannered Court is no place for real education. The lesson will be repeated in A Midsummer Night's Dream, where, again, the Court at Athens threatens the young lovers. At a court, especially one in a city, the best things that can be learned are likely to be manners and rhetoric. Love letters become a substitute for love itself; the game of love—wooing—becomes an end in itself. This is indeed Shakespeare's point; as always, he makes it directly in terms of action; and here, as elsewhere in the comedies, clowns and servants are on hand to demonstrate the reality and truth of the dramatist's position. By parody—accomplished both in actions and in words—the central comic situation is reinforced and intensified.

But real love is possible, of course. So, too, young people can learn. Shakespeare's comedies are essentially optimistic documents. The learning and the loving, however, must take place in an appropriate setting—in nature. Hence the scenes on the frontiers of Mantua, where both men and the physical world exist in a state of nature. As in both A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It, the forest is a haunt for free men and true. Valentine is immediately welcomed there “for he is a proper man” (IV. i. 10). After a bit of preliminary braggadocio, “I kill'd a man, whose death I much repent” (l. 27), he is invited to “… be the captain of us all” (l. 65). His acceptance is conditional:

Provided that you do no outrages
On silly women or poor passengers

(ll. 71-72).

As expected, these followers of the doctrine of Robin Hood are men who “detest such vile base practices” (l. 73). Thus the world of the outlaws is presented as a refuge of justice and good deeds, away from the disorders of the city and the court.

To this retreat come the principal characters, one and all to be reformed or rewarded in the natural setting. Proteus, Thurio and the Duke will change from baseness to goodness here; Valentine, Silvia and Julia (her “grace” is more obvious than her disguise) will have their innate virtue recognized and rewarded. And, finally, the outlaws who, after all, “Are men endu'd with worthy qualities” (V. iv. 151), will be pardoned and reintegrated into civil society.

In this manner, the education of the young gentlemen is completed. In the process, Valentine has acquired a knowledge of languages (interestingly enough, this attribute is the crowning achievement which renders him fit to be “king” of the outlaws):

My youthful travel therein made me happy [he is a “linguist”

(l. 57)]

Or else I often had been miserable

(ll. 34-35),

of nature:

This shadowy desert, unfrequented woods,
I better brook than flourishing peopled towns

(V. iv. 2-3),

and of men: once Proteus admits his “shame and guilt” (l. 73) and asks for forgiveness, Valentine can with equanimity offer him “All that was mine in Silvia …” (l. 83), knowing full well that Proteus can but match his own open heartedness (especially since Julia is on hand to provide Proteus “my wish for ever” [l. 118]). In addition, Valentine has learned to recognize the goodness of his fellow outlaws, so he is able to persuade the Duke to rescind their banishment. Finally, of course, he possesses the knowledge of the constant love he shares with Silvia. Proteus also has learned his lesson: “O heaven, were man But constant, he were perfect!” (ll. 109-110) And on the basis of this pious hope, he reverts to his former love.

Thurio, too, has undergone a natural change. His experiences in the forest have led him to the realistic discovery that a man is “but a fool that will endanger / His body for a girl that loves him not” (ll. 131-132).

Finally, the hot-headed Duke of Milan has cooled off in the forest. First, he must recognize Valentine's worth, to which he subscribes:

                              Sir Valentine
Thou art a gentleman …
Take thou thy Siliva, for thou hast deserv'd her

(ll. 143-145).

Next he pardons the outlaws and joins with the others in a general recapitulation of all that has transpired: “The story of your loves discovered” (l. 169). It is altogether fitting (and realistic), then, that the conclusion of this tale of two city gentlemen should take place in the forest, for only after a series of disquieting experiences have they learned the truth about the human condition. Now, at least, are they fit for a “day of marriage / One feast, one house, one mutual happiness” (ll. 170-171). The rewards are great, but the trials have been sufficient and the play has demonstrated...

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Criticism: Love And Courtesy

Frederick Kiefer (essay date 1986)

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...

(The entire section is 8750 words.)

Muriel C. Bradbrook (essay date 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 5705 words.)